With the recent test of Russia’s “unstoppable” hypersonic missile, the Brahmos II (a.k.a. Zircon) it’s hard to ignore the recent advancements of hypersonic missiles around the world. In an article written by Dave Majumdar of The National Interest, he sheds some light on the U.S. Navy’s defense against the hypersonic missiles. The Navy will most likely rely on electronic attacks, cyber warfare, kinetic weapons, or directed energy weapons to defeat the adversary’s “kill chain.”
“I think there is this long-range precision strike capability, certainly. Everybody says A2/AD [anti-access/area-denial],” Adm. John Richardson, the U.S. Navy’s chief of naval operations, told an audience at the Center for a New American Security’s annual conference on June 20. “A2/AD is sort of an aspiration. In actual execution it’s much more difficult.”
While U.S. Navy officials—and many Washington, D.C., think tanks—have talked about the potential threat to the service’s aircraft carrier fleet from weapons such as the Chinese DF-21D and DF-26, the difficulty of developing a true A2/AD capability is seldom discussed.
As Richardson pointed out, A2/AD strategies have existed since the dawn of warfare. What makes the new Chinese capability different is the combination of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capability with long-range precision weapons. “The combination ubiquitous ISR, long-range precision strike weapons take that to the next level,” Richardson said. “It demands a response.”
But the threat is not just contained in the South China Sea, Richardson said. The anti-ship ballistic missile threat is increasingly found around the world and will continue to proliferate. Indeed, the hermit kingdom of North Korea has apparently acquired anti-ship ballistic missile technology. As such, the Navy will have to get used to living with the threat of anti-ship ballistic missiles and other similar threats.
“I think that the proliferation of anti-ship ballistic missiles is just a fact of life we’re going to have to address,” Richardson said. “That fact that it’s in the hands of North Korea—a leader who has been less predictable than many others brings another dimension to that equation.”
However, that does not mean that the aircraft carrier is obsolete or that the carrier air wing is unable to conduct its mission. As Navy officials have mentioned repeatedly in private conversations—weapons such as anti-ship ballistic missiles require an extensive “kill chain”—including ISR sensors, data-networks, command and control and other systems—in order to be effective. That extensive kill chain can be attacked and disrupted through electronic attacks, cyber warfare or some other kinetic means. “Our response would be to inject a lot of friction into that system,” Richardson said—disrupting the enemy kill chain.
In another article by Malcom Davis of The National interest, he lays out the potential use of directed energy (lasers) to attack our adversaries’ “kill chain.”
The development of hypersonic weapons implies that in future warfare, particularly between major states, speed will assume prominence as a factor for determining victory, alongside information. For example, in considering the implications for the survival of naval surface combatants of China’s early tests of the Wu-14, Andrew Davies noted that hypersonic weapons reduce time of response for defenders to the point where a viable anti-ship missile defense with the traditional layered approaches becomes largely impossible. Instead, naval forces will need new and more responsive technologies like directed energy weapons, electromagnetic railguns or defensive hypersonic missile systems. Ben Schreer suggests that hypersonic weapons indicate a new era of high speed warfare, which reinforces a first strike incentive in a manner that’d be highly destabilizing in a crisis, and suggests a new “cult of the offensive,” where the side which strikes first most likely wins.
Hypersonic weapons will depend on an effective and resilient “kill chain” to function effectively. That means a state that invests in hypersonic weapons must also invest in advanced sensor systems that can detect and track a specific target, and have secure data links from the sensor to the decision-maker and then to the “shooter.” It’s not just about faster missiles—it’s about the technologies that come together to either use such weapons or defeat them.