While many military leaders and lawmakers alike are intrigued by the potential uses for hypersonic weapons, key issues must be addressed before these systems can be deployed. In a Feb. 14 white paper, the non-partisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) addressed the perceived benefits and potential drawbacks associated with the concept of the Conventional Prompt Global Strike (CPGS) capability that hypersonic weapons provide.
Armed with conventional warheads, such systems could prove effective in quickly attacking targets during the onset of a conflict, CRS stated. However, adversaries might not be able to ascertain that such weapons are carrying conventional rather than nuclear warheads, the report stated.
Both the Air Force and Navy have moved forward since the 2000s with programs that would deploy conventional weapons on long-range ballistic missiles, CRS stated. The Air Force, in tandem with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), sought to place non-nuclear payloads on long-range ballistic missiles, while the Navy pursued the same track with Trident II missiles launched from its submarines.
The report noted that while Congress declined to fund either program, both services nonetheless continued to work on development of a hypersonic glide vehicle called the Alternate Reentry System.
These weapons likely would be deployed on Navy intermediate-strike missiles from submarines, as part of what is known as the Prompt Strike Mission.
Congress will have to consider the Pentagon’s funding request for the Navy’s Prompt Global Strike Program, which was funded at $278 million in fiscal year 2019 and $512 this year. The new request calls for $1.008 billion in fiscal 2021, with $5.3 billion allocated in ensuing years through 2025.
“This shows the growing priority placed on the program in the Pentagon and the growing interest in Congress in moving the program forward toward deployment,” the CRS report stated.
Congress is likely to approach prompt global strike and the hypersonic mission with questions about the Pentagon’s rationale, according to CRS. Defense Department officials would likely be called upon to explain why these systems should do the job, rather than “rely on forward-based land or naval forces.”
Congressional review also would address critics’ concerns that CPGS and hypersonics “might upset stability and possibly increase the risk of a nuclear response to a U.S. attack,” the report stated. Noting that both China and Russia are working to develop their own hypersonic programs, the report expressed the concern that increased U.S. activity in the field could spur an arms race and foster instability.