Hypersonic Weapons: Appraising the “Third Offset”

Key Points

  • The US military faces a host of challenges and options in an unpredictable security environment. Global disorder has increased while elements of America’s comparative military advantages have eroded.
  • The Pentagon has sought to innovate his way out of these dilemmas, embarking on a “third offset” strategy designed to mitigate the operational challenges facing the US military and its traditional approach to power projection.
  • While hypersonic weapons are technologically and operationally promising, the challenge of diminished Pentagon budgets must be solved to introduce technologies while they are new and at a scale large enough to make a difference on the modern battlefield.

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Executive Summary

As the Trump administration takes over planning and budgeting the Department of Defense, it will face a host of challenges and options in an unpredictable security environment. Global disorder has increased while elements of America’s comparative military advantages have eroded. Moreover, due to the 2011 Budget Control Act and ongoing and expanding military operations, the new occupants of the Pentagon will inherit something of a budgetary “death spiral.” It will be incumbent upon them to address these challenges by shoring up American military superiority against diverse adversaries in multiple regions of the world.

In the past, when faced with similar troubles, the United States sought to offset emerging challenges to its military power by leveraging its technological talent. Such an approach led to President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “New Look” strategy to contain the Soviet Union at the dawn of the Cold War by threatening a nuclear response to conventional aggression against American and allied vital interests. Then, when nuclear parity with the USSR no longer made such a containment strategy credible, the United States sought to offset perceived Soviet and Warsaw Pact quantitative conventional advantages by developing and fielding a new generation of guided munitions and battle networks in what some termed a “revolution in military affairs.”

In the current security environment, Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work has sought to innovate his way out of the Pentagon’s dilemmas, embarking on a “third offset” strategy designed to mitigate the operational challenges facing the US military and its traditional approach to power projection. The growing vulnerability of close-in regional ports and bases to enemy attack; the increasing likelihood of air and naval forces being detected, tracked, and engaged at extended ranges; and the diminishing sanctuary that space has provided overhead assets call for measures to restore confidence in America’s ability to meet its security commitments abroad.

A U.S. Air Force B-52 carries the X-51 Hypersonic Vehicle out to the range for a launch test from Edwards AFB, California. Credit: Reuters

Sustaining this offset strategy in a new administration will provide a challenge all its own. There is no third offset line item in the fiscal year 2017 defense budget, and there are numerous courses of action available to the US military to operate successfully in a world of proliferating precision munitions. The Defense Department intends to place “multiple small bets” in areas that might make a difference, particularly where emerging technology has the opportunity to yield a long-term competitive advantage, such as robotics, artificial intelligence, and missile defense.

This paper conducts a preliminary appraisal of one of those technologies—hypersonic weapons systems—frequently nominated as a “game-changing” capability that might serve as the centerpiece of and a pathway toward a more complex and complete offset strategy. Like the first two countervailing strategies adopted by the United States, the third offset will surely be composed of various technologies and capabilities, integrated and combined into systems of systems. At this early stage, however, it is useful to consider the contributions that hypersonic weapons systems might make in this larger strategy considering the state of the science and the challenges of engineering raw technologies into viable weaponry, as well as whether such weapons could be transitioned onto the modern battlefield in a smooth and timely fashion.

Therefore, to evaluate their potential contributions to the third offset, this paper briefly describes and explains the characteristics and status of hypersonic weapons. A wider description of the array of capabilities having game-changing attributes and third offset potential is well beyond the scope of this paper. Nevertheless, it briefly considers directed-energy and railgun weapons systems to compare and contrast these technologies with hypersonic systems in terms of technical readiness, investment strategies, and plausible applications of these systems by the separate armed services. These weapon systems may not be sufficient by themselves to accomplish a revolutionary change in American military operations, but they indicate whether such changes are possible and perhaps necessary to facilitate a third offset strategy.

Introduction

As a new team takes over force planning and budgeting in the Department of Defense in January 2017, they will face a number of challenges and options in an unpredictable global security environment. If they review the 2015 National Military Strategy, they will be cautioned by the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that global disorder has increased while elements of America’s comparative military advantages have eroded.1 Thus forewarned, the new occupants of the Pentagon’s E-Ring should address that disorder by shoring up American military superiority against diverse adversaries in multiple regions of the world. Moreover, owing to the spending constraints imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act and the need to conduct—and finance—continued and constantly expanding military operations, the Department of Defense remains in something of a budgetary “death spiral.” Regrettably, there is no immediate prospect that this downward spiral will be reversed.

If the new Pentagon team also embraces a historical view, they may take solace from the fact that in similar times of trouble the United States sought to offset emerging challenges to its military power by leveraging its technological talent. Such an approach led to President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s “New Look” strategy to contain the Soviet Union at the dawn of the Cold War by threatening a nuclear response to conventional aggression against American and allied vital interests. When nuclear parity with the USSR no longer made such a containment strategy credible, the United States sought to offset perceived Soviet and Warsaw Pact quantitative conventional advantages by developing and fielding a new generation of guided munitions and battle networks in what some termed a “revolution in military affairs.” As Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work sees it, the heavy conventional forces and tactics of the Iraqi army modeled after those of the USSR were reduced during Operation Desert Storm in 1990 to an array of targets and aim points waiting to be attacked by an unparalleled “reconnaissance-strike complex.”2

Indeed, in the current security environment, Deputy Secretary Work has sought to innovate his way out of the Pentagon’s dilemmas, embarking on a “third offset” strategy designed to mitigate the operational challenges facing the US military and its traditional approach to power projection.3 The growing vulnerability of close-in regional ports and bases to enemy attack; the increasing likelihood of air and naval forces being detected, tracked, and engaged at extended ranges; and the diminishing sanctuary that space has provided overhead assets call for measures to restore confidence in America’s ability to meet its security commitments abroad.

However, sustaining this offset strategy in a new administration will provide a challenge all its own. There is no third offset line item in the fiscal year 2017 defense budget, and there are numerous courses of action available to the US military to operate successfully in a world of proliferating precision munitions. As Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Paul Selva noted recently, the Defense Department intends to place “multiple small bets” in areas that might make a difference, particularly where emerging technology has the opportunity to yield a long-term competitive advantage.4 Many of those promising technologies are in robotics, artificial intelligence, and missile defense. In missile defense, for example, directed-energy weapons and hypervelocity rounds might be capable of defending against layered or “haystack” missile attacks that previous missile defense systems could not counter.

Our purpose here is to conduct a preliminary appraisal of one of those technologies—hypersonic weapons systems—frequently nominated as a “game-changing” capability that might serve as the centerpiece of and a pathway toward a more complex and complete offset strategy. Like the first two countervailing strategies adopted by the United States, the third offset will surely be composed of various technologies and capabilities, integrated and combined into systems of systems. At this early stage, however, it is useful to consider the contributions that hypersonic weapons systems might make in this larger strategy considering the state of the science and the challenges of engineering raw technologies into viable weaponry, as well as whether such weapons could be transitioned onto the modern battlefield in a smooth and timely fashion.

Therefore, to evaluate their potential contributions to the third offset, we briefly describe and explain the characteristics and status of hypersonic weapons. A wider description of the array of capabilities having game-changing attributes and third offset potential is well beyond the scope of this paper. Nevertheless, as we conclude, we briefly consider directed-energy and railgun weapons systems to compare and contrast these technologies with hypersonic systems in terms of technical readiness, investment strategies, and plausible applications of these systems by the separate armed services. These weapon systems may not be sufficient by themselves to accomplish a revolutionary change in American military operations, but they indicate whether such changes are possible and perhaps necessary to facilitate a third offset strategy.

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Notes

  1. US Department of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff, “The National Military Strategy of the United States,” June 2015, http://www.jcs.mil/Portals/36/Documents/Publications/2015_National_Military_Strategy.pdf.
  2. Robert Work, “Mitchell Institute 25 Year Desert Storm Anniversary” (speech, Mitchell Institute, Washington, DC, March 9, 2016), https://www.defense.gov/News/Speeches/Speech-View/Article/691290/mitchell-institute-25-year-desert-storm-anniversary.
  3. Robert Work, “The Third Offset Strategy and Its Implications for Partners and Allies” (speech, Willard Hotel, Washington, DC, January 28, 2015), http://www.defense.gov/News/Speeches/Speech-View/Article/606641/the-third-us-offset-strategy-and-its-implications-for-partners-and-allies.
  4. Brendan Orino, “Six Technologies That the U.S. Military Is Betting On,” Brookings Institution, January 28, 2016, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2016/01/28/six-technologies-that-the-u-s-military-is-betting-on/.

Source: American Enterprise Institute

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