by DAVID AXE
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army made huge capability leaps in 2010, the fruit of a decade of steady, double-digit percentage annual budget increases. Accomplishments included matching America with 15 successful space launches; deploying its first apparent ocean-surveillance and targeting satellite system; going operational with a small number of long-range DF-21D Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles; and achieving first flight with the Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter prototype.
There are indications the U.S. military is seeking similar technological leaps in order to stay ahead of the PLA. Perhaps the biggest and most difficult leap might lead to the first hypersonic weapons and vehicles, starting in six years’ time.
The Pentagon for years has warned about China’s steady rise and the concomitant implications for the Pacific balance of power. The 2010 edition of the U.S. military’s annual report on Chinese military power phrased this warning in the most diplomatic terms possible. “The pace and scope of China’s military modernization have increased over the past decade, enabling China’s armed forces to develop capabilities to contribute to the delivery of international public goods, as well as increase China’s options for using military force to gain diplomatic advantage or resolve disputes in its favor.”
But Vice Adm. Jack Dorsett, the U.S. Navy’s top intelligence officer, was less circumspect. “We have been pretty consistent in underestimating the delivery … of Chinese technology and weapons systems. They enter operational capability quicker than we frequently project.”
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates reflected Dorsett’s apparent alarm in comments to reporters while en route to a January meeting with PLA officials in Beijing. “They clearly have potential to put some of our capabilities at risk,” Gates said of the Chinese. “We have to pay attention to them, we have to respond appropriately with our own programs.”
Indeed, the Pentagon for a couple years now has been subtly shifting investment toward weapons and concepts optimized for major, conventional conflict against a high-tech peer competitor. In other words, China. The shift followed several years during which Gates fought to curtail traditional weapons in favor of systems to support the counter-insurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Now as U.S. forces exit Iraq and prepare for a 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan, it appears that the secretary is reversing course,” observed Daniel Goure, an analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Lexington Institute.
In January, Gates announced $100 billion in spending changes, moving cash from less urgent and under-performing programs to those that might deliver needed capabilities more quickly and on-budget. The F-35 stealth fighter saw its jump-jet variant delayed; the Marines lost their technically-troubled Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle. In their places, the Marines would get a new, cheaper assault vehicle; the Navy would get several extra warships plus more fighters and a new jammer; the Air Force would benefit from radar upgrades to its F-15 fighters plus a brand-new bomber program.
But perhaps the most dramatic programmatic shift occurred in the longer-term effort to produce hypersonic weapons and vehicles. For decades, the U.S. military, American industry and the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration have struggled with craft designed to fly at Mach 6 or faster, at extremely high altitudes (sometimes including low orbit). Most efforts were expensive failures. The high temperatures resulting from extreme speeds have proved one of the biggest obstacles.
Hypersonic is “the future of aerospace … and always will be,” journalist Sharon Weinberger mused in 2007, as the Air Force proposed its latest, billion-dollar, Mach-6 design. That vehicle, the so-called HTV-3X “Blackswift,” was canceled on cost grounds just a year later.
But the allure of super-fast missiles, bombers, spy planes and even troop transports meant U.S. agencies never really gave up. China’s growing military capabilities added urgency to American hypersonics efforts. By 2010, Pentagon officials were openly acknowledging that new Chinese systems — especially fighters, air-defense and anti-ship missiles and submarines — could create an “Anti-Access Area-Denial” zone in the South China Sea, all but prohibiting U.S. forces from steaming close to China to influence events over, say, the Taiwan Strait.
“It’s not exclusively China that has what is now being referred to as A2/AD capability,” Adm. Robert Willard, commander of U.S. Pacific forces, said in December. “But in China’s case, it’s a combination of integrated air-defense systems, advanced naval systems such as the submarine, advanced ballistic missile systems such as the anti-ship ballistic missile, as well as power projection systems into the region.”
“While it may be largely designed to assure China of its ability to affect military operations within its regional waters,” Willard added, “it is an expanded capability that ranges beyond the first island chain and overlaps countries in the region. For that reason, it is concerning to Southeast Asia, (and) it remains concerning to the United States.”
The new bomber Gates promised as part of his January spending shifts “represents a key component of a joint portfolio of conventional deep-strike capabilities — an area that should be a high priority for future defense investment given the anti-access challenges our military faces,” the secretary said. But this bomber is meant as a near-term system — “designed and developed using proven technologies,” Gates said — and does not necessarily ensure U.S. superiority over China several decades out. Instead, it would essentially just reinforce existing American bomber capabilities “before the current aging fleet goes out of service,” Gates said.
For a true capability increase, the Pentagon is injecting new cash and focus into its hypersonics efforts. The renewed emphasis on Mach-6 weapons and vehicles coincides with long-awaited progress on the basic technologies underpinning robust hypersonic flight. In 2010, the X-51 hypersonic missile demonstrator had its first successful flight. The HTV-1 hypersonic drone flew, too, for the first time.
The HTV-1 crashed, but the military quickly determined why and readied a second prototype. Meanwhile, the Air Force’s X-37B reusable, hypersonic spaceplane spent eight months in orbit on mysterious errands. A pair of space firms convinced NASA and the Air Force to try restoring a pair of X-34 Mach-8 demonstrators that had been in open storage following their 2001 retirement.
On the strength of these accomplishments, in 2011 the Air Force mulled a revival of the Blackswift concept, which in the long term would produce a large, reusable hypersonic vehicle — likely unmanned — that could serve as a bomber and reconnaissance craft sometime before 2030. Such a craft could enable the Pentagon to leap ahead of Chinese anti-access systems and restore its traditional degree of superiority.
In its 2010 “Technology Horizons” planning document, the Air Force proposed that limiting a Blackswift-like vehicle to just Mach 6 would reduce, though not eliminate, the development risk. “Air-breathing hypersonic systems designed for Mach 6 or below avoid most of the extreme temperatures traditionally associated with hypersonic flight, yet can provide rapid ISR or strike capability to engage high-value, time-critical targets from standoff distances. Such systems can hold targets at risk that might otherwise be immune, potentially altering the calculus of strategic deterrence.”
How much continued hypersonics development might cost, how long it might take and its chances for success … these are all open questions. In the short term, the Air Force believes it can field a hypersonic air-to-ground missile, probably based on the X-51, around 2016 — just in time to equip the long-delayed F-35 and, within a few more years, Gates’ new bomber. The more ambitious effort to field a Blackswift-style vehicle is obviously much riskier, but the potential benefits are enormous for U.S. forces facing escalating Chinese opposition.
“If you come back 20 years from now, you’ll see an Air Force that looks substantially different than what you see today,” said Dr. Werner Dahm, the Air Force’s top scientist. To have a chance of maintaining its historical dominance over a rising China, the Air Force — and the whole U.S. military — has no choice but to look different. Perhaps the biggest change, compared today, could be the presence in U.S. flying squadrons of hypersonic weapons and vehicles for whom Chinese defenses are so much light and noise.