By Luisa Kenausis, Scoville Fellow
China claims successful first test of hypersonic glide vehicle
China claims to have conducted a successful first test of its new hypersonic glide vehicle, the Starry Sky-2, on Friday, August 3. CNN reported on the announced test last week, one day after the China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics (CAAA) released a statement (in Chinese) calling the test a “complete success.”
By definition, hypersonic aircraft travel at least five times the speed of sound. The statement released by the CAAA reported that the Starry Sky-2 reached a top speed of Mach 6 (six times the speed of sound, or about 4,500 miles per hour) during its test on August 3.
The Starry Sky-2 was launched into space via a multistage rocket, then separated and began its independent flight. The Chinese statement claims that the vehicle performed several turns during its flight before landing successfully. The Starry Sky-2 is a “waverider,” a type of hypersonic aircraft that uses its own shock waves as a lifting surface.
The test is a significant step in the ongoing competition between Russia, China, and the United States to develop hypersonic weapons. The United States is particularly concerned about the lack of available options to defend against hypersonic missiles. Hypersonic missiles fly at a lower altitude than ballistic missiles, travel much more quickly, and can be maneuvered during their flight — all of which makes them extremely difficult to defend against.
As the technology develops. experts are concerned about the potential to mate hypersonic missiles with nuclear warheads, which would pose new challenges for international stability.
Japan remembers the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 73 years ago
The United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and August 9, 1945. Last week, both cities held somber ceremonies marking the anniversary of the bombings and calling for the global elimination of nuclear weapons.
On August 6 in Hiroshima, Mayor Kazumi Matsui opened his speech by describing the horrors of the blast that devastated the city 73 years ago. He also spoke about the continued dangers of multiple countries with nuclear weapons, a situation he called “inherently unstable and extremely dangerous.” Matsui called on Japan to do more to promote the global elimination of nuclear weapons by helping the UN’s Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons take effect, although he stopped short of explicitly urging Japan to join the treaty.
In Nagasaki, the ceremony commemorating the atomic bombing took place on August 9. Mayor Tomihisa Taue also spoke about the need for nuclear disarmament and emphatically urged Japan to support the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. He pointed to the more than 300 Japanese local assemblies that have urged the government to sign and ratify the treaty. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also spoke at the Nagasaki ceremony last week, becoming the first UN chief to attend the commemorative event. In his remarks, Guterres called on all countries to make “visible progress” on nuclear disarmament “as a matter of urgency.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attended and spoke at both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki ceremonies, pledging that Japan “will make its utmost effort” to bring the idea of a nuclear weapons-free world into reality. However, he did not mention the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in either of his speeches, an omission that has drawn criticism from some journalists. During a press conference after the Hiroshima ceremony, Prime Minister Abe reiterated Japan’s position that it will not sign the treaty because of its reliance on the nuclear umbrella of the United States for security. The Japanese government’s rejection of the UN nuclear ban treaty has drawn criticism and pushback from many Japanese citizens, particularly as the Japanese atomic bomb survivors, the hibakusha, have taken a leading role in promoting nuclear disarmament globally.
Leaked document shows Putin lobbied Trump on arms control during Helsinki summit
Last week, we took stock of the Trump-Putin summit, emphasizing how little information was available about what exactly the two leaders discussed behind closed doors. Since then, Politico has reported on a leaked Russian document that provides a little more information on what President Putin brought to the negotiating table in July.
The document suggests that Putin’s arms control priorities included expressing a willingness to extend New START, which will expire in 2021 if not extended, as well as discussing the “non-placement of weapons in space.”
The document also refers to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) and suggests that Russia is willing to “reaffirm commitment” to the agreement. The United States has contended that Russia is in violation the INF Treaty for several years due to overwhelming evidence that Russia has tested and deployed a cruise missile that flies over 500 kilometers, but less than 5,500 kilometers, in violation of the treaty’s terms. Russia disputes this claim, and during the news conference following Helsinki summit, Putin euphemistically referred to the problems facing the INF Treaty as “implementation issues.”
First prototype of Russia’s upgraded long-range bomber rolls out this week
The Diplomat reported last week that Russia will roll out the first prototype of its upgraded Tupolev Tu-22M3M long-range bomber on August 16, and will begin ground testing soon after. Its first flight test is planned for the third quarter of 2018.
The Russian Ministry of Defense plans to upgrade up to 30 Tu-22s to the Tu-22M3M variant, which includes modern avionics, digital navigation equipment, improved communications, and an updated weapon control system supporting the launch of precision-guided air-to-surface weapons. The Tu-22M3M will be capable of launching air-launched ballistic missiles (the Rhaduga Kh-15) and long-range anti-ship missiles (the Kh-32 long-range cruise missile, designed to attack U.S. Navy carrier ships). Both the Kh-15 and Kh-32 missiles are dual-capable and can be fitted with either conventional or nuclear warheads.
The Tu-22M3M is not expected to receive a new engine in its upgrades. It will have a cruising speed of about 900 kilometers (560 miles) per hour, and has an operational range of 7000 kilometers (4350 miles) without refueling.
Senator Rand Paul invites Russian delegation to U.S. Capitol to discuss nuclear proliferation
Last week, Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) announced that a delegation from the Russian Federation is planning to visit Washington, DC and engage with American lawmakers on issues including nuclear proliferation and combatting terrorism. If the visit occurs, it will be the first time in nearly three years that a major Russian delegation will travel to Washington.
Sen. Paul arranged the invitation through Konstantin Kosachev, the chairman of the Russian Federation Council Committee on Foreign Affairs, during a meeting with Kosachev in Moscow. In a statement, Sen. Paul highlighted the importance of international engagement for national security and peace and called the planned meeting “an important next step” for U.S.-Russian dialogue.
During testing, Navy discovers weld problems on 12 nuclear missile launch tubes destined for use on submarines
According to a BreakingDefense report, the Navy has recently uncovered issues with the welds on 12 nuclear missile launch tubes intended for use on the next generation American Columbia-class submarine and the British Royal Navy’s Dreadnought submarine. The problems were discovered during “non-destructive” testing prior to installation on a submarine.
A congressional staffer who spoke to BreakingDefense framed the discovery of the weld issue as par for the course when a new class of submarines is developed, noting that “something always goes wrong in the process of design and construction” of first-of-class ships (emphasis in the original). The staffer called cost growths and schedule delays “inevitable” when a new nuclear-armed submarine is being designed and built, as it is, “arguably, the most technologically complex weapon system ever proposed.”
The Columbia-class submarines are scheduled to come online in 2031 — just as the first Ohio-class submarines are retired, meaning that there is little room for error in the Columbia program.
Representative Joe Courtney (D-Connecticut), the ranking Democrat on the House Seapower Subcommittee of the Armed Services Committee, said that “the warning flags are up” regarding the weld problems on the launch tubes. Rep. Courtney also indicated that the Columbia program will likely be able to recover from the issue because only twelve launch tubes are effected, but called this “a blunt reminder of issues of quality control. They have to be monitored by industry and the government relentlessly.”
Commander of U.S. Strategic Command pushes for space-based sensor layer to combat missile threat from Russia, China
Last week, U.S. Strategic Command chief Gen. John Hyten spoke at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium about the importance of developing a space-based sensor layer to combat current and emerging missile threats, particularly from Russia and China. Gen. Hyten called the detection and characterization of missile launches “the most important thing to do in the missile defense business,” saying “if you can’t see and characterize the threat, I don’t care what kind of shooter you have — there is nothing you can do about it.”
Gen. Hyten also argued that a sensor system capable of detecting a missile launch early anywhere in the world is not possible using a terrestrial basing system. “You just can’t get there from here, so the only place to go and do that is a place where the U.S. is actually strongest and technology is there to do it, and that is into space. We have to go into space.”
In his remarks, Gen. Hyten pointed to Russia and China in particular as posing an increasing missile threat to the United States. “You can’t call them [Russia and China] our friends if they’re building weapons that can destroy the United States of America,” he said, adding, “therefore, we have to develop the capability to respond.”
This year’s annual defense authorization bill supports Gen. Hyten’s call for a space-based missile defense sensor layer. The Fiscal Year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (FY 2019 NDAA) directs the Missile Defense Agency to begin developing a sensor architecture for missile defense in space. President Trump signed the FY 2019 NDAA into law on Monday, August 13.
As a note, space-based sensors are very different from space-based interceptors, which a small group of Members of Congress are advocating. Space-based interceptors pose numerous technical and geopolitical problems, as explained by Dr. David Wright of the Union of Concerned Scientists.