US Gov Report Shows Why Russia's Hypersonic Superweapon Claims Are Fishy

The Congressional Budget Office has a new report highlighting some of the drawbacks of the much hyped hypersonic weapon.
颐园居 photo.

Hypersonic weapons are all the rage right now, with Russia and China both positioning the ultra-fast and maneuverable missiles as nigh-unbeatable superweapons, but a new report from Congress pointed out the new weapon’s limitations and highlights that there’s still a long way to go before they’re a reality. 

The fancy new weapons run super hot during testing, which can cause them to malfunction, according to the report. They’re also billions of dollars more expensive than cheaper alternatives that perform just as well in most contexts.


“U.S. Hypersonic Weapons and Alternatives,” is a new report from the Congressional Budget Office that studied the current state of America’s hypersonic weapons systems. A hypersonic weapon is one that goes five times faster than the speed of sound, or Mach 5. The U.S. is developing different variations but hasn’t deployed any yet despite announcing successful test-fires

In January, Moscow claimed it had deployed a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile on its frigate Admiral Gorshkov and called the weapons “unbeatable.” Last year, China successfully tested a hypersonic missile in full view of American satellites. “I don’t know if it’s quite a Sputnik moment, but I think it’s very close to that,” U.S. Joint Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley said at the time.

The point of the hypersonic weapon is to have a missile in the arsenal that flies so fast that traditional counter-measures can’t knock it out of the sky. Defense contractors are also designing some to be maneuverable at high speeds, which would hypothetically allow the weapons to further avoid enemy attacks meant to destroy them before they hit their target.


Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at Middlebury Institute and a member of the U.S. State Department’s International Security Advisory Board, praised the report, praised the report. “Thank god CBO called it like it is,” he told Motherboard.

According to the report, hypersonic technology still has a long way to go, and the biggest challenge is heat. An object moving at Mach 5 generates an incredible amount of heat and these weapons can get so hot that they damage themselves. “Shielding hypersonic missiles’ sensitive electronics, understanding how various materials perform, and predicting aerodynamics at sustained temperatures as high as 3,000° Fahrenheit require extensive flight testing. Tests are ongoing, but failures in recent years have delayed progress,” the report said.

They’re also incredibly expensive compared to ballistic missiles. How much more expensive? About a third. “CBO estimates that buying 300 ground- or sea-launched, intermediate-range ballistic missiles with maneuverable warheads and sustaining the missile system for 20 years would cost a total of $13.4 billion (in 2023 dollars),” the report said. “The same number of comparable hypersonic missiles would cost about one-third more, $17.9 billion.”

Lewis, who has long been critical of hypersonic weapons programs, said that the new technology is an expensive way to do something that the U.S. already does routinely. “It sounds so absurd but the systems people are talking about are much slower than ballistic missiles,” he said.

According to the CBO, the Pentagon has spent $8 billion since 2019 on various hypersonic weapons programs. “Those programs include separate efforts by the Army, Navy, and Air Force to develop hypersonic boost-glide missiles; collaborations among DARPA, the Air Force, and the Navy to research technology for hypersonic cruise missiles; and various research programs for missile components.”

Despite the clear challenges, as potential adversaries simultaneously develop the technology and hype their supposed advances, the Pentagon wants these weapons. Badly.  “DoD has stated that the urgency of hypersonic missile development outweighs the need for traditional oversight,” the CBO report said.

“Once you create what appears to be a new class of weapons there is an inevitable desire to make sure we dominate the field,” Lewis said. “Russia and China have also bought into the hyper hype and if they’re gonna do it, we’re gonna do it. Russia and China are gonna jump off the bridge and we’ll be damned if we’re not jumping off right after them.”