Shortfalls of defensive hypersonic weapons must be addressed, NORAD general says

Hypersonic weapons are changing the nature of warfare and the insular security that North America has enjoyed for centuries, the leader tasked with defending the homeland said today.

Air Force Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command, discussed hypersonic weapons from Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., speaking remotely to the Hypersonics Weapons Summit in Washington.

Russia and China continue to pursue hypersonic technology with national investments, holding the homeland at risk, he said. For instance, the Russian Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle, which can carry a nuclear or conventional payload, is now operational.

Air Force Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command, discusses hypersonics weapons from Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., Oct. 29, 2020. He spoke remotely to the Hypersonics Weapons Summit in Washington. (DOD screenshot)

Defenses against hypersonic weapons have not kept pace with offensive capability advancements, he said. Adversaries’ hypersonic weapons with independent maneuvering capability challenge the Defense Department’s legacy early warning systems.

The nuclear triad remains the bedrock of the nation’s defense, VanHerck said. “However, we have to move beyond thinking about deterrence by punishment for homeland defense and start thinking about deterrence by denial,” he said.

An attack on the homeland below the nuclear threshold limits U.S. options. That’s why conventional deterrence is also vitally important, he said.

Defense from hypersonics doesn’t require new technology, he said. It can be done with the technology at hand.

A B-52H Stratofortress assigned to the 419th Flight Test Squadron takes off from Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., Aug. 8, 2020. The aircraft conducted a captive-carry flight test of the AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon Instrumented Measurement Vehicle 2 hypersonic prototype at the Point Mugu Sea Range off the Southern California coast. (Air Force photograph by Matt Williams)

An effective defense must include pre-launch awareness, as well as an effective tracking of all stages from launch to impact, he said.

However, “the closer we let the adversary get to launch, the smaller our decision space gets, and our options to respond diminish. Defeat mechanisms should be our last resort. If we have to deploy them, then we’re already in a jam,” he said.

VanHerck said all-domain awareness includes deploying over-the-horizon radars and sensors from subsurface, surface, airborne and space, as well as an effective communications, command and control network, powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning.

The department is going in the right direction with these efforts, he said. For instance, the Missile Defense Agency and the Space Force are working to field a space-based hypersonic tracking system and satellites used for missile tracking.

Hypothetical hypersonic illustration. (NASA photograph)

These efforts must not only continue, but they must accelerate, he emphasized.

Also, global plans are needed since adversaries don’t operate with respect to combatant command areas of responsibility. It has to be a coordinated effort across combatant commands and in conjunction with allies, partners and industry, he added.

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