Navy photo

Launch of Army-Navy Common-Hypersonic Glide Body (C-HGB) in Hawaii on March 19, 2020.

WASHINGTON: The Pentagon’s director for hypersonics R&D and a range of defense experts are pushing back against a skeptical study of hypersonic weapons by arms control advocates at the Union of Concerned Scientists. The UCS gets something wrong at every step of their analysis, they say.

The study, released days before President Biden’s inauguration and touted in The New York Times, argues that the investment for hypersonics is out of all proportion to the strategic benefits.

Cameron Tracy, Union of Concerned Scientists

The Union of Concerned Scientists argues that hypersonics aren’t the unstoppably fast superweapons that they are often described as, not only in news stories but even in serious academic articles. So, at about $3.2 billion in R&D for 2021 alone, “the current number is pretty excessive, based on what we know about the performance, what these can do relative to what the weapons we already have,” Cameron Tracy, the lead author of the UCS study, told me. “We’re not really arguing against research on hypersonic flight, [but for] a significant reduction in funding for development of these weapons.”

But that conclusion is built upon a fatally flawed analytical foundation, argue our sources in the Pentagon and defense thinktanks.

“The [UCS] analysis compares intercontinental ballistic missiles to hypersonic glide bodies, and the authors then make the conclusion that hypersonic glide bodies don’t offer much benefit for that mission, because they don’t significantly reduce time to target and they can theoretically be detected,” Michael White, the principal director for hypersonics in the Pentagon undersecretariat for research & engineering, told me. “But for that mission, the fact that you get there five or 10 minutes faster is not the value proposition, and just because you can detect an incoming hypersonic missile that does not mean you can shoot it down or determine where it is going to impact.

“The key attribute for a hypersonic weapon is the trajectory uncertainty due to maneuverability enabled by high speed flight within the atmosphere,” he said.


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