US in a hypersonic hustle to catch China, Russia

The US aims to arm its warships with hypersonic ship-killing missiles, a move that seeks to catch up with China and Russia while scrambling to land on an ideal naval launch platform for the weapons.

This month, The War Zone reported that the US Navy is advancing its maritime strike capabilities through the Hypersonic Air-Launched Offensive Anti-Surface Warfare (HALO) program, which aims to equip surface and subsurface fleets with air-launched hypersonic anti-ship cruise missiles.

The initiative, highlighted in a recent contracting announcement, is part of the Navy’s broader Offensive Anti-Surface Warfare (OASuW) Increment project. The War Zone report notes that, in March 2023, the US Navy awarded contracts to defense contractors Raytheon and Lockheed Martin for competing missile designs believed to be powered by advanced ramjet or scramjet engines.

The HALO program, set for a flight demonstration in fiscal year 2027, seeks to enhance the US Navy’s ability to tackle advanced naval threats in contested environments, particularly in the Pacific, against China.

The HALO program also promises acquisition and sustainment benefits through economies of scale and common supply chains for air, surface and subsurface launch platforms, the War Zone report says.

The US Navy aims to field air-launched HALO missiles by 2029, with a potential expansion to surface- and subsurface-launched configurations. This development reflects the Navy’s response to similar advancements by near-peer rivals China and Russia.

It also aligns with the US military’s broader interest in hypersonic technology, as seen in the Air Force’s Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile (HACM). Still, the US may face a hypersonic firepower gap vis-à-vis China and Russia, both of which have already tested and used ship-launched hypersonic weapons in combat.

In its Fiscal 2025 Budget Request, the US Navy describes OASuW/HALO as an “offensive weapon system that is a vital component of the Joint Force Anti-Surface Warfare capability and incorporates new and emergent technologies to support an increased offensive strike capability utilizing multiple weapons.”

It says the program will “provide the Navy with a necessary weapon to address evolving long-range, high-speed threats from near-peer competitors.”

Notably, China has already fielded the YJ-21 hypersonic anti-ship missile, performing a test launch from a Type 055 cruiser in April 2023. The YJ-21 is reportedly capable of flying at six times the speed of sound, with a terminal speed ten times faster than sound, making it nearly impossible to intercept if the assertions are correct.

China’s YJ-21 hypersonic missile in a test launch. Image: Video Screengrab

Meanwhile, Russia has reportedly used its Zircon hypersonic missile in the ongoing Ukraine war. Analysis of missile fragments by the Kiev Scientific Research Institute for Forensic Examinations (KNDISE) from a Russian missile attack in February claimed that Zircon missile parts were uncovered.

Russia’s Zircon missile has a 1,000-kilometer range and travels at nine times the speed of sound. It was test-fired from two warships, the Admiral Gorshkov frigate and the Severodvinsk submarine, before being used to arm the frigate in January 2023.

In January 2024, Asia Times noted that the US Navy still relies on high subsonic speed missiles such as the Harpoon, Naval Strike Missile (NSM) and Tomahawk, which puts the US at a disadvantage vis-à-vis its hypersonic-armed adversaries.

The Harpoon first entered service in 1977 and has been continuously upgraded throughout its service life but it may already have maxed out its potential.

While the NSM has an infrared seeker that allows it to home on specific parts of a ship and increase its resistance to electronic countermeasures, its light 100-kilogram programmable-fused warhead does not have the punch of the Harpoon’s 207-kilogram time-delayed contact-fused warhead. The NSM’s 200-kilometer range is also shorter than the Harpoon Extended Range’s (Harpoon-ER) 248 kilometers.

Although the Tomahawk carries a massive 454-kilogram warhead and has a 1,250-2,500-kilometer range, depending on the variant, its subsonic speed and non-stealth design may make it vulnerable to sophisticated air defenses.

The US Navy adds that the OASuW program is “part of its Long Range Fires (LRF) approach to address advanced threat capabilities in the Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2AD) environment.”

It describes HALO as a “carrier-suitable, higher-speed, longer-range, air-launched weapon system providing superior Anti-Surface Warfare (ASW) capabilities.”

While China and Russia have built warships capable of firing hypersonic missiles, the US may still be struggling to find an ideal platform as it tries to repurpose its controversial Zumwalt-class destroyers and invests in the next-generation DDG(X), which has faced a slew of development phase issues.

In December 2023, Defense News reported that Russia launched the Project 22350 Admiral Golovko frigate, its first ship designed to launch hypersonic missiles like the Zircon. Defense News reports Russia plans to build 12 upgraded variants under its Project 22350M.

The same report says the ships will likely use a universal launcher for Kalibr, Oniks and Zircon missiles. Given the high cost of Zircon missiles, the other two projectiles will likely form the core of the ship’s anti-ship armament.

Producing Project 22350M frigates will be a piece-by-piece affair. Severnaya Verf, the warships’ builder, lacks facilities, modernization and equipment. Defense News also points out that Western sanctions imposed over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have made high-quality components for radars and diesel engines difficult or impossible to obtain.

Russia's 3M22 Zircon anti-ship hypersonic missile. Screen grab: Military Technology Zone/ YouTube
Russia’s 3M22 Zircon anti-ship hypersonic missile. Image: Military Technology Zone / YouTube Screengrab

Asia Times noted in March 2022 that the US Navy is converting its troubled Zumwalt-class destroyers into hypersonic missile launchers, transforming the futuristic vessels into blue-water strike platforms from their original purpose as stealthy shore bombardment ships.

But that project may be an effort to save what was originally an unfeasible design. The Zumwalt’s tumblehome stealth hull may become unstable on high seas and can be detected with low-frequency radar.

Also, the class has no close-in weapons systems (CIWS) installed, potentially making it vulnerable to air and missile attacks. The steep $4.24 billion price per ship for just three ships suggests there may not be sufficient Zumwalt destroyers to meet the US Navy’s operational needs.

While the upcoming DDG(X) aims to solve the shortcomings of the Zumwalt class, Shepard Media reports this month that the DDG(X) may face cancellation due to excessive costs, an availability crisis with the US submarine fleet and problems with the US shipbuilding base.

The Shepard Media report notes that the DDG(X) can cost $3.2 billion to $3.5 billion per ship compared to the $2.2 billion for an Arleigh Burke destroyer, making it unfeasible for the former to replace the latter class fully.

It also says the US Navy prioritizes submarine construction, noting the vulnerability of large surface ships in a potential high-intensity fight with China. The Shepard Media report also points out the difference between the DDG(X)’s design features and the US Navy’s priorities.

While the DDG(X) features 96 vertical launch systems (VLS) for larger, longer-range and possibly hypersonic missiles, the US Navy’s emphasis on submarines and unmanned systems perhaps makes a hypersonic-missile-firing DDG(X) a possible misfit for its future force structures.

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