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While our foes deploy hypersonic weapons, Washington debates about funding

For years the Department of Defense did little to develop hypersonic systems — missiles that fly at five or more times the speed of sound, or nearly 4,000 miles per hour. In the meantime, however, both Russia and China pushed ahead with their own hypersonic programs, in order to obtain a faster non-ballistic, long-range capability against American and allied forces. Having awakened belatedly to the Russian and Chinese hypersonic threat, the Pentagon at last is planning to introduce both long-range hypersonic systems and new defenses against hypersonic missiles in the next two years. 

It also has announced that it will field several other new missile defense systems in the next several years. These include the Army’s Maneuver Short-Range Air Defense, or MSHORAD, that employs guns and missiles, together with a 50-kilowatt (KW) equipped laser system dubbed DE-MSHORAD, all to be mounted on a Stryker vehicle and initially fielded in 2021, and a 200-KW, truck-mounted laser, the IFPC-HEL, to be initially deployed in 2024. The Missile Defense Agency plans to complete an Aegis Ashore missile interceptor site in Poland by 2022. For its part, the Navy plans to test Standard Missile 3 systems against medium range ballistic missiles in 2021.

The Pentagon’s request for fiscal year 2021 funds for these programs reflected the sense of urgency that underlay them. The request for research and development money to support them rose from just under $447 million in fiscal year 2020 to just over $831 million in FY 2021, of which $801 million was to support the Army’s hypersonic program. M-SHORAD procurement totaled $536 million, while research for the two SHORAD programs called for a total of about $284 million, of which $212 million was for the 50-KW laser. The request for Aegis Ashore procurement was just under $440 million; all other Aegis ballistic missile defense procurement and research and development programs totaled an additional $1.5 billion.

With some adjustments, Congress thus far appears to have gone along with the Pentagon’s requests, with the exception of funding for the joint hypersonic office. But the Defense Department’s plans for developing advanced weaponry within the time frame it has outlined face major technical and budgetary challenges. To begin with, according to a report released by the Government Accountability Office on July 23, the department’s own cost assessment office (CAPE) has “expressed concerns that simply building a weapon capable of operating in a hypersonic flight profile pushes multiple scientific boundaries, especially in the survival … of materials during exposure to extreme g-forces and high temperatures.” 

The GAO added that it is not only the hypersonic interceptor that faces technical challenges. The interceptor will require a space-based sensor, yet the GAO notes that such a sensor would require advanced image processing algorithms enabling it to distinguish threats from the warm surface of the Earth, as opposed to ground-based systems that can identify threats against “the cold and featureless background of space.”

Even if these challenges can be overcome, it is not clear that the department’s self-imposed deadlines could be met. The case of the SM3 Block IIB interceptor provides a cautionary tale. The missile was meant to be the central element in the Obama administration’s 2009 announcement of a new European Phased Adaptive Approach, which was meant to replace the Bush administration’s plan for ground-based interceptors based in Poland. The missile was  supposed to be fielded in 2022. But in 2013, then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that the program was being “restructured.” Not long afterward, a senior Department of Defense official was quoted as saying that “the SM3 IIB phase four interceptors … never existed other than on PowerPoints; it was a design objective.” 

Even if the current slew of missile defense programs are more than mere PowerPoint presentations, there remains the question of whether they will be fully funded in accordance with current program projections. Most budget experts agree that the defense budget has peaked.  There will be tremendous pressure to move what otherwise might be funds for defense to domestic social and economic support programs, given the devastation resulting from COVID-19 and long overdue spending on modernizing America’s infrastructure. 

Although spending on the new missile defense programs represents a relatively small portion of the budget, there will be countervailing pressure to continue funding key elements of the “program of record,” especially costly shipbuilding and strategic nuclear programs. The combination of technical challenges and budget concerns led to the demise of the SM3 Block IIB missile. One wonders whether at least some of the current hypersonic offense and defense systems under development beyond 2021 will meet the same fate. 

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System China Chuck Hagel Ground-Based Interceptor hypersonic weapons Russia

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