NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
Pentagon efforts to rapidly build hypersonic missiles to compete with similar systems of U.S. adversaries took a second hit last week after Russia reportedly used a hypersonic missile in a bomb strike against Ukraine.
The Russian attack, if confirmed, would be the first use of an ultra-high-speed maneuvering weapon in combat and follows China’s test last summer of a unique hypersonic weapon that orbited the Earth before striking a land target. Both deployments leave the U.S. military further behind in the race to develop offensive hypersonic weapons that can reach targets in 30 minutes or less.
Critics say the problem has been bureaucratic emphasis in the Pentagon on building defenses against hypersonic weapons rather than developing and fielding missiles that can be used offensively.
Hypersonic missiles travel at speed greater than 3,836 miles per hour. While ballistic missile warheads travel at hypersonic speeds, hypersonic missiles are also able to maneuver, making them difficult to counter.
Earlier this month, Adm. Charles Richard, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, said he has requested offensive hypersonic missiles since at least 2016 to deter both Beijing and Moscow.
“I will be ready to put online, the first day any service makes it available, a hypersonic capability,” Adm. Richard told a March 8 congressional hearing. “I will put that to good use the first day any service makes it available in defense of the nation.”
Moscow claimed on Saturday that a hypersonic missile was used to destroy an underground weapons depot in southwest Ukraine. A senior U.S. defense official told reporters the Pentagon was not sure if the missile had been fired.
“It’s a bit of a head-scratcher, to be honest with you, because it’s not exactly clear why, if it’s true, would you need a hypersonic missile fired from not that far away to hit a building,” the official said.
One theory is the Russian military is running out of precision-guided missiles and felt the need to use the missile called Kinzhal — Russian for “dagger.”
“It could be that they’re trying to send a message to the West, but also to Ukraine, and trying to gain some leverage at the negotiating table,” the official said.
The operational use of a hypersonic missile in a conflict would be a first.
The Chinese conducted a hypersonic flight test in July and August of what is called “fractional orbital bombardment system” or FOBS. That weapon was described as an “all-azimuth” weapon capable of striking targets from any angle and thereby frustrating warning sensors and missile defenses.
China’s orbiting nuclear or conventional missile also boasts unique capabilities and allows the Chinese military to strike at any time or place with relative ease.
Current high priority programs for the U.S. military are the Army’s Long Range Hypersonic Weapon, the Air Force AGM-183 Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept.
Retired Navy Capt. James Fanell, a former Pacific Fleet intelligence director, said that prior to the Trump administration, the dominant view within the U.S. government was that defending against hypersonic missiles should be the priority. Former President Trump favored a shift to offensive hypersonic assets but the effort was resisted by the bureaucracy.
“With billions of dollars at stake, the elites within the [Defense Department] actually fought the commander-in-chief and instead pushed their emphasis on a defense umbrella instead of creating a credible offensive strike capability,” Capt. Fanell said.
Certain Pentagon officials and defense corporations have pushed for a global defense system against hypersonics but “did nothing to help defend against a tactical attack,” Capt. Fanell said.
“Worse yet, they have not developed and fielded our own operational hypersonic weapons program,” he added. “Hence, we do not have a deterrent capability to threaten to use our own hypersonic weapons against [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.”
The Pentagon’s point man for hypersonics during the Trump administration was Michael Griffin, who oversaw efforts to build the high-speed maneuvering missiles as undersecretary of defense for research and engineering. Some critics say Mr. Griffin was behind the overemphasis on defense rather than offense in the hypersonics program.
In remarks at a conference in November, Mr. Griffin stated that “we need a comprehensive layered defeat strategy for the Chinese and Russian offense” in hypersonics.
Still, at the end of his tenure during the Trump administration, Mr. Griffin said the military was on track to produce two hypersonic missiles per month. “We need to up that by a factor of 10,” he said in remarks to the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
Biden pledges not to change Chinese system
President Biden told Chinese President Xi Jinping during a video summit last week that the United States will not seek to change China’s communist system, according to Beijing’s readout of the meeting.
“Biden reiterated that the U.S. does not seek a new Cold War with China; it does not aim to change China’s system; the revitalization of its alliances is not targeted at China; the U.S. does not support ‘Taiwan independence’; and it has no intention to seek a conflict with China,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
White House National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne said the administration sees China as becoming more authoritarian domestically and more assertive abroad. She said the U.S. is determined to counter aggressive and coercive actions by China and defend democratic values.
“Our objective is not to change China but to shape the strategic environment in which it operates, defending the interests of the United States, our allies and partners, and the interests and values we share while blunting Beijing’s efforts to undermine our interests,” Ms. Horne said.
Protection of the current ruling system is among the Chinese Communist Party’s most important priorities since Mr. Xi has sought to revitalize so-called “Marxism-Leninism with Chinese characteristics” after he became president and Communist Party chair in 2012.
The demand that the U.S. not seek to alter the communist system was first presented to Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman during a visit to China in the summer of 2021. At that meeting, Chinese officials presented her with a list of 16 demands and 10 specific cases of concern that they said must be resolved to Beijing’s satisfaction before U.S.-China relations can improve.
A senior administration official said around the time of the Sherman visit that the Chinese demands were rejected. Yet several items on the list have subsequently come to pass, including the promise not to try to overthrow the communist system.
Other demands included ending the case of Huawei Technologies executive Meng Wanzhou, who was released from federal fraud charges in September, and relaxing curbs on Chinese officials who work for state media. The curbs were loosened late last year.
The promise from Mr. Biden not to work against the communist system was also outlined in the administration’s new Asia Pacific Strategy report made public last month.
The report said “our objective is not to change China but to shape the strategic environment in which it operates, building a balance of influence in the world that is maximally favorable to the United States, our allies and partners, and the interests and values we share.”
“This shows the complete cluelessness of the entire Biden approach to the [Chinese Communist Party] threat,” said a high-ranking former State Department China policy official during the Trump administration, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“It’s not whether we want to change China or not, it’s the undisputable reality that China is already changing and destroying the U.S. in a fundamental way, from our industrial and economic base, cherished freedoms of expressions in academe, Hollywood and Internet, to democratic values, defense technology, and public health. The Chinese Communist Party is systematically dismantling the critical sinews of America.”
Pacific commander highlights China threat
After months of relative silence, Adm. John C. Aquilino, the frontline leader of the Indo-Pacific Command, has begun speaking out to highlight the growing threat posed by China.
Adm. Aquilino gave a rare news interview Sunday that criticized Chinese President Xi Jinping for what U.S. officials say is his failure to follow through on a 2015 pledge to the United States not to militarize reclaimed disputed islands in the South China Sea.
The four-star admiral said despite the promise, China’s military has placed fighter jets, anti-ship missiles, anti-aircraft missiles and laser and electronic jamming gear on at least three islands. The weapons and equipment potentially threaten all nations operating in the international waterway.
“The function of those islands is to expand the offensive capability of the PRC beyond their continental shores,” he told The Associated Press during a flight aboard a P-8 maritime patrol aircraft. PRC is the acronym for People’s Republic of China. “They can fly fighters, bombers plus all those offensive capabilities of missile systems. So that’s the threat that exists, that’s why it’s so concerning for the militarization of these islands.”
China’s state-affiliated Global Times said the islands and adjacent waters are Chinese territory — contrary to an international tribunal ruling that held Beijing’s claims to own 90% of the South China Sea are illegal.
The outlet quoted a Chinese official as saying Adm. Aquilino “is staging a political farce to win attention and again build up tensions in the region after the world has shifted its eyes to Europe.”
• Bill Gertz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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