WASHINGTON — The United States is playing catchup in a new arms race to build advanced hypersonic missiles that travel at five times the speed of sound and can maneuver to evade defenses, the vice chief of space operations of the U.S. Space Force Gen. David Thompson said Nov. 20.

“We’re not as advanced as the Chinese or the Russians in terms of hypersonic programs,” Thompson said at the Halifax International Security Forum.

The U.S. Air Force, Army and Navy are developing hypersonic missiles “but I will say that we have a lot of catching up to do very quickly,” said Thompson. “The Chinese have had an incredibly aggressive hypersonic program for several years.”

Of concern for the United States is China’s demonstrated capability to deploy a hypersonic glide vehicle to space that can orbit the planet and reenter the atmosphere before it can be detected by U.S. missile-defense sensors.  China said the vehicle it tested was an unarmed experiment but U.S. officials warned that these weapons could be armed with conventional or nuclear warheads, turning them into a destabilizing strategic capability. 

“The world just became a much more more complicated place,” Thompson said.

He compared a hypersonic glide vehicle to a “magical snow ball.” Normally, “if I’m throwing a snowball at you, the instant that snowball leaves my hand you have a sense of whether or not it’s going to hit you.”

That is how strategic warning systems have operated for decades. “A hypersonic missile changes that game entirely,” he said. The hypersonic missile does not travel in a predictable trajectory. “Combine that with a fractional orbital bombardment system, I’m going to throw the snowball, it’s going to go around the world and it’s going to come in and hit you in the back of the head.”

“And so that’s the kind of thing we’re dealing with, that you no longer have that predictability. And so every launch, regardless of where it’s headed, now has the potential that it could be a threat,” said Thompson.

“And even if you can track that maneuvering weapon, you don’t know until very late in the flight where it’s going because it’s maneuvering the entire time … and you’re not sure whether it’s an attack,” he added. “You don’t know the target until the last minute. And so that changes the strategic warning game.”

Thompson did not say whether the Chinese are developing a fractional orbital bombardment system, a technology developed by the Soviet Union in the 1960s for the deployment of nuclear weapons in space.

‘Time to look at how we defend’

In response to Chinese and Russian advances in hypersonic glide vehicles, the Pentagon’s Space Development Agency and Missile Defense Agency are developing a global network of space sensors to detect and track these threats throughout their entire trajectory. MDA on Nov. 19 announced it has awarded contracts to Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon to develop interceptor missiles that can hit a hypersonic glide vehicle in flight.

“We’ve done well for years developing defenses against ballistic missiles,” said Thompson. “We have great capabilities against so called supersonic air breathing aircraft, we can detect cruise missiles. It’s now time to look at how we can defend against hypersonic missiles.”

On the question of why the United States has fallen behind in this technology, Thompson said he agreed with recently retired vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Hyten that the Pentagon’s bureaucratic culture and complacency are part of the problem. 

“In my personal opinion, I will say the bureaucracy that we built into our defense acquisition enterprise, not just in space, but in other areas, has slowed us down,” Thompson said. “The fact that we have not needed to move so quickly for a couple of decades has not driven us or required us to move that quickly.”

“We’ve really adopted an extreme risk averse posture in terms of developing and fielding these things because they are they are so incredibly expensive and claim so much of the national treasure,” he added. 

“We need to create a different sort of approach to acquiring and fielding and operating these systems and we probably need to be in a position where we’re ready to accept a little more risk of failure so that we can speed up our processes.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...