Will Hypersonics Finally Force the Pentagon to Integrate Kinetic and Non-Kinetic Defenses?

By Bob Elder and Howard Thompson

March 25, 2019

If the United States is to have a chance at warding off new hypersonic weapons being tested and fielded by Russia and China, its defensive framework will need to integrate cyber and other emerging “non-kinetic” capabilities. But it appears that industry and Defense Department requirements officials are focusing on creating kinetic interceptors, giving dangerously short shrift to the new capabilities. Nor does recent experience suggest that the Pentagon is integrating these new defenses tightly enough to bring them to bear on these new high-speed weapons.

Certainly, counter-hypersonics have rightfully garnered a sense of urgency within Congress, DoD, and industry. As Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command,  in recent testimony to Congress: “We don’t have any defense that could deny the employment of such a weapon against us.” 

A host of non-kinetic options could potentially be used to great effect against an enemy hypersonic weapon, both before it is even launched and throughout its flight profile. Each should be considered by policymakers for future funding. 

Among them are cyber intrusion attacks, which could be used to disrupt the weapon’s command-and-control networks before launch, or activating self-destruction mechanisms once airborne. A related basket of electronic warfare capabilities could be used for meaconing, intrusion, jamming, or interference — often abbreviated MIJI — to disrupt the weapon’s guidance and control functions and cause it to lose control or stray off course.

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Another promising technology is directed energy. During last week’s Directed Energy Summit in Washington, D.C., Defense Undersecretary for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin highlighted a number of ways in which directed energy could be used against a hypersonic weapon.  Although some years away from deployment, a high-energy laser – which produces a physical effect without employing a warhead or kinetic kill vehicle – could be effective against a hypersonic weapon from launch through its final phase of flight. Lasers mounted on satellites could take multiple shots to damage the incoming missile’s guidance systems and warhead, while ground-based lasers might do the same in the descent phase. A vehicle carrying a high-power microwave device could be employed against the weapon to scramble its electronics on the launch pad or during cruise, while a ground-based system could be used in a point defense role to deny the weapon hitting its intended target.

Finally, sophisticated information operations against key political or military leaders can be used to dissuade them from ordering a launch in the first place, or motivate them to activate the self-destruct system themselves and simply abort the attack if launch occurs. 

None of these non-kinetic options are stand-alone capabilities, and must be fully integrated with a layered, overarching family of systems that provides for initial launch detection of the booster, tracking the hypersonic weapon through its separation from the booster and into its glide phase, and finally a complementary kinetic destruction capability.

Integrating non-kinetic and kinetic capabilities and effects has long been a challenge for the Defense Department. Multiple security and classification level issues have sometimes prevented all options from being simultaneously considered and discussed by decision-makers, thus preventing development of a holistic plan. Also, those entities responsible for the development and use of especially cyber tools routinely maintain the position that “if we use it, they’ll know we have it,” and push back against its use. 

Given the gravity of, and the priority given to, countering this threat, defense against hypersonic weapons should be the challenge that finally forces DoD to resolve the issues that hinder full and complete integration of kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities and effects. In the very near future, the safety and security of our forward-deployed troops, worldwide assets, and in fact, our entire nation will depend on it.

By Bob Elder and Howard Thompson // Air Force Lt. Gen. (ret.) Bob Elder is the Chair of National Defense Industrial Association’s Cyber Augmented Ops Division. He has commanded the 8th Air Force and the Global Strike Component at U.S. Strategic Command. // Air Force Maj. Gen. (ret.) Howard “Dallas” Thompson is the former chief of staff for NORAD/U.S. Northern Command and a former Air Force fighter pilot.

March 25, 2019