The United States must accelerate hypersonic development and deployment. To do so it should turn to its allies, particularly Australia, and leverage the connections under the AUKUS Pact to intensify testing, expand production capacity and ensure American-allied interoperability. Indeed, the U.S. has a unique chance, through its alliance relationships, to ensure that hypersonic weapons and defense reach the future battlespace rapidly and at scale.
Hypersonic Strike (HS) weapons, generally speaking weapons that fly faster than Mach 5, will play an important role in modern high-end combat. They will not wholly replace traditional subsonic and supersonic cruise and ballistic missiles, nor will they fulfill every mission. Rather, the speed of hypersonic weapons provides unique benefits. First, hypersonics can penetrate air defenses that non-hypersonics would struggle to breach simply because of their speed and maneuverability. Second, and equally critical, hypersonic strikes can be staged along a quite different timeline from non-hypersonic strikes simply because they move so quickly, and therefore can hold at risk high-value, time-critical targets.
Russia’s air campaign in Ukraine has demonstrated the value that only a handful of more sophisticated assets have against air defense networks. Russia has paired slower loitering munitions with a handful of faster systems, including hypersonic strike, to prosecute its anti-infrastructure campaign in Ukraine. An unusually warm winter, combined with innovative Ukrainian adaptation, blunted the effectiveness of this campaign – Russia neither knocked out Ukraine’s electrified rail network nor triggered another refugee wave. But Russia did force Ukraine to redeploy air defenses from the front-line to deal with its threat and did cause some damage. Meanwhile, if Ukraine cannot repair its grid this summer, it will face another onslaught in the coming winter, jeopardizing its combat capacity once again.
The Russian experience provides a useful analogue to the Indo-Pacific theater, insofar as hypersonic strike will be part of a much broader strike complex. To borrow an analogy from land combat, hypersonic strike enables an aerial breakthrough operation, punching a hole through a robust air defense system that allows other cheaper slower munitions to penetrate it and erode broader combat capacity.
China has a layered defensive system that employs a major aerial component. This transcends a general strategy of anti-access. Rather, the PLA recognizes that the U.S. and its allies, considering the distances involved in the Indo-Pacific, will defeat a Chinese invasion of Taiwan only if they can hold at risk targets on the Chinese mainland. China’s layered defense system extends well into its geographic depth to blanket all major industrial sites, repair depots, supply hubs, and airfields.
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Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy Undersecretary of the Navy and is the author of Mayday and Seablindness.