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Air Force Orders New Hypersonic Cruise Missile Amid Escalating Arms Race With Russia And China



by Ryan Pickrell

The U.S. military is pursuing a new hypersonic cruise missile as Russia and China make critical weapons development advancements in an escalating arms race.

The U.S. Air Force announced Wednesday that it has awarded Lockheed Martin a $928 million contract for the “design, development, engineering, systems integration, testing, logistics planning, and aircraft integration support of all the elements of a hypersonic, conventional, air-launched, stand-off weapon.”

A hypersonic weapon is one that flies at speeds greater than Mach 5 or five times the speed of sound.

The desired weapon — the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon — is “one of two hypersonic weapon prototyping efforts being pursued by the Air Force to accelerate hypersonics research and development,” U.S. Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek explained in a relevant statement, according to Breaking Defense, “The Air Force is using prototyping to explore the art-of-the-possible and to advance these technologies to a capability as quickly as possible.”

The second weapons project is the Tactical Boost Glide program, a hypersonic weapons system being developed by the Air Force in cooperation with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Both Russia and China have publicly acknowledged research on hypersonic missiles, and Pentagon officials have increasingly warned that the U.S. is trailing behind its rivals in this area.

China reportedly conducted two hypersonic glide vehicle tests last November and at least seven tests between 2014 and 2016. Russia claims it is testing the Kinzhal hypersonic cruise missile, which Russian President Vladimir Putin recently asserted can “overcome all existing and, I think, prospective anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense systems.”

“We have observed both Russia and China testing hypersonic capabilities,” General John Hyten, head of U.S. Strategic Command, told reporters Tuesday. As the U.S. does not currently possess suitable defenses to counter such a weapon, the game plan is apparently deterrence.

“We don’t have any defense that could deny the employment of such a weapon against us, so our response would be our deterrent force, which would be the triad and the nuclear capabilities that we have to respond to such a threat,” Hyten told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March. In addition to those assets, the U.S. is also pursuing its own hypersonic capabilities.

“Our adversaries are presenting us today with a renewed challenge of a sophisticated, evolving threat,” Michael Griffin, the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering  recently told Congress, adding, “We are in turn preparing to meet that challenge and to restore the technical overmatch of the United States armed forces that we have traditionally held.”

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