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China’s recent testing of its FOB nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle introduces tactical and strategic threats to the U.S. and its Pacific allies of great consequence, according to a former Pentagon weapons developer.
Dr. Michael Griffin, former Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering says if China establishes any kind of hypersonic weapons overmatch against the U.S., it might be able to block U.S. and allied forces from approaching certain vital areas such as Guam and Taiwan.
“China’s FOB is a tactical asset that has a strategic impact and that is hard to do. What are the global implications of China being able to enforce a keep-out zone of everything West of Guam,” Griffin said during an event at the Advanced Nuclear Weapons Alliance Deterrence Center called “Policy Implications of Hypersonic Weapons and Strategic Nuclear Deterrence.”
The concept Griffin suggested pertains to a possible Chinese overmatch circumstance should China be capable of launching a salvo against approaching U.S. or allied forces operating without any comparable response.
China's Hypersonic Weapons
The equation is clear, meaning if China has an arsenal of operational hypersonic weapons and the U.S. simply does not, approaching U.S. forces in the Pacific would have no defense against a hypersonic missile attack.
This makes U.S. forces extremely vulnerable and, according to Griffin, creates a circumstance wherein U.S. and allied forces could in effect be “blocked” from entering waters near Taiwan or Guam. This potential circumstance is the reason why China’s new hypersonic weapons not only bring new tactical dynamics of concern to U.S. war planners but also change the broader strategic equation.
In most if not all circumstances, there would be virtually no real defense against an incoming salvo of enemy ballistic, nuclear and hypersonic weapons.
Sheer volume alone would likely overwhelm any kind of defense apparatus in what is often described as a possible “bolt out of the blue” scenario. This would be particularly true in the event of a hypersonic weapons attack.
Therefore, the prevailing thinking is that the only way to stop a massive incoming hypersonic missile attack would be to ensure a catastrophic commensurate response.
Deterrence through an assured responsive strike in the event of attack may be the only way to prevent a major assault with hypersonic weapons. This is precisely why Griffin emphasizes the need for the U.S. to keep pace with China when it comes to producing and deploying new hypersonic weapons.
“Clearly the Chinese today are ahead of us in certain aspects of hypersonic offensive capability. We can’t stop a salvo. We not only need to match but overmatch their offensive capability so they understand they are just as hostage as we are,” Griffin said.
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The Pentagon needs to greatly increase its production of hypersonic weapons and continue to push the envelope of possibility by searching for “disruptive” technologies capable of introducing new, paradigm-changing levels of performance.
Volume matters when it comes to hypersonic weapons for both tactical and strategic reasons, as the only real way to stop a large incoming “salvo” would be to ensure an equally powerful and catastrophic response.
This is true when it comes to both conventional and nuclear weapons options, a circumstance which greatly underscores the need for fast-paced, accelerated production of new missiles.
The U.S. Air Force is making rapid progress with its Air Launched Rapid Response Weapon, a hypersonic projectile engineered to launch from an aircraft.
Meanwhile, the Army reports it is on track to deliver its new Long Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW) by 2023. The Pentagon needs to not only have operational hypersonic weapons, but large numbers of them in order to truly rival or deter China.
China’s recent test of a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle is naturally receiving a massive amount of attention, as it represents a concerning reality often cited by Pentagon leaders. China is ahead of the U.S. when it comes to hypersonic missile production and deployment.
“We are on track to produce two (hypersonic weapons) per month. We need to up that to 10 per month. The Chinese will not be scared by 12 hypersonic missiles,” Dr. Michael Griffin, former Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, said during an event at the Advanced Nuclear Weapons Alliance Deterrence Center called “Policy Implications of Hypersonic Weapons and Strategic Nuclear Deterrence.”
Griffin also emphasized the need to uncover new so-called “disruptive” technologies in order to develop new generations of hypersonic weapons beyond those currently under development. Griffin seemed to be suggesting that there needs to be an effort to find warhead, guidance and propulsion technologies which exceed the capabilities of existing air-breathing and boost-glide hypersonic weapons. The key to this, Griffin said, is rapid prototyping and testing.
“We need to be doing one test a week and not one test a quarter,” Griffin added.
This effort takes on an even greater level of urgency in the context of China’s recent test of its FOB weapon, a hypersonic glide vehicle reported to be nuclear capable. Of greatest concern, Griffin said, is that the new Chinese weapon appears to operate with an ability to “loiter” or remain in orbit for long period of time. This allows the weapon to optimize targeting, change course if needed and arrive at unexpected angles of attack.
“My personal concern is once you are in orbit, you can land along the azimuth of your choice,” Griffin said.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.