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General Says Countering Hypersonic Weapons Is Imperative

Missile threats to the U.S. homeland and allies and partners abroad will only continue to grow, said the commander of U.S. Northern Command and the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

Air Force Gen. Glen D. VanHerck testified yesterday before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces hearing regarding the fiscal year 2024 defense authorization request and the Future Years Defense Program.


Russia and China continued to aggressively pursue and field a number of advanced capabilities, including hypersonic weapons and delivery platforms designed to evade detection across multiple domains and strike targets anywhere on the globe, including North America, he said.

"Hypersonic weapons are extremely difficult to detect and counter given the weapons' speed and maneuverability, low flight paths and unpredictable trajectories," he said.

Hypersonic weapons challenge NORAD's ability to provide threat warning and attack assessments for Canada and the United States, he added.

"I believe the greatest risk for the United States stems from our inability to change at the pace required by the changing strategic environment," he said.

A radar dome sits outside in a snowy environment.
Radar Dome
A radar dome belonging to the Space Force’s 23rd Space Operations Squadron Detachment 1 at Pituffik Space Base in Greenland, April 4, 2023.
Photo By: Space Force Senior Airman Kaitlin Castillo
VIRIN: 230404-X-CN389-1001

Homeland defense must be recognized as essential to contingency plans at home and for power projection abroad, VanHerck said, adding that it's vital that all military planning account for that.

"In an area of incredible innovation and technological achievement, inflexible, outdated processes are a greater impediment to success than many of our competitors' advancements," he said.

Navy Vice Adm. Jon A. Hill, director of the Missile Defense Agency, testified that countering hypersonic weapons is a challenge now and for the future.

To meet the hypersonic defense challenge, the Defense Department has integrated tracking capabilities between existing space-, ground- and sea-based radars, he said. "That capability is here today."

Airmen work on a missile.
Minuteman III
Airmen from the 90th Maintenance Group maintain a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile at Warren Air Force Base, Wyo., Dec. 18, 2019.
Photo By: Air Force Senior Airman Abbigayle Williams
VIRIN: 191218-F-NU907-1233C

Today's sensor architecture and command and control can track hypersonic threats to support warnings and domain awareness. Aegis ships equipped with the sea-based terminal capability can now engage some hypersonic threats in the latter part of the missile's flight path, called the terminal phase.

"Due to the global maneuver capabilities of hypersonic missiles, a space-based tracking and targeting capability is in clear need," Hill said.

The Space Force and the Missile Defense Agency are co-developing hypersonic ballistic tracking from space, he said.

Later this year, hypersonic and ballistic-tracking, space-sensor satellites will demonstrate tracking and targeting to support hypersonic engagements. Those satellites will participate in flight tests and real-world threat collections throughout fiscal year 2024, he said.

A missile launches.
Missile Launch
An Air Force Global Strike Command unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during a test at Vandenberg Space Force Base, Calif., Aug. 15, 2022.
Photo By: Air Force Airman 1st Class Ryan Quijas
VIRIN: 220815-F-HB409-1002C

The agency is working closely with the Navy to upgrade its sea-based terminal defenses to counter more advanced maneuvering and hypersonic threats. "Based on the threat evolution, we will deliver the next SBT incremental upgrade in 2025," Hill said.

"Aegis SBT is the only active defense available today to counter hypersonic missile threats," he added.

In order to expand the battlespace against hypersonic threats, the agency has initiated the Aegis Glide Phase Interceptor program. That program uses proven Aegis weapon system engage-on-remote network sensors to provide the depth of fire needed for terminal defenses, he said.

John F. Plumb, assistant secretary of defense for space policy, and Army Lt. Gen. Daniel L. Karbler, commander of the Army's Space and Missile Defense Command, also testified.

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