The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) showcased a concept of its Glide Breaker project, aimed at defense from the growing threat of hypersonic weapons during the D-60 Symposium, which took place on September 5th – 7th.
As reported by the Drive, the Glide Breaker project will look into various “component technologies” needed for one or more defense systems but will focus heavily on a hard-kill interceptor to knock the fast-flying weapons out of the sky.
In July 2018, the agency’s Tactical Technology Office had previously hosted a gathering to explain the project and its requirements to interested parties. “The objective of the Glide Breaker program is to further the capability of the United States to defend against supersonic and the entire class of hypersonic threats,” DARPA said in an announcement for the July 2018 “Proposers Day.” “Of particular interest are component technologies that radically reduce risk for development and integration of an operational, hard-kill system.”
There is little other information about the program, DARPA did not request any funding for the project in its budget request for Fiscal Year 2019. It also didn’t ask for any funding for research and development of hypersonic defense systems broadly.
The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) also has its own hypersonic defense project. It is yet unclear how and if DARPA’s project will be related to it. The MDA project includes plans for some sort of anti-hypersonic missile weapon system. Research and development on the MDA project are expected to cost more than $700 million and will run through at least 2023.
DARPA’s concept art also shows hard-kill, kinetic interceptors about to destroy unpowered, hypersonic boost-glide vehicles. However, the project’s stated goal of researching and developing technologies to defeat both high-supersonic and hypersonic threats suggests that such a system would only be one element of the research into a set of layered defenses that would work against both boost glide-type and air-breathing weapons.
As reported by the Drive, on the strategic side, senior US military officials, including Michael Griffin, the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, and U.S. Air Force General John Hyten, head of U.S. Strategic Command, have both been particularly strong advocates for expanding and improving space-based sensor networks and deploying space-based anti-missile systems.
Hyten has particularly emphasized on the importance of space-based sensors that can track hypersonic weapons. This follows an apparent shift in narrative from what was previously presented towards Russia and China’s hypersonic weapons projects.
Russia was initially mocked, its weapons projects the Kinzhal, Burevestnik, Avangard, the Status-6 Oceanic Multipurpose System (Poseidon), the RS-28 SARMAT and the Peresvet laser weapon were called exaggerated. However seeing the massive funding being brought into them, specifically into developing the hypersonic weapons, the US has evidently begun taking them seriously.
Discussions on how to counter the growing threat of hypersonic weapons to conventional ground and naval forces are just picking up pace. Russia has begun fielding the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal, which an air-launched version of their Iskander quasi-ballistic missile, which can reach hypersonic speeds. China is in the process of developing an air-breathing hypersonic weapon that it could potentially use in a surface-to-surface or air-to-surface role.
On July 19th, videos were released showing tests of the Burevestnik – a coastal missile battery launched the cruise-missile out toward the ocean. According to the Interfax news agency, the Burevestnik test was intended to answer design questions before moving ahead in the project.
On March 1st, Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his presidential address to the Federal Assembly in Moscow announced that testing of the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle is now complete. It was also announced that the weapon would enter mass production and will become operational in late 2018 or early 2019.
On July 19th, Russia successfully completed ejection tests of RS-28 Sarmat intercontinental-range ballistic missile (ICBM). The July 19 defense ministry announcement confirmed speculations that Russia conducted a third ejection test in May of this year. Prior to that, Russian missile engineers last conducted an ejection test of the RS-28 ICBM in March. One RS-28 will be able to carry three to five Avangard warheads, as reported by the Diplomat.
On July 24th, Popular Mechanics reported that the Poseidon had been sighted in tests at sea. Popular Mechanics also cited HI Sutton who claimed that Poseidon is the largest torpedo ever developed. According to the outlet, Poseidon is believed to be a second-strike weapon, ensuring that any country that stages a surprise nuclear attack on Russia is devastated in return.
On July 19th, the Russian Defense Ministry showed a video of the newest Peresvet combat laser system. The Defence Blog also cited ex-Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yuri Borisov who said that the “combat laser systems” Putin spoke of in March were in fact delivered to the country’s armed forces last year. “We can talk a lot about laser weapons and movies were made about them a long time ago and fantastic books have been written, and everyone knows about this. But the fact that these systems have started entering service is indeed today’s reality,” Borisov said in comments translated by the state-run Tass Russian News Agency.
As reported by the Drive, hypersonic weapons look set to offer a game-changing ability, both in tactical and strategic settings, with their ability to allow virtually no-notice strikes, and in the case of the Burevestnik to any target on the globe.
Glide Breaker’s main objective seems to be to find a way of countering these capabilities and deter any potential opponent from using a hypersonic weapons against the US. “A key figure of merit is deterrence: the ability to create large uncertainty for the adversary’s projected probability of mission success and effective raid size,” DARPA said in its Proposers Day notice.
There are also considerations of using ballistic missiles, which at their terminal phase of flight travel at hypersonic speeds. Undersecretary of Defense Griffin has already proposed deploying 1,000 anti-missile interceptors in space and has discussed concepts for destroying incoming ballistic missiles during their initial boost phase, when they most vulnerable, using satellites carrying directed energy weapons. He has said the interceptor constellation concept would cost $20 billion. He has, however, provided no details about the interceptors, how they would operate in space and how the US would position them to provide an effective shield.
As reported by Defense News, on July 16th, Michael Griffin, a former NASA administrator who is now the first-ever undersecretary of defense for research and engineering claimed that space-based defense won’t work. “A space-based hypersonic defense is not a practical approach, in my way of thinking. Even if you had space-based interceptors, it would be technically the wrong way to do it,” Griffin said, due to both the speed of the hypersonic missile and the fact it flies fairly low to the ground.
He also claimed that despite all the hype of Russia and China investing in hypersonic weapons, and especially in nuclear ones, Griffin made it clear that he believed that “we are, have been [and] will remain the world leader in this research area.”
The US could have gone down the path of pursuing more concrete systems, had it wished, Griffin said, but “we didn’t see a need for it. But our adversaries get a vote, and they voted. So we’re going to see their hand and raise them one, in both offensive and defensive capabilities.”
Griffin also said he intended to speed up the research and prototyping going into hypersonic weapons, saying there are “capabilities you’ll see maturing through the 2020s.”
“You’re going to see our testing pace stepping up, and you’re going to see capability delivery from the early ‘20s right through the decade,” he added.
Regarding China and Russia’s timeline, which do appear to be quite ahead, he said he was uncomfortable describing what they show as “operational” at this point, he did acknowledge that the tests and presentations had been notable. “How close they are to operational, I just don’t know. But I’m worried about our end of things,” he said.
Even earlier than that, on March 1st, US military officials downplayed Putin’s claims. “We’re not surprised,” chief Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White told reporters. “We’ve been watching Russia,” she said. “These weapons that are discussed have been in development for a very long time.”
“The American people should rest assured we are fully prepared,” White added.
It is apparent that the exaggerated Russian claims are now being taken seriously, the question is how can the US compete with Russia’s and China’s progress in hypersonic technology.