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China's ability to spend on weapons has the Pentagon eager to develop hypersonics as the US tries to catch up

Key Points
  • China's ability to quickly finance its military has the Pentagon especially eager to develop hypersonic weapons, amid a budding arms race between the world's top two economies.
  • The United States does not have a defense against hypersonic weapons, which can travel at least five times the speed of sound, or a little more than a mile per second.
  • The Pentagon has nearly a dozen programs tasked with developing and defending against the new breed of weapons.
Members of the People's Liberation Army stand in formation during a flag raising ceremony in Hong Kong, China, on Sunday, June 30, 2019.
Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — China's ability to quickly finance its military has the Pentagon especially eager to develop hypersonic weapons, amid a budding arms race between the world's top two economies.

"China has a robust global economy, their ability to afford new offensive systems is quite significant, and we have to take note of that," Mike Griffin, the Pentagon's top engineer, told CNBC at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville.

"I think it's clear that in the realm of hypersonics we are playing catch up, especially relative to the Chinese. We need to be able to not only match but to overmatch, especially the Chinese," Griffin said.

The United States does not have a defense against hypersonic weapons, which can travel at least five times the speed of sound, or a little more than a mile per second. Combined with blistering speed, maneuverability and long-range flight, these weapons are difficult to track, target and defeat.

Russia and China have sprinted to develop a variety of weapons of this caliber, sparking concerns that the U.S. will be outpaced on this front.

"We are late to the game but, I will bet on U.S. innovation and resolve everyday against state-sponsored companies," Griffin said, noting the Russian and Chinese efforts.

Read more: Russia and China are 'aggressively developing' hypersonic weapons

Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin touted his nation's growing hypersonic arsenal by unveiling a slew of new hypersonic weapons. Of the six new weapons Putin unveiled last March, CNBC learned that two of them, a hypersonic glide vehicle and air-launched cruise missile, will be ready for war by 2020.

The Kremlin, however, is having a hard time finding a source for the critical carbon fiber components needed to produce its hypersonic glide vehicle, according to people with direct knowledge of a U.S. intelligence report. At the time, Putin claimed the weapon was capable of reaching targets at a speed of 20 times the speed of sound and that it was already in serial production.

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Last year, China announced the first successful testing of a hypersonic aircraft, a feat the U.S. has yet to accomplish.

"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, a former NASA administrator, said in a previous interview. "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.

The Pentagon has nearly a dozen programs tasked with developing and defending against the new breed of weapons.

Last year, Lockheed Martin was awarded two contracts to build hypersonic missiles. In March, the Pentagon selected Raytheon for a $63 million contract for hypersonic weapons development.

Correction: The Pentagon in March selected Raytheon for a hypersonic weapons development contract. An earlier version misstated the month.