Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) appeared supportive of more Defense Department investment in defensive hypersonic capabilities during a recent hearing, citing Russia and China’s successful development of the weapons as a prime motivation.
Lawmakers used a Feb. 13 posture hearing to question the commanders of U.S. Strategic Command and U.S. Northern Command on the level of hypersonic investment included in the fiscal year 2021 presidential budget request, released Feb. 10.
The budget request included $3.2 billion for hypersonic activities spread across the services, a 23 percent increase over the FY ’20 enacted budget amount, said Elaine McCusker, acting undersecretary of defense and comptroller in a Monday Pentagon press briefing.
Vice Adm. Ron Boxall, director of force structure, resources and assessments on the Joint Staff, said in the briefing that the request doubles the investment in hypersonic defense capabilities over the previous fiscal year, and includes funding for a hypersonic and ballistic tracking space sensor, hypersonic glide vehicle prototype development and increased capability and capacity of existing interceptors.
Adm. Charles Richard, U.S. Strategic Command commander, told lawmakers at the Thursday hearing that he is “very pleased” with the funding request for FY ’21. “It’s in line with the National Defense Strategy,” he said in response to a line of questioning from Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.).
Air Force Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, who commands U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), highlighted the need to invest in space sensor missile warning layers as a hypersonic defensive capability.
“As we go from a ballistic missile to a hypersonic glide vehicle … it really changes the problem of maintaining custody of that weapon system throughout its entire flight,” O’ Shaughnessy said. “I strongly endorse continued investment there.”
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) stated his support for additional hypersonic defensive capability investment in the budget.
“I hope that that 23 percent budget increase goes toward defense,” he said, adding, “We’re behind. Russia and China are fielding hypersonic missiles now.’
King asked Richard whether a hypersonic missile could be “nuclearized,” and Richard confirmed that it could. He emphasized that it was not the Defense Department’s “policy or intent right now” to place a nuclear warhead on a hypersonic body, but that “other nations can choose to do what they wish in that area.”
Richard compared the current geopolitical situation surrounding hypersonic weapons to the introduction of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) back in the early 1906s, and confirmed the DoD is ready to address the issue.
“Clearly, we need to think about hypersonics in terms of the [nuclear] triad,” King said.
Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) asked the two commanders for their assessment on the hypersonic workforce and facility capacity. One of the U.S. military’s main hypersonic testing facilities, Arnold Engineering Development Complex, is located in Tennessee.
“Where are we on the sufficiency of our facilities?” she asked.
Richard said that individual services are working hard on ensuring hypersonic test centers have the resources they need, and on developing an industrial base that can create the hypersonic weapons themselves.
“I have been very pleased in the efforts particularly by the services to reach out, attract, develop this industrial base,” he said.