Overhyped Hypersonics? Examining the US Navy’s Prompt Strike Ambitions

If the US Navy does field missiles equipped with hypersonic boost glide vehicles on all of its destroyers as well as its Virginia-class submarines, this would entail a strike capacity of several hundred missiles. While there are important questions regarding the costs of modifying vessels such as the Arleigh Burke to hold these missiles, this article addresses a different question – what would be the value of doing so?In theory, missiles equipped with hypersonic boost glide vehicles represent a potent tool. They can fly at speeds of well over Mach 5 on a non-parabolic trajectory. This makes intercepting them more challenging than intercepting traditional ballistic threats. They also represent a step change in the accuracy of conventionally armed missiles, with a reported circular error probable (CEP) of less than a metre.Nevertheless, important questions remain as to the operational utility of the conventional prompt strike mission and whether hypersonics are the optimal tool to deliver it. In a conflict with a peer competitor, the author assumes that the primary role of conventional prompt strike assets would be degrading the systems which collectively form the anti-access area denial (A2/AD) networks by which US adversaries intend to hold America’s naval and air forces at arm’s length. While the use of fast, difficult to intercept missiles to responsively strike relocatable targets such as Transporter Erector Launchers (TELS) and radars makes intuitive sense, a more granular analysis yields a different picture.

During the 1991 Gulf War, finding launchers rather than the speed of subsequent engagements was the critical weakness of counter TEL operations. In 1991, over 1,400 sorties against Iraqi Scud launchers did not yield a confirmed kill. Moreover, of the 42 instances in which a launcher was identified, only eight yielded the certainty needed to authorise a weapons release. In other words, it was not the speed at which a projectile could be delivered against a TEL which was the

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Dr Sidharth Kaushal

Research Fellow, Sea Power

Military Sciences

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