Space Force Official Says U.S. Behind China, Russia In Hypersonics

Vice Chief of Space Operations Gen. David Thompson, left, speaks Nov. 20 at the Halifax Security Forum.
Credit: Halifax Security Forum

The U.S. military needs to catch up to China and Russia in offensive hypersonic weapons development quickly, while focusing on new ways to defend against the threat of missiles that have made the world a much more complicated place, the Space Force’s No. 2 officer said. 

USSF Vice Chief of Space Operations Gen. David Thompson, speaking Nov. 20 at the Halifax Security Forum, said both of the adversary nations are more advanced in this area, with Beijing in particular undertaking an “incredibly aggressive” hypersonic development effort. This was seen in July, when China tested a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System with a hypersonic glide vehicle, a test that seemed to have caught the U.S. by surprise.  

“I don’t know if it’s a first-use weapon,” Thompson said, countering a statement made by Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. John Hyten, who said it looked to be one. “I do know it greatly complicates the strategic warning problem.”  

The U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force are each developing hypersonic weapons. But many of the tests have struggled and the fielding of the first systems are still years away. The Army hopes to have one operational by 2023.

The U.S. military has been able to develop defensive systems for ballistic missiles and supersonic air breathing systems, including cruise missiles when detected, Thompson said. But hypersonic systems, especially the glide vehicle that China tested, are much more difficult to defend against.  

This is because when a weapon is launched and first detected, it is hard to know if it is a threat. The weapon can then maneuver, making it more difficult to track, and then the target is not known until the end of flight. The system China tested flew around the world and dropped a glide vehicle, and then glided back to China and struck near its target, Hyten said.  

Ballistic missile defenses rely on the predictability of the weapon’s path—once the rocket burns out, the warhead is under the power of gravity and does not maneuver in the same way.  

“You no longer have that predictability. Every launch of a certain type, regardless of where it’s headed … has the potential to be an attack,” Thompson said.  

The Missile Defense Agency on Nov. 19 awarded contracts to three companies to develop ways to defend against such glide vehicles. MDA awarded $20.97 million each to Raytheon Missiles and Defense and Lockheed Martin and $18.96 million to Northrop Grumman through the Enhanced Hypersonic Defense Broad Agency Announcement with Glide Phase Interceptor Special Topic to develop and refine their Glide Phase Interceptor concepts. Research under the contract will be completed by September 2022.  

“We are pleased to have these contractors working with us to develop design concepts for the GPI,” said Rear Adm. Tom Druggan, MDA’s Sea-based Weapon Systems program executive, in an announcement. “Multiple awards allow us to execute a risk reduction phase to explore industry concepts and maximize the benefits of a competitive environment to demonstrate the most effective and reliable Glide Phase Interceptor (GPI) for regional hypersonic defense, as soon as possible.” 

MDA had originally expected to develop a Regional Glide Phase Weapon System to be operational in the early 2030s, but that effort was canceled in favor of a GPI to be available in the mid-to-late 2020s. The prototypes will fit into the current Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System using the standard Vertical Launch System and integrate with the Baseline 9 Aegis Weapon System.  


Brian Everstine

Brian Everstine is the Pentagon Editor for Aviation Week, based in Washington, D.C. Before joining Aviation Week in August 2021, he covered the Pentagon for Air Force Magazine. Brian began covering defense aviation in 2011 as a reporter for Military Times.