Should America Buy 2,000 Hypersonic Missiles Instead of Another Carrier?

David Axe

Key point: If carriers are too expensive and vulnerable, perhaps a lot of long-range missiles would be more useful in a war.

The U.S. military should consider buying a huge arsenal of long-range, hypersonic missiles instead of trying to maintain a large fleet of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.

That’s one idea that Mike Griffin, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering,  proposed at a Washington, D.C. conference in September 2019.

“Let’s just propose a thought experiment,” Griffin said, according to Defense News. “Which do you think the Chinese leadership would fear more: 2,000 conventional strike missiles possessed by the United States and its allies in the western Pacific capable of ranging Chinese targets, or one new carrier? Because those two things cost about the same amount of money. Those are the kinds of questions we need to be asking ourselves.”

The Chinese military is moving quickly to field hypersonic missiles, outpacing the Pentagon’s own efforts to deploy similar munitions.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy is struggling to pay for the ships it says it needs in order to grow from a front-line fleet of around 290 ships today to one with more than 350 ships, including at least 11 large aircraft carriers.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army on Oct. 1, 2019 revealed a new hypersonic missile that could pose a major threat to U.S. forces in the Pacific region.

The DF-17 hypersonic glide vehicle, or HGV, made its public debut as part of the PLA’s sprawling, 15,000-person military parade in Beijing commemorating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

While other countries also are working on hypersonic weapons -- meaning powered or gliding precision-guided munitions that can travel faster than five times the speed of sound --  the DF-17 apparently is the first or second hypersonic glide vehicle in the regular inventory of any military. Russia claimed it also would deploy an HGV in 2019.

The 16 DF-17s that featured in the parade all were atop what appeared to be DF-16 medium-range ballistic missiles. In actual use, the DF-16 would boost the DF-17 to Mach five or faster, at which point the DF-17 would separate from the booster and angle toward its target, maneuvering to correct its course or evade enemy defenses.

It’s unclear whether the DF-17 carries a warhead. “It is likely that the DF-17 is configured as a conventional munition with its destructive effect derived from the kinetic energy of the HGV,” commented Andrew Tate, an expert with Jane’s.

With a range of potentially a thousand miles or more, the DF-17 could threaten U.S. forces and their allies across the Western Pacific.

Meanwhile, the United States is just beginning to acquire its first battery of HGVs. The Pentagon in late 2018 awarded Dynetics and Lockheed Martin contracts worth a combined $700 million to build 20 “common” hypersonic vehicles, fit eight with guidance systems and install them on four launchers. The U.S. Army could form its first HGV-launching unit as early as 2023.

The U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force also plan to deploy versions of the same common HGV. The Navy’s would launch vertically from submarines in the same way that subsonic Tomahawk cruise missiles do today.

The Air Force could equip its heavy bombers with the weapons. The flying branch recently proposed its B-1 bombers as launch platforms for hypersonic missiles -- this despite the B-1 fleet’s lingering reliability problems.

In rushing to be first, China could end up fielding an unreliable weapon, one U.S. official has claimed. In July 2018, Griffin asserted that despite rivals’ progress the United States remained the world leader in hypersonic-weapons research.

Griffin at the 2019 conference implied that buying 2,000 hypersonic missiles instead of one Ford-class supercarrier, which costs around $13 billion, would better equip U.S. forces for war with China than would one more flattop.

"Our carrier fleet, our Navy fleet, our space assets are determinative,” Griffin said. “And were we to cede these things or to fail to continue to support them, we would be ceding ground to our adversaries that we cannot afford to do.”

“But our adversaries know and understand these assets and they are developing, have developed, countermeasures,” Griffin added. “So while we can’t give up on those things, we have to look to the future.”

Griffin’s proposal came around the same time the Congressional Budget Office discovered a potentially $200-billion cap in the Navy’s shipbuilding plans. The Navy would have to spend around $7 billion per year for 30 years on top of existing projected budgets in order to grow the front-line fleet to 355 ships, the CBO determined.

David Axe serves as Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels  War FixWar Is Boring and Machete Squad. This first appeared in October 2019.

Image: DVIDShub.

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