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US Navy to install hypersonic missiles on attack submarines


The US Navy will be equipping its attack submarines and all of its destroyers with hypersonic missiles in a bid to stave off the mounting threat posed by China in the Pacific, Trump’s top national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, said Wednesday. 

The service will first be installing the weapons on its Virginia-class attack submarines, then on its new Zumwalt-class destroyers, before finally mounting the missiles on all three tiers of its Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, according to Defense News.

Speaking at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard earlier today, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said: ‘The Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike program will provide hypersonic missile capability to hold targets at risk from longer ranges.’

In total, more than 60 destroyers will be outfitted with the hypersonic weapons, which are capable of travelling at more than five times the speed of sound. 

The move – which would provide a massive expansion to the Navy’s offensive arsenal and give the American military crucial new long-range capabilities – is seen as vital step the US’ challenge to keep China at arms length in the disputed Indo-Pacific region. 

Investment in the technology has also been deemed a priority by the Department of Defense. Rivals Russia and China have both made huge investments in the field, with Moscow claiming it already has hypersonic systems that are capable of defeating any US anti-missile technology in existence today.

The US Navy will be equipping its attack submarines and all of its destroyers with hypersonic missiles in a bid to stave off the mounting threat of China in the Indo-Pacific region (a missile test is pictured aboard the Navy's new Zumwalt-class destroyer)

The US Navy will be equipping its attack submarines and all of its destroyers with hypersonic missiles in a bid to stave off the mounting threat of China in the Indo-Pacific region (a missile test is pictured aboard the Navy’s new Zumwalt-class destroyer)

The service will first be installing the weapons on its Virginia-class attack submarines, then on its new Zumwalt-class destroyers,

Before finally mounting the missiles on all three tiers of its Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, according to Defense News

The service will first be installing the weapons on its Virginia-class attack submarines (left), then on its new Zumwalt-class destroyers, before finally mounting the missiles on all three tiers of its Arleigh Burke-class destroyers (right)

Earlier this year, US defense sources warned that without serious reform and investment into its naval fleet, the US would lose a war with China in Indo-Pacific region and would be unable to defend Taiwan from an invasion.

The stark warning came amid rising tensions between the two nations after President Trump blasted China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and repeatedly suggested the nation lied about the extent of its crisis. 

US defense sources told The Times that one Pentagon simulation based on the year 2030 when China would have new attack submarines, aircraft carriers and destroyers resulted in the US being overwhelmed by the nation’s force.

A threat is more immediate than 2030, however, with every US base in the Indo-Pacific Command region considered to be vulnerable to any kind of attack after China recently ramped up its supply of medium-range ballistic missiles.

The US island territory Guam, home to three US military bases, was cited as a particularly susceptible target.

‘China has long-range anti-ship ballistic missiles and hypersonic [more than five times the speed of sound] missiles,’ one US defense source told The Times.

Analysis from US experts on China have issued similar warnings.

Bonnie Glaser, director of the China power project at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and a consultant for the US government on east Asia, told The Times that Taiwan is the ‘most volatile issue’ between the two nations and fears tensions could erupt in a nuclear war.

WHAT ARE HYPERSONIC MISSILES AND HOW DO THEY WORK?

Aircraft and missiles are said to be hypersonic once they exceed speeds of Mach 5 and above, or five times the speed of sound.

This occurs at 1,715 metres per second (3,836mph / 6,174kmh).

The latest class of hypersonic missiles would be smaller, guided and designed to carry conventional explosives for time-sensitive, rapid response in theatre operations. 

There are two kinds of approaches to solving the hypersonic challenge in missiles: ‘scramjet’ and ‘boost glide.’ 

The air-breathing scramjet relies on high speed for its power.

As it accelerates, more air and fuel is pushed into the engine, allowing it to accelerate even more – to hypersonic speeds.

The boost glide model rides a reentry vehicle to extremely high altitudes, where it skips across the Earth’s upper atmosphere.

Traditional ballistic missiles already travel at hypersonic speeds.

Built to carry nuclear and conventional warheads, these weapons are capable of reaching outer space in the course of their flights, but they can’t manoeuvre.

The US island territory Guam, home to three US military bases, is a particular concern to US defense officials, sources said

President Xi Jinping (right) and President Trump (left) in 2017. Tensions between the US and China - and the two leaders - have escalated in recent months as the coronavirus pandemic has ravaged the globe

President Xi Jinping (right) and President Trump (left) in 2017. Tensions between the US and China – and the two leaders – have escalated in recent months as the coronavirus pandemic has ravaged the globe

China has taken advantage of the world’s struggle with Covid-19 to mount a disturbing display of military firepower and push its claims to land in the South China Sea

China has taken advantage of the world’s struggle with Covid-19 to mount a disturbing display of military firepower and push its claims to land in the South China Sea

Taiwan has increasingly found itself caught in the middle of the political games between the two superpowers.

The Communist Party in China claims Taiwan as its own territory, but it does not have sovereign control there.

Beijing military activities have been increasing in the South and East China Seas for months, including harassing carriers and constructing military outposts on artificial islands it has built in the disputed waters.

Meanwhile, the US has also increased its military presence in the seas and antagonized China by increasing its ties with Taiwan through boosting arms sales to the country.

In addition to its new hypersonic missile drive, more long-range, ground-launched cruise missiles have been delivered to the Asia-Pacific region, with marine units along China’s seas also armed with more anti-ship missiles.  

But Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said there’s still much more to be done.

Earlier this month, Esper unveiled a plan to rapidly grow the Navy’s fleet in order to compete with China in its bid to become a first-rate military power by 2049.

Chinese Navy carries out exercises in the South China Sea in 2018. Beijing military activities have been ramped up in the South and East China Seas while Taiwan is said to have become the 'most volatile issue' between the two nations

Chinese Navy carries out exercises in the South China Sea in 2018. Beijing military activities have been ramped up in the South and East China Seas while Taiwan is said to have become the ‘most volatile issue’ between the two nations

Esper is pledging to grow the Navy’s current fleet of 296 ships by more than 500 ships, by 2045. More than 355 of those ships will be delivered by the mid-2030s, he said.

To get there, Esper said the Navy must first prioritize rapidly building up an attack submarine force of between 70 and 80 ships, a drastic increase on its current force of 51.

The department must also rethink how it uses carriers, Esper said, proposing the Navy adopt a lighter fleet with fewer carriers and large surface combatants.

‘Investment in the future is vital. Lightly and unmanned vessels equipped with artificial intelligence are likely to play a role in the future of our nation’s fleet,’ O’Brien said Wednesday. ‘The same is true of the small amphibious ships necessary to move [Marine Commandant Gen. David] Berger’s Marine littoral regiments around the islands of the Indo-Pacific.’

O’Brien also stated that the push for the Navy’s ‘Battleforce 2045’ will be achieved without diminishing the service’s capabilities in the meantime.

‘The pursuit of these new systems, however, cannot be allowed to cause a “trough” in force structure, whereby the nation endures reduced capability while we wait for future technologies and new ships to come online. Any such plan that trades current capability for future ‘out year promises is not acceptable to the President,’ he said.

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