US will have hypersonic weapons sooner than people expect, the Pentagon's No. 2 official says

  • The Pentagon official in charge of planning for America's future wars downplayed Russian and Chinese efforts to develop hypersonic arsenals, a weapon the U.S. is currently unable to defend against.
  • "We are going to fly sooner and more often than people have ever expected," Patrick Shanahan, deputy defense secretary, told reporters Wednesday.
  • A hypersonic weapon is a missile that travels at Mach 5 or higher, which is at least five times faster than the speed of sound. That means a hypersonic weapon can travel about one mile per second.
Concept art of a hypersonic weapon.
Lockheed Martin
Concept art of a hypersonic weapon.

WASHINGTON — Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan on Wednesday downplayed concerns about Russian and Chinese efforts to develop hypersonic arsenals.

"We are going to fly sooner and more often than people have ever expected," Shanahan told a small group of reporters.

"At the end of the day it's about putting things in the air," he said, adding that the U.S. approach to the development of hypersonics would be in alignment with future defense budget requests.

"Part of what we are doing is figuring out how many do we need, how do we make this more modular, and how do we stand up the industrial base that goes along with this," said Shanahan, who is in charge of planning for America's future wars.

"I think we are doing the hard, smart, heavy lifting, moving out on implementation, and we are planning to scale," he added, noting that the development of hypersonics would be a joint effort between the sister service branches.

A hypersonic weapon travels at Mach 5 or higher, which is at least five times faster than the speed of sound or about one mile per second.

In March, Russian President Vladimir Putin debuted new nuclear and hypersonic weapons, which he described as "invincible" during a state of the nation address. The weapons included a nuclear-powered cruise missile, a nuclear-powered underwater drone and a new hypersonic missile.

What's more, in August, China announced its first successful testing of a hypersonic aircraft, a feat the U.S. has yet to accomplish.

"We are not the people who choose to weaponize space, but if we are challenged we will respond," Michael Griffin, the Pentagon's top engineer, said earlier this year at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama. "The Defense Department is today working on a means to defend our existing capabilities, and we will be working on methods to project our national power onto our adversaries."

Read more: Pentagon's top engineer blames Russia, China for militarizing space as Space Force takes shape

Griffin, a former NASA administrator, explained that Russia's and China's pursuit of hypersonics, a kind of weapon the U.S. currently cannot defend against, has prompted the Pentagon to accelerate its development of space-based systems.

When asked about China's sprint to deploy this new breed of weapon, Griffin described Beijing's efforts as "much more thoughtful" compared with Moscow's developments.

"The Chinese have been much more thoughtful in their systems development because they are developing long-range tactical precision-guided systems that will be really influential in a conventional fight," Griffin said. "The Chinese ability to hold our forward deployed assets at risk with very high speed and very hard to intercept precision-guided systems is something to which we have to respond," he added.