Russia says it successfully tested a so-called hypersonic missile this month, while China tested a similar system last year expected to enter service soon.
“Right now, we’re helpless,” Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in advocating for more investment in hypersonics, along with missile defense.
Hypersonics are generally defined as missiles that can fly more than five times the speed of sound.
Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, last week described a hypersonic as a missile that starts out “like a ballistic missile, but then it depresses the trajectory and then flies more like a cruise missile or an airplane. So it goes up into the low reaches of space, and then turns immediately back down and then levels out and flies at a very high level of speed.”
In November, China reportedly conducted two tests of a ballistic missile with a hypersonic glide vehicle that U.S. assessments expect to reach initial operating capability around 2020. The country had already conducted at least seven tests of experimental systems from 2014 to 2016.
Meanwhile, earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered a flashy state of the nation address to tout a slate of new weapons, including a hypersonic missile he claimed was “invincible” against U.S. missile defenses. About a week later, Russia claimed it successfully tested a hypersonic.
At the time of Putin’s announcement, the Pentagon said it was “not surprised” by the report and assured the public that it is “fully prepared” to respond to such a threat.
But in congressional testimony last week, Hyten conceded U.S. missile defense cannot stop hypersonics. He said that the U.S. is instead relying on nuclear deterrence, or the threat of a retaliatory U.S. strike, as its defense against such missiles.
“We don’t have any defense that could deny the employment of such a weapon against us, so our response would be our deterrent force, which would be the triad and the nuclear capabilities that we have to respond to such a threat,” Hyten told the Senate Armed Services Committee.