Sat, Mar 03, 2018 - Page 7 News List

Hypersonic missile claim highlights US defense gap

NATIONAL PRIORITY:The head of DARPA said that it is working on offensive and defensive technologies, but pointed to China’s advances as a critical, growing threat

AFP, WASHINGTON

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claim to have developed a new generation of missile that is impervious to any Western shield has highlighted a gap in the US’ already imperfect missile defense network.

In a national address on Thursday, Putin described several advances in missile technology, including a hypersonic weapon that can fly at many times the speed of sound and evade existing missile defense systems.

While experts have expressed deep skepticism about how close to operational such a missile might actually be, US officials in recent weeks have sounded growing alarm about the potential threat.

Hypersonic weapons under development by Russia and China — as well as by the US — can beat regular anti-missile defenses as they are designed to switch direction in flight and do not follow a predictable arc like conventional missiles, making them much harder to track and intercept.

US Missile Defense Agency Director of Operations Gary Pennett recently said the potential deployment by the US’ rivals of hypersonic weapons — which could be launched from airplanes, ships or submarines and carry either nuclear or conventional payloads — would create a “significant” gap in US sensor and missile interceptor capabilities.

“The key challenge to US national security and the security of US friends and allies is the emergence of new threats designed to defeat the existing” ballistic missile defense systems, Pennett said.

In its proposed US$9.9 billion budget for next year, the agency has asked for US$120 million to develop hypersonic missile defenses, a big increase from US$75 million in fiscal 2018.

Still, the Pentagon on Thursday brushed off Putin’s boast of developing “invincible” missiles, claiming the US was fully prepared for anything that might come its way.

“We are not surprised by [Putin’s] statement, and the American people should rest assured that we are fully prepared,” Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said Russia has been developing “destabilizing weapon systems” for more than a decade in direct violation of obligations to nonproliferation treaties.

However, despite the Pentagon’s claims, the US is far from capable of stopping all types of missile attack, a fact it has lived with since the Cold War.

While it has had some limited success in developing interceptors capable of stopping one or two missiles from a rogue regime such as North Korea, a barrage of nukes from Russia or anywhere else would be unstoppable and trigger the “mutually assured destruction” of both nations.

Barry Blechman, cofounder of the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan anti-nuclear proliferation think tank in Washington, scoffed at both Putin’s claim to have developed a new hypersonic arsenal and the Pentagon’s rhetoric that it is prepared to meet any threat.

“We don’t have effective defenses, so we are not prepared to deal with an attack,” Blechman told reporters.

However, US officials are increasingly turning attention to trying to improve the Pentagon’s own offensive and defensive hypersonic technologies.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which innovates and develops new war-fighting technologies, is working to improve the US’ own hypersonic missile capabilities.

DARPA Director Steven Walker said it is working on several projects, including two in partnership with the US Air Force, to develop hypersonic engines and prototype weapons.

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