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'You've got 25 seconds': US Navy vet on intercepting Chinese hypersonic missiles

Veteran says multiple conventional missiles needed to take out one hypersonic missile

Artist's impression of hypersonic glide vehicle. (US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency photo)

Artist's impression of hypersonic glide vehicle. (US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — There is a renewed focus on hypersonic missiles among military strategists after reports Russia recently used the weapons against Ukraine and China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle in August last year.

The extremely narrow time window defenders have to intercept hypersonic missiles is why they are such threatening weapons, according to retired U.S. Navy Captain Carl Schuster. In an audio interview with The Diplomat, Schuster discussed the challenge of intercepting them and described China’s specific models.

Hypersonics are divided into two different types: hypersonic cruise missiles (HCMs), and hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs). HCMs maintain consistent speed and are powered by a rocket throughout their flight, whereas HGVs shoot up on a launcher, detach and then glide through the atmosphere to their target.

“Hypersonic missiles are more difficult to engage because they can move laterally as well as vertically, so you require more than one missile to take one out,” he said, referring to HGVs.

“You have to time your engagement to get it before it enters the dive and the pull-up,” Schuster added, referring to points in the missile’s trajectory. “You have to catch it while it's in stable flight.”

“You’ve got about a 25-second window,” he said. “If you shoot too late, the missile won’t catch up. If you shoot too early, the (hypersonic) missile maneuvers, and once again you miss.”

Schuster said if a hypersonic missile's guidance system is working properly, it should be able to hit within 15 to 25 meters of its target.

Shoot the shooter

“Intercepting arrows is always a huge challenge. It’s almost always easier to take out the archer,” said Schuster.

Schuster described one of China’s anti-ship ballistic missiles, the DF21 missile. He said it releases a warhead that performs a series of “step-ladder type maneuvers” after it has reentered the atmosphere on its way to zeroing in on its target.

“China has been pursuing them aggressively,” Schuster said, referring to hypersonics generally.

The veteran naval officer’s comments come after researchers in China last month claimed to have created an artificial intelligence system that recognizes shock waves in wind tunnel tests used to design hypersonic missiles. The lead researcher on the team said the race to build the incredibly fast missiles is heating up.

The U.S. has recently stepped up efforts to install hypersonic missiles on its own warships and has contracted Raytheon Technologies to assist in building and testing the Glide Phase Interceptor, the first interceptor specifically designed to defeat hypersonic threats. More resources are being spent on technology to track China’s hypersonics too.

Policy experts like Thomas Karako, a senior fellow at Washington D.C.-based think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in November the U.S. needs to deploy space-based sensors to counter the Chinese military’s new missiles.

Eyes in the skies

The next month, the U.S. Space Force awarded Arizona-based GEOST a contract worth US$32 million (NT$883.84 million) for its prototype space-based sensors in an effort to get more eyes "above the skies.”

Yet not everyone in the American defense field is convinced about hypersonics. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, for example, has questioned their relevance to U.S. strategy and whether the expensive technology is worth the money.

“It isn’t obvious that just because China is doing hypersonics, so we should do, immediately, similar hypersonics,” Kendall said on Feb. 15.

Kendall says hypersonics are best for taking out fixed targets. The U.S., whose focus is to counter aggression by actors like Russia and China, typically needs to neutralize the moving targets that Moscow and Beijing could use to invade neighboring countries.