The Cable

Pentagon Official Says U.S. Hypersonic Weapons Research Underfunded

Amid reports of a new Russian missile, DARPA's chief says the United States lacks infrastructure.

The X-43A hypersonic research aircraft is launched from the B-52B launch aircraft. ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images
The X-43A hypersonic research aircraft is launched from the B-52B launch aircraft. ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

The same day that Russian President Vladimir Putin touted new weapons that can travel at more than several times the speed of sound, a senior Pentagon official told reporters that the United States is underfunding its own research base for similar work.

Putin claimed in a lengthy address on Thursday that his country’s military forces have made rapid advances in hypersonic missile technology. According to translations of his remarks published by the Russian news service Tass, Russia’s hypersonic complex called Kinzhal in southern Russia has “started carrying out its experimental and combat duty missions” and Russian forces “are actively developing hypersonic weapons,” like other scientifically advanced countries.

“I’m not going to confirm or deny President Putin’s statement,” Steven Walker, the director of the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency told reporters Thursday at a breakfast talk.

Yet Walker went on to say that he felt the U.S. military’s own hypersonics research was underfunded.

Asked if the United States is spending enough on its infrastructure to help develop hypersonic weapons, Walker replied, “I would say no.”

The Donald Trump administration’s recently proposed fiscal 2019 budget request increased funding for hypersonics research, though it is spread across several services and agencies to include DARPA, NASA, and the Missile Defense Agency. But Walker said some areas are still underfunded, particularly the facilities needed to test hypersonic vehicles.

“The dollars that were allocated in this budget were great, but they were really focused on adding more flight tests and getting some of our offensive abilities further down the line into operational prototypes,” he said. “We do need an infusion of dollars in our infrastructure to do hypersonics.”

In recent years, military experts have pointed to Russia’s and China’s work on hypersonics to argue for more U.S. funding for the work. Walker said China, in particular, has invested in hypersonics research at an alarming rate.

“You look at number of facilities they’ve built to do hypersonics,” he said. “It surpasses the number we have in this country, and is quickly surpassing it by two- or three-x.”

China is making hypersonics a “national priority,” Walker said. “I think we need to do the same.”

Last year, DARPA briefed then-Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work about hypersonics, Walker said. At the meeting, DARPA tried to persuade the Pentagon’s leadership to start a national initiative in hypersonics. “We did push for a very comprehensive initiative in the budget process,” he said.

That didn’t happen, however.

“We did receive a budget increase for more hypersonics,” he said. “I don’t think we got everything we wanted, but it’s a good first step.”

Hypersonic vehicles, whether missiles or aircraft, are designed to travel at many times the speed of sound. In theory, such weapons could strike anywhere in the world in less than an hour. To date, however, such weapons are still only in the testing and development phase.

DARPA’s own history with hypersonics has been mixed. In the 1980s, the agency started work on a classified concept known as Copper Canyon, a notional space vehicle that would take off and land like an airplane. It eventually grew into the National Aero-Space Plane, which was touted by then-President Ronald Reagan as “a new Orient Express that could, by the end of the next decade, take off from Dulles Airport, accelerate up to 25 times the speed of sound, attaining low earth orbit or flying to Tokyo within two hours.”

The space plane was an expensive flop that was never built, though aerospace engineers who work on hypersonics credit it with advancing research in the area.

Since then, DARPA and the Pentagon have pursued other programs with varying degrees of success. About seven years ago, DARPA attempted to build and fly a hypersonic glide weapon, but canceled the program after two failed flight tests.

More fruitfully, DARPA and the Air Force tested a Boeing-built hypersonic vehicle called the X-51 Waverider, which completed a series of tests, though it was never designed to be an operational weapon.

DARPA now is involved in several projects related to hypersonics.

Some 10 years ago, Walker, then a program manager at DARPA, was in charge of a short-lived hypersonics aircraft program called Blackswift. Congress, which was critical of DARPA’s approach to pushing an overly aggressive plan, ended funding for it.

There are no immediate plans to revive the idea of a hypersonic aircraft, Walker confirmed, though he said DARPA is working with the Air Force on the Advanced Full Range Engine, which is designed to power a vehicle at speeds of more than Mach 5

“It’s the engine I would have used in Blackswift,” said Walker, who added that, if the project were successful, he would work to revive that hypersonic aircraft program.

“I think we want to see how the engine performs,” he said. “If I have anything to do with it, we will have a program.”

Foreign Policy staff writer Elias Groll contributed to this article.

Sharon Weinberger is the executive editor for news at Foreign Policy. @weinbergersa

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