Video Above: How the US Navy Can Fast-Track Building 500 Warships
An ability to fire a lethal long-range missile traveling more than five times the speed of sound from beneath the surface of the ocean would present unparalleled problems for an enemy under attack, as the launch point might be virtually undetectable and the speed of flight so much that the approaching weapon simply couldn’t be tracked in time.
This attack scenario describes the US Navy’s vision for submarine-launched hypersonic flight, a now-in-development technology expected to be ready by 2028, according to comments to Congressional lawmakers from Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday.
“We will continue to make investments in hypersonic capability and plan to have a hypersonic weapon launched from a submerged submarine by 2028. We are meeting every benchmark in that program and we doubled the Navy’s funding for hypersonics last year,” Gilday told members of the Senate Armed Service Committee.
Hypersonic weapons are essentially “here” for the US military which can already fire both ground and air launched hypersonics. As part of this integrated plan, the Navy is preparing to deck-launch hypersonic projectiles from service warships, a development likely to change the paradigm for surface-to-surface and surface-to-land attack.
As part of this effort the Navy is now testing new ship-deck launcher systems capable of firing hypersonic weapons. An ability to successfully launch hypersonic projectiles from Vertical Launch Tubes built into a submarine from beneath the surface, however, is yet another breakthrough step.
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Tomahawk missiles, for example, can travel as far as 900 miles to a target at 500mph after being launched from a submarine beneath the ocean. New Tactical Tomahawk weapons introduce the ability to architect cruise missiles that can change course in flight to hit moving targets at sea. A maneuvering hypersonic missile, however, is yet another level of high-speed missile attack, as they do not follow a known trajectory or path like a ballistic missile and travel from one radar aperture or field of view to another as speed nearly impossible for traditional radar to track.
Video Above: Long Range Hypersonic Weapons
Tactically speaking, an ability to fire hypersonics from beneath the sea could introduce a new kind of surprise attack capability for submarines. While Tomahawk Block IVs operate with a two-way data link, an ability to loiter above targets and an ISR-like capability to send back target information, they are nowhere near as fast as a hypersonic projectile would be. Tomahawks were engineered to fly parallel to the surface or ground to evade Soviet air defenses years ago, yet speeds of 500 mph are much easier for enemies to track than a hypersonic projectile would be traveling more than five-times the speed of sound.
Lurking beneath the surface in coastal waters near hostile territory, hypersonic missile-armed attack submarines would present enemies with quite a dilemma, as they could hit enemy targets on shore while remaining quite difficult to detect by enemy ground or air radar systems. A surface ship or lower flying aircraft, by contrast, would likely be seen and known by an enemy at great distances, whereas a submarine might succeed in eluding detection and be in position to launch surprise attacks capable of destroying high-value enemy targets from the ocean within minutes.
Kris Osborn is the President of Warrior Maven - Center for Military Modernization and 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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.