Putting the Hype in Hypersonic Weapons

As a teenager, I loved this magazine and read it at my local library

W.J. Astore

Supersonic just isn’t fast enough anymore. Now we need hypersonic weapons. Hypersonic generally refers to something that travels at Mach 5 or above, or five times the speed of sound. (Most supersonic jets max out at Mach 2 or thereabouts.) Missiles that are hypersonic would be very difficult to intercept and could be deadly against large, slow-moving targets, e.g. aircraft carriers. So occasionally you hear about China or Russia or both developing hypersonic weapons, followed by a Chicken Little, sky-is-falling, warning about how the U.S. is failing to keep up.

This is all on my mind because I got an email invitation to a hypersonic weapons conference. As a retired Air Force officer and former engineer, this could have been my life: working for a defense contractor, hyping hypersonic weaponry. Where did I go wrong?

“In light of the Department of Defense’s recent & successful hypersonic glide body test marking a major milestone for the DOD’s fielding of hypersonic capabilities, IDGA is bringing back the Hypersonic Weapons Summit this October 28-30, in order to comprehensively analyze and enable the fielding of hypersonic warfighting capabilities.”

“This summit will highlight critical areas to include:

• Enabling Hypersonic Capabilities Utilization for Warfighters across Multiple Domains
• S&T Roadmaps & Investment Areas to Achieve Hypersonic Utilization
• Guiding Hypersonic Testing to Understand Technological Needs
• Workforce Initiatives
• US Academia/University Collaboration”

This invitation makes me nostalgic for my military days: all those acronyms, all that jargon, all those references to “warfighting” and “warfighters,” all those vague references, e.g. multiple domains, workforce, investment, and so on.

Again, this is just a random invite, the kind that industry people see daily, but it does reveal the military-industrial-university complex in all its hyperventilating glory.

Advertised speakers at this conference include civilians from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the commanding general of Air Force Global Strike Command, the Army Hypersonic Project Office, a senior representative from U.S. Strategic Command, and a professor of the Hypersonic Systems Initiative, Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering, University of Notre Dame.

What a lineup! These people make very good money developing faster and faster missiles to blow things up or to intercept other missiles that blow things up. And I do appreciate the rare honesty of the name “Air Force Global Strike Command.” Global strike is far more accurate than national defense.

As a teenager, I used to read “Aviation Week & Space Technology” at my local library. I loved keeping track of the latest cool weapons, which back then meant fighter jets like the F-14 and F-15 or bombers like the B-1. I hate to admit it, but I didn’t give much thought to what these and similar weapons were all about: blowing things up and killing people. They just seemed exciting and a little bit sexy, and I bought the hype.

Sad to say to my teenage self but this will be a conference I’ll have to miss.

30 thoughts on “Putting the Hype in Hypersonic Weapons

  1. The vaunted MQ9 looks like H.G. Wells War of the Worlds Martian Ships! lol Now that was a Hoax that had legs back in the day when the Radio Broadcast caused a panic… I guess you never know when the Intergalactic Invaders will arrive, and we’ll have to “Hypersonically” send them to Hell!

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  2. A few of you may have noticed I changed the look of the site slightly (new fonts, couple of tweaks). If anyone has any views on the “new” look, or usability in general, please let me know.

    I use a very basic “theme” or format for Bracing Views. It seems to work, and I’ve resisted changing it since it’s the content and ease of commenting that matter. But, again, suggestions are welcome.

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  3. We’ve been working on hypersonic missiles since the 50s. My first exposure was very indirect involvement in the Navy’s SHOC missile. After that, we conducted several studies and examined a variety of all-up and component concepts (as for the “rail gun”, terminal guidance is a major hurdle simply for reasons of physics and no one has an answer. The Low Collateral Damage fashion wave of 15 years ago rarely accounted for the necessary boost in terminal accuracy and the only successful implementations were for systems w suitable end game performance, e.g. Hellfire, JDAM, a few others). Until I left DoD a few years ago, it seemed that there was a 5-6 year infatuation/hype cycle where interest spiked to hysterical urgency, then the studies showed that the technical challenges and plausible buy volumes rendered the concepts untenable, repeat. The premise was that there was a critical operational need to strike HVTs when they popped up and before they moved, e.g. There’s a SCUD! (Desert Storm frustrations); There’s an SA-6 driving down the road below the clouds! (Allied Force frustrations); There’s bin Laden outside his cave! or We just got a cell phone hit from a MAM! (COIN wars frustrations). All of this presupposes an unlikely degree of awareness and that the front end of the kill chain was primed, ready, and focused in the right place. Prompt Global Strike wants to be able to bug zap without delay. The reason for the boost-glide profile is to concertedly not look like an ICBM flight profile which necessarily gets everyone who is looking for inbound ICBMs pretty worked up. But, the technical challenges remain legion for hypersonics. If I had more confidence in the cleverness of our leaders, I would take this to be good PR/propaganda. But the hype was real, the supposed urgency was real. As we know, the echoes w/in the MIC bubble can be loud. The political-diplomatic-doing global business issues are fraught. And the operational “need” is dubious – we already do plenty of bug zapping to the U.S.’s continuing shame, immorality, and lack of strategic effect. But the dream of magic bullets to bug zap our bad national security state hair days away does live on.

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      1. Right? Do the same thing that hasn’t been adding up but faster. We’ve become pretty good with the accuracy of kinetics within certain constraints. In a technological sense, we’ve been the New England Patriots playing sandlot teams for the past 20 years. In a strategic sense, we are virtually hapless. The devolution of strategy and operations into bundles of tactics is not new – e.g take the hill then leave in a few days, destroy the village (or city, e.g. Kobani, Raqqa, Fallujah, etc) to save it… We can bundle tactics packages and deliver them readily when we have no threat at sea no threats in the ports, 95% of the logistics routes are uncontested; when the widebodies and armed drones can stay overhead at will; when our digital comms are never significantly unavailable. I think that our senior military people are mentally unequipped for competition and so they go to the one thing that is pretty reliable – strike. But other answers are indistinct. Hence the Euro-football player like flopping at minor infractions like “dangerous” and “unprofessional” intercepts by Chinese/Russian fighters, etc. The mentality is a marble on top of an upsidedown bowl – a metaphor for a dynamically unstable system from engineering undergrad 🙂 The leaders are comfortable and happy with strike solutions. Other approaches not so much. I spent 20 years inside the tech side of strike world and was generally up on the operational considerations that informed design requirements. Good for us, we are good at strike in some situations. What has it added up to in the past 20 years or really much longer than that? Strike is rarely the answer but DoD is foolishly stuck in the WWII kinetic war mentality.

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      2. “Strike” is often more for domestic politics than anything else. Remember when Trump struck at Syria and the mainstream media went wild with applause, calling him “presidential.” Strike is often all about looking tough at home (and winning votes) while painting any critics as weak on defense.

        I often think people miss the domestic politics — and, of course, the profits of the MIC. But making missiles is a job-creator, right?

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          1. Yes, it’s technology first, then tactics, and maybe a little strategy at the end.

            Technology and tactics can be optimized, but strategy is a different thing altogether. We need to abandon the strategy of global reach, global strike, and imperial domination because it is counterproductive to true national defense. But even stating that suggests retrenchment, new thinking, and less money and resources for the MIC. So it’s rejected out of hand with new calls for more and better weapons in a “new” cold war against Russia and China.

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          2. I think yesterday was first time I heard a Trump soundbite where he employed that maddening phrase “the exceptional nation.” The context was a “culture wars” assault on the evil liberals who’ve put inconvenient truths like genocide of Native Americans, slavery and institutional racism into Amer. History books currently used in (some) school systems. Sad to say, I can envision no scenario between now and the ultimate demise of humanity (it’s in the cards, “you read it here first, folks!”) in which the United States becomes a civilized nation, more interested in helping other nations than destroying them.

            Liked by 1 person

    1. I think many people have tunnel vision — or they choose to see only that which they want to see.

      And some just enjoy the intellectual challenge, even if it’s building a deadlier missile rather than a better mousetrap.

      The money is pretty good too …

      Liked by 1 person

  4. By the way, I just noticed POGO did an article on hypersonics with the same title as mine. And here I thought I was being clever.

    Here’s the POGO link: https://www.pogo.org/analysis/2019/02/putting-the-hype-in-hypersonic-weapons/

    “Putting the Hype in Hypersonic Weapons: President Trump’s new call to defend against missiles “anywhere, anytime, anyplace” is a recipe for military futility and fiscal insanity,” BY MARK THOMPSON

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Speaking as someone who misses the Cold War – when (it could be successfully argued) the world was a safer place – who are these weapons supposed to be used against? Apart from Ivan and the Red Menace – who, lest we forget, are now our friends – who has the cash or credit to amass a hypersonic arsenal? Or even a matched set of hypersonic weapons?

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  6. Speaking of super-sophisticated weaponry, I once took some graduate classes in Buddhism and Sanskrit from the late Dr Ananda W. P. Guruge who would often regale me with lunchtime tales of his bureaucratic adventures as Sri Lanka’s Minister of Education and (successively) Ambassador to France, the United States, and UNESCO. Once, while serving as Ambassador to the US, Dr Guruge got a phone call from the US Trade Representative who complained about Sri Lanka’s embargo of petroleum-based fertilizers from the US. Dr Guruge explained to her about the Tamil insurgency raging in his country at the time and that Sri Lankan scientists had told the government that terrorists could make bombs from the fertilizer. Said the lady Trade Rep: “Well, if you had real scientists like we have in America, you wouldn’t believe such nonsense.” As it turned out, two weeks later, the American home-grown terrorist Timothy McVeigh blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City with a bomb made from a truck-full of fertilizer. Dr. Guruge called up the lady Trade Rep and asked her — with an unconcealed note of schadenfreude — “What do you think of our scientists now?

    I sure miss my little lunchtime conversations with Dr Guruge, one of the most educated and erudite men I have ever met. If I could speak with him today, I would point out the Orwellian twist of Wikipedia noting that:

    “McVeigh, a veteran of the Gulf War and a sympathizer with the U.S. militia movement, had detonated a Ryder rental truck full of explosives he parked in front of the building.” [emphasis added]

    No mention of blowing up buildings with “explosive” fertilizer. Wouldn’t want any bad words to get out regarding US petroleum industry exports. So much for “science.”

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  7. The recent US rush to develop of hypersonics must be understood in context of the Timeline.

    There was no mention of supersonic weapons in 2001 when the US unilaterally withdrew from the 1st Arms Control Agreement signed with the Soviets in 1972 known as SALT.

    Why did the US trash the Treaty? Up to that point, both the US and the Soviets operated within the limitations of Mutual Assured Destruction, giving BOTH sides 20 minutes after the detected launch of missiles, to determine if it was an Actual attack or a False Alarm?

    To escalate the arms race, and it’s cost to taxpayers, the US trashed the Treaty that banned anti-missile missiles, so they could be deployed in the European theatre, except it’s not a movie. Those missiles are now deployed in Poland and Roumania and aimed at Russia. Now the warning Time for Russia is much shorter, increasing the possibility of mistakes being made, and this world being even less safe by the American action.

    US Propaganda does not report on behalf of Russia’s best interests, like the CIA, FBI, and Military experts on TV said so often, ‘Russia does not have American interests at heart’

    Naturally the Russians would be suspect of US intentions when they trashed SALT? The Russians understood only too well, what Americans don’t think about.
    That move enables the US to launch a 1st strike on Russia, and shoot down Russian missiles fired in legitimate retaliation to US aggression.

    The US withdrawing from SALT in 2001 made this World less safe and more expensive.
    That forced Russia to develop hypersonic missiles, making that aggressive US action moot.
    The 1st use of nuclear Missiles by either side will lead to Armageddon!

    The US is escalating an arms race with an even higher cost deploying a Space Force Russia and China must defend against

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  8. What a delightful collection of absurd “buzzwords”!! Whether this conference takes place in the flesh or online, I wonder how many attendees will be spying for our “enemies”…not to mention our “friends,” like Israel?? Let the fun begin!

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  9. Don’t feel bad about not thinking about what weapons from the sky do because almost no Americans do. American bombs killed around 1 million non combatants during WWII and probably another million since then. Who cares? Well most Americans love it. Mass murder and collective punishment are America’s bread and butter.

    Only 5 years had passed from the bombing of Guernica which killed between 150 and 800, to the horror of many, to the bombing of Hamburg with incendiaries which produced a firestorm killing an estimated 58,000.

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  10. It is mindbogglingly to learn about what the Pentagon is up to. All this weaponry is being manufactured at a cost to Americans.
    HOW MANY know how the govt is wasting their hard earned money? It is shocking.
    I searched for Hypersonic drones and found Suicide Drones!!!
    The video in the link was rather creepy as it reminded me of the video released by Bradley Manning…
    https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/33934/pentagon-has-tested-a-suicide-drone-that-gets-to-its-target-area-at-hypersonic-speed
    Collateral murder….
    https://collateralmurder.wikileaks.org/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If only we had an electable candidate who would GENUINELY go over the Pentagon’s and those 17 spy agencies’ budgets with a magnifying glass and CLEAN HOUSE! Needless to say, Mr. “Drain the Swamp” has no interest in this. And there are two “slight” drawbacks in the scenario: 1.) it would require renunciation of “Amerikan Exceptionalism”; and 2.) the person holding the magnifying glass would not survive long.

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    1. Reportedly, someone in the administration leaked the other day that Team Trump had a desire to experiment with the Heat Ray to clear protesters blocking The Donald’s route to that church near the White House. The story was not blown up big in MSM to my knowledge. Snicker at your own risk, citizens. These anti-crowd devices have been developed, and they WILL be unleashed at some point. The principle is like a microwave oven, with the rays concentrated to induce severe discomfort (presumably short of igniting the target’s clothing!). And then there’s the Sonic Ray (not sure of official nomenclature), emitting sound waves powerful enuf to liquefy the contents of the victim’s bowels. Do you think I jest? Keep your eyes and ears open (and a cork up your butt)!

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Oh, I see from NYT snippet they wanted to test BOTH those sci-fi seeming devices!! Two for the price of one! I suggest the reporter who tried to minimize effect of these devices volunteer to be the guinea pig in their testing!

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  11. The arms race is irrational because we can’t use the weapons without starting a war with no winner. That has been true since the first ICBM’s became operational many decades ago. Carrier battle groups at least allow us to go around the world cherry picking targets that are helpless to respond. Yet the work keeps on going, the only benefit being that occasionally some technology will move out into consumer products, like the microwave oven.

    Most bizarre is the effort to make nuclear devices that are usable, an oxymoron, yet didn’t I read that our nuclear submarines have had their missile warhead yields lowered for this purpose?

    We don’t want a final war, but there is such an itch to be able to fight a war short of the Big One. How presidents love to say “all options are on the table.” We don’t want overkill, but we definitely want kill. We don’t want the trigger to be pulled but are obsessed with making it easier to pull.

    And our sharpest minds are working on this for a career. As Prof. Astore mentioned in the comments, it’s very easy to get buried in the fascination of the work and forget what actual use would mean. I had this experience in TV broadcasting, concentrating on knotty tech problems was a delight, but in my case I was confronted with the awful final product seen on video monitors day in and day out, being forced to see the end product of my work finally made it unbearable.

    BTW – Seeing that Aviation Week cover recalls one of the most peculiar and simple nuclear weapons I ever read about, 25 or more years ago. I believe the program was called Project Pluto or Pluton and it consisted of flying a nuclear reactor in a cruise type missile at subsonic speed at low altitude over a landscape. With no shielding on the bottom, intense radiation from the exposed reactor would give at least radiation sickness if not a lethal dose to anyone on the ground below simply from being flown over. Nothing fancy involved, no mushroom clouds, a perfectly usable nuclear weapon. After all, since then we’ve established with drones that we don’t really care about bystanders being killed. I presume this program was stopped, but you never know what might be sitting in a black site somewhere.

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    1. Likewise, we don’t hear much about the Neutron Bomb anymore, but I’m sure that option remains on the table as well. “Tactical” or smallish atomic weapons were certainly discussed by US as an option against the people of Vietnam. And that option was argued for vigorously by one faction in the meeting rooms where these “geniuses” seek ways to maintain US dominance of the world. “Think tanks”! The very phrase makes me chuckle.

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      1. No need! The “novel Coronavirus” is already at work on campuses. IMHO resumption of in-person schooling was a huge mistake on part of administrators, and then you have irresponsible individual students “making sure” the virus spreads and spreads. Yeesh.

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