Russia and China Are Catching Up on Hypersonic Missiles Amid US Neglect, Expert Says

A Russian MiG-31 fighter jet releases a Kinzhal hypersonic missile during a test in Russia.
In this video grab provided by RU-RTR Russian television via AP television on March 1, 2018, a Russian MiG-31 fighter jet releases a Kinzhal hypersonic missile during a test in Russia. (RU-RTR Russian Television via AP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin boasted Sunday of nearing deployment of nuclear-tipped hypersonic missiles with his Navy, upping the ante in a three-way arms race with the U.S. and China to develop super-fast missiles that can penetrate any existing defensive system.

At the annual naval parade in St. Petersburg, Putin did not detail specifically when hypersonic missiles would be deployed, but the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement that the weapons are in the final stages of testing.

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"The widespread deployment of advanced digital technologies that have no equals in the world, including hypersonic strike systems and underwater drones, will give the fleet unique advantages and increased combat capabilities," Putin said.

China has also made significant advances in hypersonics, according to Dr. Mark Lewis, director of Defense Research and Engineering for Modernization at the Defense Department.

Last October, Chinese President Xi Jinping presided at a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. During the parade, a purported vehicle-mounted DF-17 hypersonic nuclear missile was displayed.

At a June 30 Hudson Institute discussion, Lewis said both China and Russia have taken advantage of a lull in U.S. modernization to make advances in what he called the "game changer" technology of hypersonics.

"I'm often accused of saying speed is the new stealth," he said, stressing the need for more focus and investment on hypersonics.

Stealth properties make bombers and fighters difficult to track, but hypersonic missiles traveling at speeds well in excess of Mach 5 mean that "you see me a little bit too late to do anything," Lewis said.

The advantage of hypersonic missiles is usually "thought of only as speed," he explained, adding that it's actually speed plus the ability to change trajectory, giving the missiles the capability of "penetrating from long ranges with tremendous resilience."

There is little time to react and that, combined with a less predictable trajectory, make hypersonic missiles "a class of weapons system which, frankly, is hard to counter," Lewis said.

The U.S. once had a formidable lead in hypersonics technology, he added, but let that lead slip away.

"There was an element of hubris to it. We were so far ahead," Lewis said. "We did their homework for [China and Russia]. We developed it. … Then, we kind of took our foot off the gas. We didn't listen to our own advice. Now, we're in a situation where we're truly in a three-way race."

As a result, China "hasn't been shy" about showing off its advances in hypersonics. "That has been eye-opening," he said.

On at least three occasions in recent months, President Donald Trump has made reference to U.S. development of what he called a "super-duper missile" that can travel up to 17 times Mach and hit targets with extreme precision.

At the June 13 West Point commencement ceremony, Trump touted overall U.S. investment in national defense.

"We are building new ships, bombers, jet fighters and helicopters by the hundreds; new tanks, military satellites, rockets and missiles; even a hypersonic missile that goes 17 times faster than the fastest missile currently available in the world and can hit a target 1,000 miles away within 14 inches from center point," he said.

In March, the Defense Department announced the successful test of a common hypersonic glide body (C-HGB) jointly executed by the Army and Navy in a launch from the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii.

The C-HGB flew at unspecified hypersonic speeds and successfully hit a designated impact area, according to the DoD.

"Today, we validated our design and are now ready to move to the next phase toward fielding a hypersonic strike capability,'' said Vice Adm. Johnny R. Wolfe, director of the Navy's Strategic Systems Programs.

In his remarks at the Hudson Institute, Lewis said fielding of hypersonic weapons by the U.S. is years away but added, "Our competitors should have no doubt we're moving in a big way. Our goal is to deliver at scale in the mid-2020s."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at

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