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It’s been nearly a year since China surprised the Pentagon and the world by conducting a hypersonic test of a gliding vehicle that circled the globe and landed just two dozen miles from its target.
“The meaning was that it terrified everyone,” Senator Angus King told Fox News. “If the thing hangs over Kansas City, you’re talking about 15 to 20 minutes to two to three minutes. That is a qualitative change.”
Some Pentagon officials described it as a “Sputnik” moment as the Chinese transcended the US with a technology that could evade billions of dollars in missile defense, sparking an arms race.
Hypersonic weapons fly at speeds of at least Mach 5, are highly maneuverable, can change course in flight, and can fly undetected 30 feet above the ocean.
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In an exclusive interview with Fox News, Senator King, I-Maine, chairman of the Senate Strategic Armed Forces Subcommittee, said the US is still lagging behind its opponents.
The senator from Maine blames the American fear of failure, which is different from opponents like China.
“We’re probably, I think, five years behind in terms of where the Chinese are,” King said. “They don’t mind failing in tests. We feel that we have to do it just right and that every test has to be a success. They have a series of failures, each of which has taught them something.”
King has asked the Pentagon in nearly every public hearing why it isn’t investing more in hypersonic technology.
“Honestly, the Chinese and the Russians were just ahead of us,” King said. “If our strategy in the Pacific is based on aircraft carriers, and an aircraft carrier is vulnerable to a 6,000-mile-per-hour missile, we have a problem.”
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The US announced a failed weapons test in June. A full hypersonic system for a Common Hypersonic Glide Body atop a two-stage rocket booster had failed to break free and reach Mach 5 speeds at a test site at the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Hawaii, the Pentagon announced.
But on Tuesday, just days after the failed test announcement, the Pentagon made it a point to announce two recent successful hypersonic tests. One, conducted by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in May, demonstrated the first flight test of the ground-based hypersonic boost-glide system launched from a standard military truck at White Sands Missile Facility in New Mexico. .
More recently, the Air Force successfully tested a hypersonic missile off the coast of Southern California that could be released under the wing of a B-52 strategic jet bomber.
Russian scientists last week mocked the failed test of the US hypersonic glider, saying the US design model for hypersonic weapons is “too complex”. Congress demands $292 million dollars in the new defense bill to fund more research and development for hypersonics.
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sen. King likens hypersonic weapons to the introduction of the longbow, which helped the British defeat the French when they were too strong at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, and the stirrup, which allowed Ghenghis Khan’s soldiers to stabilize their shot from horseback.
“Technological developments often determine the outcome of conflicts,” says King. “And hypersonic to me is the groundbreaking strategic difference in any future conflict this country faces. And we are behind.”
At a hearing earlier this year, John Plumb, the first assistant secretary of defense for space policy, agreed.
“It certainly looks like we’re lagging behind,” Plumb said in January in response to Senator King.
The outgoing vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General John Hyten, was the first to sound the alarm that the US lost the hypersonic race in November.
The US military, aware of the threat these weapons pose, has had to resort to the use of hot air balloons to provide an early warning system to protect the nation from hypersonic weapons that can now evade US missile defense systems. Congress is asking for $27.1 million for this balloon defense in next year’s defense budget
Pentagon officials have publicly reversed the narrative that the US has “fallen behind”, pointing out that US ballistic missiles and most of their massive nuclear arsenal are already hypersonic, meaning they are by definition flying five times faster than the speed of the sound . Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was asked at a news conference in November whether the Chinese hypersonic test was a “Sputnik” moment.
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“Well, those are terms I wouldn’t use,” Austin said
When asked why the Chinese could use a medium-range hypersonic weapon and the US could not, Austin reacted with irritation.
“I don’t know if they used those weapons, but they’re testing those weapons,” Austin said.