After Russian advances, US, Britain and Australia expand partnership to develop hypersonic missiles

The United States, Australia and Britain announced Tuesday that they were bolstering their cooperation on developing new hypersonic weapons, an expansion of an agreement reached last year to build new nuclear-powered submarines.

>>Julian E BarnesThe New York Times
Published : 6 April 2022, 03:39 AM
Updated : 6 April 2022, 03:39 AM

Hypersonic weapons, which maneuver at several times the speed of sound, can potentially evade missile defence systems and quickly strike a target even if it is on the other side of the world.

The announcement is an attempt to jump-start the work of the United States and two key allies at a time when Russia and China have made important advances in developing and fielding hypersonic weapons.

Russia and China have invested heavily in hypersonic technology and by some measures have moved ahead of the United States and its allies. In August, China tested a hypersonic missile that circled the globe twice before hitting its target.

Russia announced in 2019 that it had deployed a hypersonic missile, and it has used the technology in an attack on a weapons depot in the war in Ukraine. Although it is clear Russia has fielded the weapons, it remains to be seen what tactical advantages superfast missiles have given Russian forces in Ukraine.

Hypersonic speed is defined as faster than Mach 5, or 3,806 mph, far beyond the speed of sound, which is about 761 mph.

The Pentagon and the Air Force have worked on hypersonics for about 20 years, including a push that began in the first decade of this century. In recent years, as China and Russia have increased their work on hypersonics, so too has the Pentagon, requesting $3.8 billion for researching the technology in the current fiscal year.

The announcement Tuesday by the three countries was short on specifics, saying only that the “partners will work together to accelerate development of advanced hypersonic and counter-hypersonic capabilities.”

The earlier announcement said the three countries would cooperate to develop nuclear submarines, and it was framed as an effort to counter China’s growing power in the Pacific and elsewhere. The announcement Tuesday said the importance of the partnership had “only grown in response to Russia’s unprovoked, unjustified and unlawful invasion of Ukraine.”

In addition to working on nuclear reactors and hypersonic weapons, the three countries are accelerating investments and experiments in quantum computing, artificial intelligence, cybercapabilities, electronic warfare and other technologies.

According to the announcement, the additional areas of research also include smart robots meant to enhance undersea surveillance. The autonomous underwater vehicles, it said, “will be a significant force multiplier for our maritime forces.” Initial sea trials are planned next year.

Expanding work in those technologies and protecting US know-how against espionage attempts have been priorities of the Biden administration. American officials believe that without a more concerted effort, the United States could fall behind China in technologies that will be important to the economy as well as to military strength.

At a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Republicans suggested that China and Russia were ahead of the United States in developing hypersonics. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin initially avoided a direct response. But when Rep Matt Gaetz, tried to link delays in fielding hypersonic weapons with a purported embrace of socialism by the Pentagon, Austin shot back.

He denied that the Pentagon embraced socialism and asked, “What do you mean we are behind in hypersonics?”

At another point in the hearing, Austin said the work with Australia and Britain on hypersonics, artificial intelligence and other technology was “coming along really, really well.” The priority of developing hypersonic weapons — and defences against them — was clear, he added.

“I have engaged industry and asked them to make sure that they’re leaning into this issue of hypersonic development,” Austin said. “Most importantly, I’ve asked them to make sure that they’re working with us on how we’re going to defend ourselves with respect to hypersonics.”

William Roper, a former senior Air Force official, said the United States historically had not invested enough in hypersonics.

“Hypersonics bring unique battlefield advantages, and China’s progress has been impressive,” he said. “Leveraging the advantage we enjoy in close allies and partners is a uniquely American way to close the gap. But more broadly, the US must avoid responding to every Chinese military advancement symmetrically — that is a cost-imposing path we can ill afford."

The broader nuclear-powered submarines deal infuriated France because it had been negotiated in secret and scuttled a large submarine contract that Paris had signed with Australia.

Britain is included in the new plan because the compact nuclear reactors for the Australian submarines will probably use the unusual designs of US and British submarines, which are powered by bomb-grade, highly enriched uranium. The United States has not shared the potent technology with other major allies because, if diverted, it could fuel nuclear arms.

The announcement said the three partner nations have engaged proactively with the International Atomic Energy Agency on the deal’s nonproliferation aspects. Rafael Mariano Grossi, the agency’s director general, told its board of governors March 7 that Australia, Britain and the United States “are committed to ensuring the highest nonproliferation and safeguards standards are met.”

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