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

Sidharth Kaushal
RUSI Defence Systems, 25 November 2020
Martial Power Programme, Military Sciences, Maritime Forces
The recent announcement that all US Navy Arleigh Burke-class destroyers will carry hypersonic weapons for conventional prompt strike missions raises important questions regarding both the CONOPS guiding conventional prompt strike and the specific value of hypersonics for this mission set

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.

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Dr Sidharth Kaushal
Research Fellow, Sea Power

Sidharth Kaushal's research at RUSI covers the impact of technology on maritime doctrine in the 21st century and the role of sea... read more

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