For hypersonics, it’s time to put the pedal to the metal

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No one knows for certain whether Russia used a hypersonic missile against Ukraine. The Russia’s leaders lie about everything else. But there’s no doubt Russia, like China, is pursuing such weapons. My next guests argue, the U.S. needs to step up its own hypersonics program. Joining the Federal Drive with Tom Temin from Purdue University’s Krach Institute for...


Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

No one knows for certain whether Russia used a hypersonic missile against Ukraine. The Russia’s leaders lie about everything else. But there’s no doubt Russia, like China, is pursuing such weapons. My next guests argue, the U.S. needs to step up its own hypersonics program. Joining the Federal Drive with Tom Temin from Purdue University’s Krach Institute for Tech Diplomacy, director Bonnie Glick, and Senior Research Fellow, Dan DeLaurentis.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Good to have you both on.

Bonnie Glick: Good to be here, Tom.

Dan DeLaurentis: Thank you.

Tom Temin: Let’s define our terms here to begin with. Hypersonics means something that flies at five times the speed of sound as an offensive weapon, but it doesn’t have to have an explosive on it to do damage. Is that correct?

Dan DeLaurentis: That is correct. Absolutely. And of course, there are other types of vehicles that fly faster than than Mach 5. In fact, I like to tell people on the space shuttle if we all remember the space shuttle, when that orbiter came back from orbit, it was definitely a gliding hypersonic vehicle flying very fast through the atmosphere. And you may remember, it had to have those special tiles underneath to control the heating. That’s very intense. As you fly faster and faster above Mach 5, the temperatures surrounding the vehicle get very hot.

Tom Temin: Yes, so that means the hypersonic missile were we to be able to develop one would be kind of hot, by the time it hit its target?

Dan DeLaurentis: Not so much affecting the target. As you said earlier, the speed of the vehicle itself can with its kinetic energy can do a lot of damage. That high temperature really comes into play is very difficult to control a vehicle that’s flying so hot, because you may, if you’re not doing a good design job, you may find the vehicle melting in the wrong places, and it won’t hit its target.

Tom Temin: Got it. And what are the strategic importance of these, Bonnie? I mean, we’ve got missiles that can go anywhere and hit anything, and they come in all sizes from a million dollars to $100 million.

Bonnie Glick: The significance of a hypersonic missile launch, particularly as the Russians claimed to have done in the war with Ukraine last month is less the level of lethality of the missile and more the level of signaling. What Russia did in its launch, its purported launch, is show the United States that it has hypersonic missile capability, that it is a lethal weapons capability and to highlight that he is taking the war in Ukraine to a different level. And this is something, too, that the United States and NATO urgently recognize.

Tom Temin: Got it. What is the status now of U.S. hypersonic? Give us the broad picture here. If I recall, the Navy had a ship launched program that it abandoned a couple of years ago or a year and a half ago or so because it just for whatever reason, technically was not practical.

Dan DeLaurentis: Hypersonic programs kind of come and go because it is still a very difficult technical challenge to get these systems to work. And there’s really two classes of systems people are trying to develop. One is called a boost glide, where you just put a hypersonic glider on top of a rocket similar to the space shuttle as I mentioned earlier, and that rocket boots up high and fast into the atmosphere and then releases that glide vehicle. That’s the kind that Russia reportedly has used. And the U.S. has programs with the Army and the Navy that are testing and hoping to field within the next couple of years. Now the more advanced version of a hypersonic system is what we call air breathing. So kind of like an airplane engine, the engine on board that missile would ingest the air and burn it with fuel. And so you get much greater speeds and maneuverability with an air breathing system. And just a couple, about one month ago, the U.S. has announced a successful test of one of our air breathing hypersonic weapons. So lots of testing, because it’s very difficult to get these things to work when you need them.

Tom Temin: And just because I like toys, it sounds like one system would be slowing down from launch as it gets toward the target where as the other one could speed up as it gets toward the target.

Dan DeLaurentis: Well, yes, you could say that. But both of them, if designed correctly, will definitely hit targets with very significant speeds because even that boost glide vehicle, don’t think of it as just floating down. It’s going very fast. And it’s designed like kind of an arrow if you will, so that it continues. as it descends due to the force of gravity, it still continues to accelerate in certain parts of its mission.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Dan DeLaurentis. He’s the senior research fellow and with Bonnie Glick, the director at Purdue University’s Krach Institute for Tech Diplomacy. And so does having this capability change the calculus of warfare? Is it a really strategic weapon type of thing? Maybe somewhat less than nuclear weapons but more than conventional weapons, Bonnie?

Bonnie Glick: Tom, it’s a very good question and it is a great unknown as things stand right now. One of the things that we’re all hearing about in the news is that China is testing hypersonic missile capabilities. Russia claims to have launched a hypersonic missile. There is not a large stockpile anywhere of hypersonic missiles ready to deploy in warfare. So it is a long term prospect, it does indicate to us what the future of warfare and a large scale battle could look like. But for now, it’s something that, as I mentioned, the Russians are signaling to the rest of the world, we got it. And we’re not afraid to use it.

Tom Temin: It sounds like for the United States, then the nation would have to make the military would have to make choices because it sounds like there’s a lot of possible formats to this ground launched to hit something in the air, ground launched to hit something on the ground, air launched, sea launched to hit things at sea and in the air, you see all the combinations. But there’s no, it doesn’t sound like one platform could do everything.

Dan DeLaurentis: That’s absolutely the case. And the balance you refer to is exactly right, as well. And the balance in particular is between offense and defense. If you look at the history of just missile defense, in general, an adversary creates a missile capability on offense, we need to develop an effective defense because if you have an effective defense, it can be a deterrent to your adversary to even use that.

So really beyond the speed of hypersonic vehicles and missiles, which people often focus on. It’s the maneuverability at that speed that make them very difficult to defend against. And so the balance the U.S. is trying to strike right now, you know, dollars are not limited. They’re large in the U.S. defense establishment but not unlimited. How do you invest the right amount in defense, as well as investing on offense and get the right mix? Because an effective battery of offensive systems combined with an effective defense is about the optimal way to make sure these are never used.

Tom Temin: Right. So then what about the intelligence that these missiles may or may not have, they can be just like a dumb dagger aimed. But the big change in missile work since the Peenenmunde days is how smart they are.

Dan DeLaurentis: Exactly right. And that’s just an extension of what I mentioned of the maneuverability of these systems. So you can have dumb maneuverability, or the more autonomy and intelligence you have, these maneuvers that a hypersonic missile would take could be in response to a perceived defense. And so you’re absolutely right, everything in the end kind of comes together where AI, artificial intelligence, could actually be an enabler of hypersonic systems, even though people often think of those as two very separate investment areas for the DoD.

Tom Temin: And it’s never, nobody ever says we have enough money to do everything we want in the military, and people always advocate for their programs. But do you think that the amount that the United States military is spending on development of these, is it about right for the threat and the requirement?

Bonnie Glick: One of the things that we’re seeing from, directly from the president is that the U.S. is looking at spending about $7 billion on hypersonic technology. That probably is a small number compared to what is needed to provide both, as Dan noted, the offensive as well as the defensive capabilities that are going to be required in any strategic engagement. So it’s a start, but it’s a great way, too, to engage with private industry to say, hey, you know, this is where we are in terms of the R&D investment that we’re making in hypersonics. The actual build out and deployment of these, of course, will cost a lot more, cost the taxpayer.

Tom Temin: And so far is most of the money OTA type of money that they’re spending and are they spending it with the so-called innovative parts of the economy? Or is this just the domain of the same old, same old weapons contractors?

Dan DeLaurentis: It’s a little bit of everything, actually, I think there is an increasing desire to tap not only, you know, smaller, innovative companies, but also universities. I should say, like Purdue University that have stepped up and said, we’re willing to put on some of the security constraints that are needed to support this particular mission because there are some testing resources that are only available at universities that are needed for this hypersonics mission we’re on. And so but when the rubber hits the road and you want to produce these vehicles at numbers, the industry primes are really the only ones equipped to do that. So you really can’t exclude anyone from the ecosystem.

Tom Temin: But Purdue would not test it out on Indiana, would it?

Dan DeLaurentis: No, no, we would not. We like all of our even our Hoosier farmland is quite valuable, so we would never do that.

I do want to add something to the prior question about the investment. Part of the reason we’re struggling to need more right now is because after the U.S. has really led the development of hypersonic technology for 40 years. But after the Cold War ended, we kind of turned off the spigot. And then lo and behold, two decades later, when we need to turn the spigot on and have solutions yesterday, the spigot don’t work that fast. And so it’s just so tough, right, to make these 20 year in the future guesses of where you should be putting all your all your money or much of your money. But regardless of the difficulty of the choice, the fact that we under invested in hypersonics is kind of catching us a little bit right now.

Tom Temin: Dan DeLaurentis is a senior research fellow at Purdue University’s Krach Institute for Tech Diplomacy. Thanks so much for joining me.

Dan DeLaurentis: Thank you.

Tom Temin: And Bonnie Glick is the director. Thank you as well.

Bonnie Glick: A pleasure, always.

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