Hypersonic Missile Attack

Heritage Explains

Hypersonic Missile Attack

Can the U.S. Defend Against a Hypersonic Missile Attack?

It was recently reported that China tested a new hypersonic missile in August. This nuclear-capable rocket circled the globe and apparently took U.S. intelligence by surprise. So what does this mean for the U.S.? Do we have the ability to stop a missile traveling at 10,000 miles per hour through space? As we continue to see our adversaries become more forward in their development, it's important to continue asking if the U.S. is able to adequately defend against all the threats that exist. On this episode, Dakota Wood talks about the state of our preparedness—and uses the 2022 Index of Military Strength to demonstrate why the U.S. is only marginally able to defend America's vital national interests.

Clip: U.S. officials tonight closely monitoring China's missile program following a report of a possibly ominous missile test. The Financial Times, citing unnamed sources briefed on the intelligence, reports China tested a nuclear capable hypersonic missile in August. The report says the missile circled the earth before speeding toward its target demonstrating an advanced capability in space that "caught U.S. intelligence by surprise."

Tim Doescher: From The Heritage Foundation, I'm Tim Doescher And this is Heritage Explains.

Doescher: Hypersonic Chinese missiles traveling at 10,000 miles per hour circling the earth. Yikes. The CNN report at the top of this episode is just one example of the many rising threats the U.S. faces on a daily basis. We may not always hear about them, but rest assured, if you can, they exist. We've documented these on prior episodes of Explains, but in the face of ever-changing news narrative and politics, we think it's crucial to continue to highlight and break down specific instances where the U.S. is especially vulnerable.

Doescher: Is the U.S. ready and capable to go toe to toe with our adversaries? Could we stop a hypersonic missile with a nuclear weapon attached? Just how prepared is our military?

Dakota Wood: Are we going to go to war tomorrow? I can't tell you that?. Well, how about three years from now? Well, I can't predict the future either. Oh, well this is a problem that may never happen and so we can defer major decisions to the next election cycle or the next session of Congress. So in fact, those are all true sorts of statements, but the history of the United States shows that about every 15 to 20 years, we find ourselves in a war.

Doescher: That voice is Dakota Wood, he's a senior research fellow here at The Heritage Foundation and the editor of the 2022 Index of Military Strength. What is that? Well, it measures the ease or difficulty that our military would have in responding to the many threats our adversaries pose.

Doescher: On this episode, Dakota walks us through the index and explains what it means for the U.S. military to only be marginally able to meet the demands of defending our national interests, but first hear this.

>>> China’s Test of an Orbital Hypersonic Missile Is a Big Deal

Doescher: Okay, the new Index is out. the U.S. military is only marginally able to defend America's vital national interests. I don't like that, Dakota. And now with knowledge that China recently launched a hypersonic missile and many U.S. officials and the weapons experts outside of the government, they're now speculating the missile program might be intended as a way to evade U.S. missile defense with a nuclear armed system.

Doescher: Now, I just have to say the timing of the release of this index is spot on, Dakota. So let's just start with the top line here. What does it mean especially given all that's going on to be only marginally able to defend America's vital national interest?

Wood: Yeah, well, we pick that word specifically with great intentionality because words convey a picture or an emotional response. So if you had a grading scale from A to F or a number scale from one to five, so this is a C it's a number three on that scale of five. But if I said, "It's good enough. C's passing," then you might get the sense that the condition of the U.S. military is good enough. I mean what's to be concerned about? Why do we need such big defense budgets? Let's move on to some other issue, but in the world of security affairs and I loved what you teed up there with the Chinese hypersonic vehicle or platform weapon as an example is if you're working on the margins of your military if you got just enough to kind of do what you think you need to do today, that is not accounting for these surprise events.

Wood: It's not accounting for the Russians developing nuclear cruise missiles or the development of ballistic missile capabilities in Iran, the largest ballistic missile inventory in all of the Middle East. North Korea whose population is at near starvation levels of diet, all the problems they've got, but it's more important to the Kim regime to develop a submarine launched ballistic missile. And their ballistic missile inventory can range the entirety of the United States, and they have miniaturized warheads to the extent where they can mount a nuclear warhead on top of those things.

Wood: So if you've got an okay military and it's old, you got good people in it, but they have old equipment and it's too small for global responsibilities. I mean, nobody's making the case the United States just needs to be a regional power and cede our friends into Pacific to China and cede Europe to Russia's aggression, that kind of stuff. So we picked this word marginal to convey the sense that all is not. And you could tip to weak very easily, not only from your own inattentiveness, but from the actions of others that you can't control. You see what I mean?

Doescher: Yeah. And we did an episode several months ago on the NDAA and went through kind of some of our suggestions as to what Congress really needs to take into consideration for this. And those things are fully displayed in the index here. But I just wanted to ask just off the top of my head, the next question I had after the first marginally able to defend our vital national interest is can we combat a hypersonic missile with a nuclear weapon attached to it?

>>> 2022 Index of U.S. Military Strength

Wood: Yeah. Well, it's a new technology. It's fairly exotic. The idea is you're moving at five or six or eight times the speed of sound. So can you track it? Do you have the space-based systems or the ground radars to be able to track something moving like that? If it can maneuver and the Chinese say, and the American developments of hypersonic. We've done some testing on this stuff, say that they have solved these maneuver problems. So what does maneuver mean?

Wood: And in the world of aircraft and stuff that flies through the air or whatever, the faster you're moving in general, the more distance you need to make that maneuver because you're just moving so, so fast you can't turn on a dime. So with a hypersonic sort of weapon, it's moving closing distance so you don't have as much time to find it. If it can maneuver along the way, then it makes kind of locking and targeting difficult. And it also makes it hard to know exactly what final target is.

Wood: So if you're flying into the U.S. at Mach 5 and you get over California, are you going to Denver? Are you going to Kansas City? Are you going to Dallas? I mean, because any of those options are possible. Now because of the speed once you do settle on a final target, you can't maneuver because you're just moving so fast. So there's this targeting problem in the military world, being able to see it coming at you and then having the ability to notice when it is finally locked on its kind of terminal trajectory, and then in a point defense mode.

Wood: In other words, if Washington, D.C. is important and you ring it with missile systems, well, those missile systems are effective for that single target, but a defense capability in Washington, D.C. doesn't cover Tampa, Florida. You know what I mean?

Doescher: Right. Yeah.

Wood: So it's a lot of math involved, it's the physics, the bodies moving very, very fast. But what it says is if China has the capability, they get into a war with the United States, they can launch a weapon, very difficult to track that's moving extremely fast. And we would have a short amount of time to detect its final target and then hope that you've got a defensive system in place at that target.

Doescher: But I want more than hope.

Wood: Well, but that's where we're at. I mean, that's why it's such a scary sort of thing.

Doescher: General Spoehr when he was in a couple months ago talking about NDAA stuff, he brought up the point that it's not that easy to just go ahead and snap your fingers and you have a modern space force or a modern army. It takes years, decades to develop the technology and then implement it, and put it into use.

Wood: So the Air Force, let's say they have 1,000 frontline fighters, I think 950 or so. Let's just call it 1,000. We think they need 1200 based on historical use, but if they had 1,000 and the average age is 30-years-old, we would want to replace it. Well, right now they're only buying 100 F-35s max. I think it's actually 60 or 70 F-35s each year. So I'm a retired Marine and math is not my strong suit, but if I'm buying 100 airplanes a year, it takes me 10 years to buy 1,000, right?

Doescher: Yeah.

Wood: So I mean, there's a math involved here, math relates to funding. So if I'm the maker of F-35s and you're telling me you're only going to buy 100 a year, then I tune my workforce and my production line to do 100. I'm not going to keep extra workforce or build another factory that I don't have the business to ensure that profitability. So now you tell me, "I want to double my purchase. Here's a magic check. I want to buy 200 a year." How many years do you think it takes to build a new factory or to hire new workers? So with a General Dynamics electric boat, is the lead contractor, makes a ballistic missile submarines.

Wood: So we've got this new submarine come out. It's called the Columbia class. It takes a name from the first boat or the first ship in the class and it's going to replace our aging Ohio class ballistic missile submarines. To make a Columbia class submarine takes six and a half years, one submarine. And I've talked with colleagues that work for that company and they say if you wanted to increase production, I need new welders as an example, specialized metals. This is a boat that needs to be able to survive hundreds and hundreds of feet under the water. So you can't have any flaws or mistakes in that stuff, right?

Doescher: Right.

Wood: It takes them between five and six years to train a new welder to the level of competency where they can do good welds.

Doescher: So we have a rating for every branch of service here and I'm just going to go through them, and I have a simple question at the end of it that it's going to probably be not so simple to answer, but the Army you say is marginal. The Navy is marginal, trending to weak. The Air Force is weak. Space Force is weak. The Marine Corps is strong and nuclear capability is strong to trending marginal.

Doescher: So we rank all these things. I would assume the Department of Defense knows all of this already. I would assume most people in Congress know all of this already. Why put together 600 pages to do this? What are we trying to drive here?

Wood: We are trying to drive an informed public. So major competitors, they have entire vast intelligence services that do watch this and they watch the comings and goings of ships. And how many times a unit from one Air Force base will deploy somewhere else. I mean, they track all this stuff. All the things we put in the index are all open-source. And so if you've got a billion people in China, you think you could probably find 100 or 200 to 10,000 to track this sort of stuff? Where we've got a small team of eight that does this. So this is no surprise to our competitors.

Wood: Members of Congress have different interests. You want to bring jobs home to your district. Maybe you've got some kind of social agenda that you're pushing. If you acknowledge that there are serious problems in the military, then you're almost obligated to put money against that to replace an old tank or a ship. Well, if that's a budget pressure and you would rather use that money to subsidize healthcare or education or whatever, you have these issues in Congress where they're focused on the next election cycle or keeping their constituents happy or what have you.

Wood: These military issues last decades. So it takes six and a half years to build a submarine. Well, are we going to go to war tomorrow? I can't tell you that? Well, how about three year years from now? Well, I can't predict the future either. Oh, well this is a problem that may never happen and so we can defer major decisions to the next election cycle or the next session of Congress. So in fact, those are all true sorts of statements, but the history of the United States shows that about every 15 to 20 years we find ourselves in a war. So unless we think the patterns of human behavior and the contest between states have so changed that we will never be at war ever again. You know what I'm saying?

Doescher: Yeah. No, I'm just sitting here thinking about it and the one word that keeps popping into my head here. And you can I'm sure just go with this is China. China, China, China. I keep thinking about China. I see I kind of sound like presidential. China, China, China, but that's the real stuff here. That's the real thing that is challenging us right now.

Wood: They have more money so they can fund these sorts of things. They operate at a larger scale than anybody else in the world does. So the U.S. Navy is 296 ships. So let's just round it to 300 because Marine math is simple. On a daily basis, you've got about one third of the Navy that's available for you so that's 100 ships. So the United States Navy has 100 ships at sea to cover the entire world. Of those 100, about 60, so about 60% are dedicated to the Indo-Pacific. Now that means everything from San Diego, California, to Hawaii, to Guam, to Japan that, westward-looking sort of capability, 60 ships.

Wood: The Chinese Navy has 350. They also have a Chinese Coast Guard. They've got a maritime militia sort of thing. So if you totaled up all of their boats that have some kind of a weapon that could be used in a military sense, well over 600 and we have 60. So that's a 10:1 ratio. Just before-

Doescher: This is chilling.

Wood: Because China's operating, let's say 300 miles from home, you can cover with land-based assets where a U.S. Navy ship is operating several thousand miles from home. So you've got a divergence and capabilities in relevant military power. So the reason we use China so much as an example is just the enormity of the challenge.

Doescher: Well, we're going to link to it. This is the 2022 Index of U.S. Military Strength. This is Dakota Wood talking with us here. And I got to say, Dakota, this is so eye-opening on an issue. We're focused on a lot of different issues here in DC, but every time this comes up, you guys do such a good job of reminding us what's at stake here. I mean, you heard it, folks. The rise of China is real Iran, North Korea, Russia. It is all there. It is all real.

Doescher: The one thing about this report that I think is a little fishy, and I'm going to call you on this.

Wood: I'm waiting for it.

Doescher: You know exactly what I'm going to say here and it's you rated the Marine Corps, you're a Marine, you rated the Marine Corps strong. What is this, Dakota?

Wood: I got to show up at a Marine Corps ball every once in a while. I don't want them to deny me at the door.

Doescher: I mean, come on now, Dakota.

Wood: Yeah. No, I'll tell you and we are explicit in saying the two reasons for that.

Doescher: By the way, do you wear tennis shoes to a Marine Corps ball? I'm curious.

Wood: I think they'd kneecap you on the way in, but-

Doescher: Go ahead, go ahead. I'm sorry.

Wood: Yeah, no, we're explicit about this is one, we lowered the standard. So the Marine Corps is adamant that they are essentially a one war force. Well, all of our facts and figures for capacity are based on the idea that you would have enough military power to handle more than one problem at a time. So it's not that we envision having two wars going on, but if you only have enough to deal with one major problem, you have to everything to it globally sourced. It means that some other competitor could opportunistically exploit that. You're tied up helping to defend Taiwan and Russia moves into the Baltic states.

Wood: So capacity-wise, we want to have a military that can handle a problem and deter bad behavior and reassure allies in some other part of the world. The Marine Corps says we're never going to get there. So based on history, they would need 36 battalions and all the other stuff that goes with that to do those sorts of things, they have 24. So what we did was we lowered the requirement from 36 to 30 so it gives them a bit of based on this capacity scoring.

Wood: And we also talked about the seriousness with which they are approaching combat readiness, redesigning their forces to deal with a China sort of problem. And we got to give them kudos for that. I mean, doing really, really great things, but at great cost. So to free up the funding to do these important things, they're going to shrink even more. So they're going from 24 to 21 and then they go from 21 to 18.

Doescher: You're just raining on my parade. I was trying to end on like a really high note. The Marine Corps's doing great, the Marines fine. But man, it is a messy, messy challenge here to keep us safe. And Dakota, you are doing an job with that. And I just wanted to just say again, I just love talking with you here at The Heritage Foundation. Thank you for being here this week.

Wood: Appreciate it. Yeah, and we can't close it out acknowledging. They're 20 authors to this thing so this is not a me show. It's 20 authors, dramatic expertise in regions and countries, my colleagues in the Defense Department write on the other services and all that. So it really is a Heritage-wide effort. I mean, I really just want to tout that.

Doescher: I appreciate that, Dakota. And again, thank you so much for being here this episode.

Wood: Great. Thanks.

Doescher: Did you like what you heard today? Yes? Great. No? We'd love to hear why. Go ahead and send us an email at managingeditor@heritage.org or just leave us a comment wherever you listened to the podcast.

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Heritage Explains is brought to you by more than half a million members of The Heritage Foundation. It is produced by Michelle Cordero and Tim Doescher, with editing by John Popp.