Last week Senator James Inofe, a leading member of the Armed Services Committee, testified to the danger of hypersonic weapons from Russia and China. “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.” Defense analysts and US generals concur that America is lacking key defenses against these new technological threats. This sounds scary and should produce some concern and reaction. But some perspective provided by history shows this is little more than fear-mongering to secure more funding.
The new technology is daunting because high-speed and maneuverability make them harder to detect and track. This in turn makes the current US missile defenses ineffective against them. But historically, there is a difference between narrowly focused and highly specialized technologies and broadly focused expensive technologies.
Torpedo boats were incredibly small and cost-effective attempts to negate the advantages of large battleships. The latter had difficulty lowering their large caliber guns to attack torpedo boats and their armor was mainly applied to the upper decks to fight other battleships. Yet by 1914, battleships had made basic, yet important, changes to negate this threat. They added small caliber guns, searchlights, and even had torpedo boat destroyers (now called destroyers) as escorts to fend-off this threat.
In the 1973 Egypt-Israeli War, the anti-tank missile seemed to make the tank obsolete. Just like the battleship, it seemed that an inexpensive and easy-to-use technology would negate a broad and expensive one. Yet, the Israeli tanks were caught by surprise, operating alone and without infantry escort. As soon as these rarities no longer existed, the tanks resumed their role as king of a land-based army.
The new hypersonic missile is just the newest version of a weapon that has been around since World War II. As a result, it isn’t terribly difficult for the US to upgrade or modify existing technology to meet the new threat. The first layer features the combat air patrol, whose fighters would shoot down any platforms that might launch these missiles. The F-35 is particularly impressive at locating and destroying targets from long-range and networking their advanced sensors with other planes to target and engage threats.
Aegis missile systems on specialized warships provide the next layer, followed by the main guns and close-range weapon systems of ships or planes. Both the sensors on Aegis ships and the close-range systems are being upgraded and enhanced. The same week that Senator Inofe testified, the army rushed to implement new missile technology to provide multiple overlapping defenses, including truck-mounted lasers.
In short, the United States is aware of the problem and developing upgraded sensors and missiles that can defend against hypersonic missiles. The new technology should be concerning, but lessons from history show that the US has the broad foundation to adjust and adapt without resorting to fear-mongering.
Exaggerating threats, or shortcomings, instills a sense of urgency for additional investment in arms development, and senators, generals, and policy analysts should know better than to resort to fear-mongering to secure even more funding in an already bloated budget.