Key point: DARPA is at the forefront of the Pentagon’s efforts to get back in the hypersonic delivery vehicle race.
In a speech on the Senate floor on August 14, 1958, then-Senator and aspiring presidential candidate John F. Kennedy proclaimed the existence of a “missile gap” between the United States and Russia. Kennedy went on to warn that unless this gap was immediately addressed, the result would be the erosion of the U.S. strategic forces’ ability to deter the Soviet Union. It later became apparent that the balance in nuclear-capable ballistic missiles decisively favored the United States.
A new “missile gap” is emerging, one that is based in fact. This is the disparity between the United States and its main competitors, Russia and China, in the field of hypersonic weapons systems. A hypersonic vehicle is one that moves through the atmosphere at a minimum speed of five times that of sound, or Mach 5. A hypersonic cruise missile travels continuously through the air employing a special high-powered engine. A hypersonic glide vehicle is launched into space atop a ballistic missile, after which it maneuvers through the upper reaches of the atmosphere until it dives towards its target. Both vehicle types can carry either conventional or nuclear weapons.
Hypersonic weapons systems could dramatically alter the existing balance of conventional military power forces between the United States and its major competitors. They could strike key military targets such as airfields, command and control centers, depots and force concentrations almost without warning. Hypersonic delivery systems are viewed as particularly useful against aircraft carriers, large surface combatants, amphibious warfare ships and even transports carrying critical military supplies.