Evolving Technological Threats: The Coming of High-Speed Maneuvering Weapons


2017-01-08 By Robbin Laird

As Mark Lewis, the former Chief Scientist of the USAF, has warned repeatedly, high speed weapons, notably hypersonic ones, are on the way and will be part of the evolving threat environment.

As he wrote in 2010:

Aerospace engineering is ultimately about pushing the boundaries, and nothing does that quite like hypersonics.

There is no single subject that can captivate the imagination of our next generation; no single technology that holds such potential for changing the Air Force’s technology landscape.

The inexorable march of progress makes it all but certain that there will be hypersonic vehicles operating within, and through, our atmosphere.

The only real questions are when and which nations’ flags will adorn them.

(For our initial Special Report on Hypersonics, see the following:


In a recent report of the Committee on Future Air Force Needs for Defense Against High-Speed Weapons chaired by Mark Lewis and published by the National Academies of Science, this dynamic threat is discussed in detail.

Artist's Impression of Chinese Hypersonic Missile.

Artist’s Impression of Chinese Hypersonic Missile.

The core point is summarized as follows:

“The ability of the United States to sustain its presence around the world and leverage its global reach is dependent on both U.S. Navy and USAF forward deployment.

At a military operational level, HSMWs may impede operations, global vigilance, maintenance, and supporting logistics.

At a national strategic level, High Speed Maneuvering Weapons or HSMWs could hold at risk the fundamental U.S. construct of global reach and presence.”


NAS Study

We have focused on the what one might call the S Cubed revolution as a way to incorporate the HSMW threat and capability into an evolving US and allied force structure.

In a piece published on April 16, 2014, we highlighted the S Cubed Revolution.

We have heard much about the anti-access, and area-denial threat which China poses to American and allied forces in the Pacific.  We have read much about new missiles such as the DF-21, which it is asserted can destroy maneuvering ships at sea to take off the board US aircraft carriers.  We have read of Pacific allies wish to deploy substantial fleets of F-35s, and then critics decide that these “short range” assets can not meet the crucial needs of warfighting in the Pacific.

We have also learned in the press that core competencies like amphibious assault have now become virtually impossible because of the A2 AD capabilities of China.

What is lost in all of this hyperbole is what the United States and its allies are doing to shape a new combat capability appropriate to the 21st century.  It may be true that a linear air power force would find it difficult to cope with such threats; a distributed S cubed force will not.

Sensors, combined with stealth combined with speed can provide a new paradigm for shaping the Pacific force necessary for the U.S. in working in the Pacific.

At heart of getting the policy agenda right is to understand that warfare is highly interactive.  Buying, building and deploying yesterday’s technologies against evolving threats is a sure fire way of being in the wrong side of the outcome…..

Sensors, stealth and speed can come together to create a powerful distributed force in the Pacific, which can so complicate Chinese military planning as to enhance deterrence significantly. 

A deployed fleet of F-35s – allied and American – in the Pacific lay down a strong stealth and sensor-enabled honeycomb of deployed kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities. 

The reach of the fleet is such that a 21st century equivalent of the world war II big blue blanket can be created…..


Then in a February 18, 2015 article, Ed Timperlake discussed how best to deal with the hypersonic cruise missile threat.

HSCMs are part of what one might call an S Cubed formula for thinking about military critical technologies for 21st-century targeted R&D.

 S-cubed=sensors-stealth-speed of weapons can provide a new paradigm for shaping a combat force necessary for the US Military to fight and win in 21st century engagements.

 Stealth or no stealth the F-35 fits perfectly into the S3 revolution in modern war

No matter which path is taken, the F-35 as a single platform with all three attributes combined or as a non-stealth sensor platform, employing speed of weapons carried organically or trading off with other platforms at the speed of light by giving incoming target vectors to their weapons.

 A point implicit in the CNO’s discussions is that the order of the words is very important.

 Starting with sensors, then stealth and speed (again of weapons) they can be combined in one stealth platform or as appropriate stealth and speed can be traded off against one another using a separate platform…..

 (Then ) CNO Admiral Greenert has pointed this out before.

As Admiral Greenert correctly points out, improved radars and sensors continue to chip away at stealth. Military advances in technology are always relative against a reactive enemy and are not absolute. Stealth is simply an airframe survivability design feature. Stealth is everything until it is nothing.

 How fast an erosion of stealth design features is a critical question as well as the meaning of detecting stealth within a fluid and rapidly evolving battlespace.

Airframe design characteristics are all blended together in tradeoffs and have been focused on constantly improving, payload (improved by systems/and weapons carried), maneuverability (measured by P Sub s), speed, and range (modified by VSTOL–a basing mobility plus factor).

 Stealth was a clean sheet design for F-22 and F-35 and is embedded in the total airframe and it is a very sensitive multiplicative factor; one does not add stealth. Additionally like all modern fighters stealth aircraft are also designed with inherent other survivability factors, such as system redundancy and hardening.

The CNO’s observation is very true.

Stealth is simply a survivability term that impacts the entire airframe and will eventually decline as better sensors are developed.

This is also why passive sensing is also a real revolution. Passive sensing can attenuate the problem of generating active “signals in space” which often can give away a platform’s position either maneuvering or an absolute fixed location for a counter- attack.

Stealth dynamically over time will become more vulnerable as enemies sensors improve.

How long and against what enemy, and where in world will the ant-stealth sensors and successful weapons be employed is unknown, but it will occur.

The CNO being a Nuke engineer is also exactly right about heat signature. But the US and our allies are also a reactive enemy and a SAM or Cruise missile launch also puts out heat. And so far any enemy still needs a period of active sensing for target acquisition. That requirement is often expressed as “emit you die.”

Modern air combat, just like submarine warfare is essentially an evolving contest of “blind man’s bluff.”

Even if and when stealth survivability deteriorates–ENTER the F-35 fusion cockpit with passive sensing and a significant payload of hard points.

External weapon hard-points on the F-35 are a brilliant design aspect, which is often overlooked in most discussions.

The non-stealth F-35 can sling more ordinance than F/A-18 and F-16.

So even in a non-stealth world, advantage goes to F-35, with its 360 active and passive horizontally linked cockpit decision-making ability.

As the (then) CNO says “payloads over performance.”

Employing stand-off weapons with current and better payloads the F-35 still wins any combat comparison because the S-3 formula kicks in as a combat reality.

An F-35 as a non-stealth fleet still has a 360-degree sensor platform with “reach not range” as a fundamental fleet enabler.

It is an information dominance fusion platform that can be favorably compared to the equivalent of being a 21st Century version of USN Destroyers standing very dangerous and heroic radar picket duty protecting the Amphibious invasion force and Carrier Fleet against kamikazes off Okinawa.

As the (then) CNO pointed out “something moves fast through the air and disrupts molecules in the air and puts out heat – I don’t care how cool the engine can be – it’s going to be detectable.”

Only this time against the HSCM and also a lesser-included problem of killing slower cruise missiles if F-35 did not exist it would have to be invented.

In other words, an additional benefit of R&D and con-ops efforts to kill HSCMs makes taking down conventional CMs much easier.

It is now time to accept that a war-changing weapon, HSCM is in the late stages of R&D and it must be accounted for in any battle plan.  Unlike distant “hyper-sonic” R&D efforts such a Global Strategic Strike aircraft, a hypersonic cruise missile is a rapidly evolving technology, which sooner than later will be demonstrating the art of the possible up close and personal.  Such a revolutionary CM in the US arsenal is a very good thing. In the hands of PLA forces it is a very real “wolf at the door.”

Consequently when, not if, a hypersonic-Cruise Missile is battle ready the Air/Sea Battle staff will have to figure out both offensive and defensive con-ops. In sufficient numbers a hypersonic Cruise Missile can be a war-tipping asset. Employed by US and Allied forces the capability will greatly enable a deadly combat punch.

If it is in the hands of an enemy a hypersonic Cruise Missile is a ship killer.

The Cold War USN CBG protection mantra against Russian Bombers with anti-ship cruise missiles was to try and first kill the archer not the arrows.

Top Gun in the late eighties briefed “Chainsaw” tactics, and the F-14 was very well designed for long-range interception of threats against the Fleet.

“Chainsaw” was a focus on reaching out as far a possible against any threats.

Now if Russian and/or PLAAF successfully air launch HSCMs or their missiles are launched from ground batteries or surface ships or subs (USN fast attack subs are of utmost importance in that battle) they will be engaging in their version of the S-3 formula. Just like the USN and USAF they first need sensors to make it all work. The order of the “S” words in the priority of formula is very important.

If they develop a HSCM to empower their fighting force the F-35 does not have to fight in the stealth mode against HSCMs. Even if HSCMs move at Mach 10 an F-35 sensor platform moves “trons” at the speed of light and this can make all the difference.

It is very evident that all fighting forces need both reach and range. The F-35 today can play both stealth and non-stealth and is a generation better than any other aircraft in the world. One just has to look at Russian and PLAAF attempts to develop a real F-35 capability and their stealth airframe is lacking the sensor systems comparable to F-35. It is a pure marketing assertion that they have fusion parity and DAS.

The F-35 “360 Degree Fusion Cockpit” is good for a decade or more as the never ending action/reaction cycle of our enemies attempt to make their technology and training moves to catch up to US.

US and its Allies are the only airpower thinkers and practitioners that can learn TTPs when F-35, F-22 and legacy aircraft mix it all up at a Red Flag. Russian and PLAAF cannot do that training within a decade. They might claim that they are building fusion cockpits in stealth jets-but currently just by looking at their airframes with no nose sensors or wing sensors, they are simply fusing linear improvements to radar systems. They do not have the complete 360-active/passive reach that the F-35 brings to AA, AG and EW fight.

There is one other significant factor of HSCMs.

A ship has an advantage in that it can maneuver at sea, it also has a distinct disadvantage if a mortal blow is landed it sinks.

Whereas an airfield has a disadvantage in that it is a very well-known fixed point on land but an airfield has a significant advantage in that it can be fortified and also have an operational chance with rapid runway repair and other battle damage repair.

Both the US Navy and US Air Force have the vision and resources to develop the most modern training ranges in the world and a dedicated unified approach to collecting operational intelligence against HSCM airborne “signatures.”

During a visit to Nellis AFB Major General Jay Silveria, Commander of the USAF Warfare Center, pointed out that one of the missions of his command is to create a mission file for the F-35 fleet.

“The mission file includes all of the data about every threat, aircraft, surface-to-air missile, blue aircraft, and airliner, whatever that airplane may see during its flights.

That intel mission data will fill the mission data file that will build is what the airplane then goes in and looks to see when it fuses that target.

The mission data file that we’re building right now in the 513th at the 53rd wing which are part of the Warfare Center were initially building are for the Marines.”

 The value is that USAF, USMC, USN and Allis have the possibility of working off that same mission data library.

The very practical application and perhaps battle tipping aspect of a fleet wide mission data file is that if just one F-35 anywhere anytime gets hit on a HSCM, the entire fleet can have the data.

This is unique capability to be able to prevail in modern war…..

For our Special Report which discusses passive sensing in the context of Tron Warfare, see the following: