The U.S.’s largest defense corporations can breathe a sigh of relief: President Joe Biden’s first budget proposal not only continues his predecessor’s commitment to hypersonic weapons, but it’s also seeking a major increase in government spending. While the Pentagon has yet to clarify the strategic value of weapons that can travel at least five times the speed of sound to destroy their targets, the new administration is looking to pour billions of dollars into various projects that risk accelerating an arms race.
President Donald Trump’s final defense budget, for fiscal year 2021, had requested a total of $3.2 billion for all hypersonics-related research; the Biden administration’s fiscal year 2022 budget, released last month, is requesting $3.8 billion, nearly a 20 percent increase. In the months ahead, Congress will have to decide whether it’s willing to appropriate so much funding in the annual defense spending bill. Last year, the House Appropriations defense subcommittee criticized the Air Force’s budget planning of its hypersonics research portfolio, resulting in the surprise cancellation of one of the two prototypes.
Lawmakers may be especially wary of the White House’s proposal to give the Air Force (and its industry partners) $200 million to start developing a new prototype, adding on to at least six different weapons the Defense Department is already building. The new program is likely to cost hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars into the future, though the exact anticipated amount over the next five years is unclear because the new budget doesn’t include the usual funding forecast.
And while proponents boast that hypersonic weapons’ incredibly high speed ensures that they can quickly reach their targets and evade detection and interception by enemy defense systems, not everyone is so sure. Cameron Tracy, an engineering and arms control expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists, argued in a recent research paper published in Science & Global Security that the unique value of hypersonic weapons compared to existing military capabilities has been exaggerated. Using public data from a 2010 experimental Air Force boost-glide vehicle (one of two kinds of hypersonic systems), Tracy found that these weapons are in fact slower than ballistic missiles traveling intercontinental distances and are vulnerable to detection by space-based sensors. They are able to potentially maneuver past interceptors in ways ballistic missiles cannot, but this modest benefit, he concluded, does not match the claims of game-changing capability that defense officials and contractors often make.
Following the paper in Science & Global Security, Pentagon officials countered in Breaking Defense that hypersonic weapons have matured further since the 2010 experiment (though the most recent data is classified, preventing a public debate about their utility). Further, while Russia and China are developing hypersonic weapons for intercontinental targeting, the military would deploy them much closer to intended targets, and their ultrahigh speed at such a shorter range is unmatched by existing missiles, the officials argued. The ability to unleash hypersonic weapons within such proximity to targets, though, not only may indicate that the Defense Department has much more advanced technology than Russia and China but could also accelerate an arms race, according to a Congressional Research Service report released this month.
“Numerous questions about the weapons remain.”
In other words, the public campaign for hypersonic weapons doesn’t necessarily hold water, especially in the absence of a clear strategic vision for them that articulates why their value outweighs the risk to global stability. Moreover, any potential benefit does not appear to justify spending more than 3 percent of the Pentagon’s total proposed fiscal year 2022 research and development budget of $112 billion on hypersonics alone and making so many different prototypes across the military services, Tracy told The Intercept in a recent interview.
Tracy has not been alone in criticizing the department’s pursuit of hypersonic weapons, which began when the President George W. Bush-era Defense Department called for a “prompt global strike” capability in 2003. “Numerous questions about the weapons remain, such as how the Pentagon plans to use them, their cost-effectiveness, and still underexplored crisis instability risks,” said Kingston Reif, the Arms Control Association’s disarmament expert. “These unanswered questions deserve a more critical examination by the Biden administration and Congress than has been undertaken to date.”
Despite any “unanswered questions,” it’s clear that the White House is betting big on hypersonics in the year ahead.
Until now, the Defense Department’s spending on hypersonics has been to study and test the technology, but for the first time under Biden, the government will also look to buy systems. The $3.8 billion that the new budget is seeking for hypersonics includes $160 million to purchase the Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon from Lockheed Martin and get it into the hands of warfighters. (Never mind that the ARRW has yet to complete a successful flight test, failing to launch from a B-52 bomber during a demonstration in April after several delays.)
“We’ve got strong commitment in the new administration for our strategy and moving forward to really rapidly mature and deliver hypersonic-based capabilities,” Mike White, the Defense Department’s hypersonics research director, said during a June 1 event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, for which Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks formerly directed the international security program. Many defense corporations, including Lockheed, provide funding to the think tank.
White argued that the stakes are high for the Pentagon to deploy hypersonic weapons quickly, as other countries are aggressively pursuing them, creating a potential asymmetry in missile capability. Russia has notably built the nuclear-armed Avangard intercontinental hypersonic weapon, and China is developing a similar system (though the Defense Department is not looking to put nukes on hypersonic vehicles).
The White House’s massive $3.8 billion proposal for hypersonics research isn’t all too surprising, then, given these rival nations’ interest in the weapons, as well as the exorbitant sums of money spent by the defense industry to boost the new tech in government spheres.
Lockheed Martin spent about $13 million on lobbying in 2020.
Lockheed Martin, which chief financial officer Kenneth Possenriede told investors in April is slated to make about $1.5 billion in hypersonics-related sales this year, spent about $13 million on lobbying in 2020. Its employees’ political action committee also made hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to candidates, political committees, and other organizations last year.
Raytheon, which is competing with Lockheed to design the Pentagon’s Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept, spent nearly $12 million in 2020. Northrop Grumman, Raytheon’s teammate on the prototype, spent even more than that. Among other key suppliers, Aerojet Rocketdyne spent nearly $1.5 million, and Kratos more than $400,000.
Universities, hoping to win government funding for research into the unique subcomponent technology that make hypersonic flight possible, like thermal management systems, have cashed in on lobbying too. Texas A&M, the University of Illinois, the University of Tennessee, and Ohio State University are just a few examples.
The scientific community’s strong interest in hypersonics prompted James Acton, a physicist and nuclear policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, to write in 2018: “The development of hypersonic weapons in the United States, in my opinion, has been largely motivated by technology, not by strategy. In other words, technologists have decided to try and develop hypersonic weapons because it seems like they should be useful for something, not because there is a clearly defined mission need for them to fulfill.”