By F. Patrick Filbert

Photo Courtesy of Purdue Research Foundation

The U.S. military has continued to direct much attention and resources to employing and defending against the emerging technology of hypersonic strike weapons (HSWs) [1]. And with good reason. HSWs can be launched from thousands of miles away and hit targets within a few feet. In addition, their high speeds make them hard to detect and shoot down and thus extraordinarily survivable [2]. However, the rapid advancement in HSW technology, like that of many new weapons, has also often outpaced the techniques, procedures, and doctrinal aspects of how these weapons are integrated into the Joint Force.

The traditional approach for many of these weapons has largely been to “develop what we want, and we’ll figure things out later.” But this approach can essentially thicken the fog of war due to unintended second- and third-order effects not originally considered during development. Thus, figuring out the use aspect of HSWs before full weapon development instead of after it—as well as striving to ensure that doctrine and training aspects keep pace with the technology’s rapid advancements—can greatly improve Joint Force integration and effectiveness.


Being creative to gain an edge on a potential adversary means understand­ing how one’s solution will affect the new technology’s use. Bringing a disruptive technology weapon to the battlefield to gain the advantage is a good thing, but only if it is not to the adversary’s advantage.

In some ways, the changes in the battlefield associated with the signifi­cant increase in speed, range, and undetectability attributes of HSWs are similar to the introduction of the M1 Abrams main battle tank to the U.S. Army’s armored force. Though an M1 (shown in Figure 1) may seem an unlikely comparison to hypersonic weapons, the disruptive capabilities that it has brought to the battlefield, as well as the associated changes in planning that its presence has required, are similar to what HSWs are promising to bring.

Figure 1. M1A1 Abrams (U.S. Marine Corps Photo by GySgt Robert Blankenship) [3].

Entering the force in 1980, the M1 brought with it several combat capabili­ties that had not previously been incorporated into planning. These capabilities included improved speed of maneuver over slower U.S. and Soviet tanks, as well as stabilized mobile shooting for long-range fires. As a result, adversaries—such as the Iraqi tank battalions in Operation Desert Storm—were simply not prepared to deal with a 65-ton tank that could move at speeds of 45 mph, accurately target them through clouds of thick black smoke and at night, and engage them from a stabilized platform at distances exceeding 1–2 miles. Many of these Iraqi battalions were ultimately hit from U.S. units they couldn’t even see [4].

Similarly, when it comes to speed and unpredictability, U.S. development of HSWs is striving for the same type of game-changing effect as the M1 has had. And the likelihood for their success appears to be promising.


Maneuverable HSWs are not new. HSW research began during the Cold War in the United States and Soviet Union, but various technological hurdles resulted in a “start/stop” approach that continued through the end of the Cold War and follow-on period of (perceived) peace [5]. Such hurdles included propulsion, navigation, and heat resistance due to the high speeds involved. However, 21st century technological developments have led to progress in numerous areas, thus enabling the United States, Russia—and now China—to develop and test HSWs [6].

Recent demonstrations, claims, and military parades by China and Russia appear to show that these countries are ahead of the United States in the development of HSWs. China unveiled a new HSW called DF-17 at a military parade in 2019, and Russia claims to have tested HSWs beginning in 2018, fielding an aircraft-launched HSW called Kinzhal and a land-based HSW identified as Avangard in 2020. However, the way in which these countries view the use and Joint Force integration of HSWs—including the actual advantage of these weapons—differs significantly from that of the United States.

During the Cold War, the nuclear triad of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs), and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) provided the Cold War superpowers with a strategic measure of deterrence and power. As shown in Figure 2, ICBMs, ALCMs, and SLBMs can be tracked by sensors due to their stable ballistic trajectory, allowing target assessment based on their flight path. HSWs, on the other hand, integrate a measure of unpredictability after launch (which is also shown in Figure 2). This unpredictability stems from a lack of sensor optimization to accurately predict, target, and intercept HSWs as they fly toward their intended destination—targets that remain unknown until the last second due to the speed and maneuverability of HSWs.

Figure 2. Ballistic Reentry Vehicle (RV) vs. Hypersonic Glide Vehicle Trajectories (Courtesy of RAND, Document RR-2137-CC) [7].

From a developmental aspect, ICBMs required significant resources, along with the specifics of technology development and production occurring in secret to keep advances from being used by the other side. This requirement meant that only those countries with the resources for research, design, produc­tion, and fielding could afford to have these weapons. Furthermore, the actual use of nuclear weapons beyond their deterrence attributes is less likely than the use of HSWs, especially as U.S. HSWs are planned to carry only conventional payloads.

From a cost perspective, HSWs will be much less expensive than, say, an SLBM. For example, the price tag of a D5/TRIDENT II SLBM is approximately $31 million, compared to an estimated $6.9 million per HSW [8, 9]. And increasing capability as a cost-reduction attribute is something not just the United States, China, and Russia are working toward. The development of HSWs has spread to international partner nations—such as Australia and India—who are also benefiting from teaming with these three countries. Additionally, Japan, France, and Germany are in development of their own HSWs and likewise benefit from the available research [10].


In the United States, HSW development and testing continue at a more mea­sured pace, specific to the fielding of conventional armed systems. Using conventional warheads requires developing a high degree of accuracy that Russian and Chinese weapons do not require due to their intention to maintain nuclear-capable HSWs. U.S. testing of HSWs in 2017 and 2020 resulted in successful flight test events toward the development of a common HSW warhead (shown in Figure 3) [11].

Figure 3. Common HSW Warhead Launch, Pacific Missile Range Facility, Kauai, HI,
March 2020 (U.S. DoD Photo) [11].

When it comes to the fielding of new technologies and weapons, the United States tends to wait until after the technology is produced and available to its forces before developing a concept of operations (CONOPS). Specific to HSWs, the lack of an overarching CONOPS for planning, execution, and command and control (C2) is a gap that has yet to be filled.

An additional aspect related to HSWs that must be considered is the potential response that may occur from an adversary after a “first use,” especially if the adversary has its own HSWs and is a nuclear power. Critical to HSW use is ensuring an adversary nation does not confuse an HSW launch with the launch of an ICBM or SLBM, particularly through proper messaging of the new capability. The impact of adversary propaganda, disinformation, and wide-scale efforts to misinform or create a media panic must be managed as an aspect to a potential conflict between nuclear armed nations.

To date, there have been only two examples of such a conflict—the 1969 Sino-Soviet War and the 1999 Kargil War between India and Pakistan—and the aspect of increased, or vertical, escalation toward nuclear weapons was identified and managed by the nations involved. Neither conflict had the aspect of instant news and social media that will have a definite impact on information operations and strategic messaging to keep escalation from occurring [12].


Most reports on HSWs have been specific to the development of the materials, parts, problems of control at high speeds (greater than Mach 5, or 3,800 mph), and missile/rocket body design to boost the warheads to high speed. However, the ability of HSWs to hold a target at risk because of the speed and unpredictability attributes of HSWs, coupled with the difficulty in identifying a specific target, should be driving discussions on CONOPS develop­ment before, not after, HSWs are fielded.

Producing HSWs is not as easy as simply opening or retooling a production line. HSWs require a long lead time to produce, resulting in low availability until production efficiency is achieved— likely half a decade or more away. How to incorporate HSWs into planning and, ultimately, senior leader understanding of the effects of use must be resolved before HSWs are fielded.

Developing a way to articulate such factors specific to C2, authorities, and planning for HSWs spanning operational and strategic levels of war requires early consideration and development. The Joint-Hypersonic Strike Planning, Execution, Command and Control (J-HyperSPEC2) Joint Test (JT) was chartered in August 2018 by the Deputy Director, Air Warfare under the authority of the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), Director, Operational Test and Evaluation. J-HyperSPEC2 JT’s charter was to develop, test, and evaluate a C2 CONOPS necessary to manage the required authorities and support employment, planning, and execution for HSWs. With the continual push for rapid development and fielding, the J-HyperSPEC2 JT is at the forefront of planning for the deployment and use of these new weapons.

The J-HyperSPEC2 JT was sponsored by U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), with the team operating in two locations: Offutt Air Force Base (AFB), NE; and Nellis AFB, NV. The J-HyperSPEC2 JT team worked closely with U.S. European Command (USEUCOM), U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM), U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM), the Services, and OSD to develop an initial CONOPS through two CONOPS writing groups. The J-HyperSPEC2 JT team conducted risk reduction events and a multipart field test to collect data on the CONOPS for revision, validation, and eventual use. The team received support from the Air Force Joint Test Program Office (AFJO) at Nellis AFB, NV.


As with the development of any new system, there must be a driver for why something is done. The Joint Force remains over-reliant on standoff weapons and fourth/fifth-generation strike platforms to address the anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) challenge. Adversary countries continue to increase stand-off distance from their borders, pushing their “A2/AD bubble” outward. Developing weapons to overcome an ever-expanding A2/AD bubble, increase areas of national defense, as well as get within the adversary’s response/decision time Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA) loop are thus primary drivers for HSWs (which, as shown in Figures 4 and 5, can be deployed in a wide variety of ways).

Figure 4. Examples of Air-, Sea-, and Land-HSW Launchers (B-52 Image Courtesy of Wonderful Engineering [13], Submarine Image U.S. Navy Graphic: 030606-N0000X-005 Washington, DC [6 June 2003] [14], Ground Launcher Image Courtesy of U.S. Army Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office [15]).

Figure 5. Depiction of U.S. Falcon Hypersonic Test Vehicle Prior to Re-Entering the Atmosphere (Image Courtesy of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) [16].

To address the A2/AD expansion aspect to better integrate HSWs, the J-HyperSPEC2 JT conducted CONOPS development and refinement efforts using Warfighter inputs from test events such as CONOPS writing groups and combatant command (CCMD) Tier 1 exercises. The team interacted with USEUCOM; Commander, Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam (JBPHH), HI; USSTRATCOM; and the 805th Combat Training Squadron, Nellis AFB. The resulting C2 CONOPS was field tested during the USINDOPACOM Exercise Pacific Sentry 20-2 (PS20-2) in January 2020 at USINDOPACOM Headquarters at Camp H. M. Smith and in the 613th Air Operations Center at JBPHH.

The team trained select participants on the C2 CONOPS, along with notional HSW capabilities, and then observed all phases of the decision-making associ­ated within established deliberate planning and dynamic targeting processes. While on JBPHH, the team observed significant discussions and planning efforts for HSW use at the component and CCMD levels. The team was able to gather multiple C2 data points throughout the process to inform focused revisions of the C2 CONOPS.

Concurrent with the PS20-2 exercise, the team supported the integration of HSW, and their requisite C2, into the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff’s Global Integration Exercise 20, which integrated the potential for a “first use” discussion of U.S. conventional HSWs. Also, the CONOPS developed by the J-HyperSPEC2 JT team informed the Joint Staff’s draft Global Integrated Operations CONOPS. Finally, the lessons learned just prior to PS20-2 from this JT were well received at a Hypersonic Weapons Policy roundtable hosted by the OSD Policy office.

Two additional efforts unrelated to PS20-2 occurred to further inform the C2 CONOPS prior to final review and refinement to enable its transition to the Warfighter. The first was a series of general officer/flag officer interviews, which occurred across multiple Services and commands to gain insight on how senior leaders identify HSW integration. The second occurred at USSTRATCOM and was focused on authorities and rules of engagement.


Exploring the “how to use and when” aspects are part of the C2 CONOPS development. Testing to identify if the C2 CONOPS meets senior leader expectations while identifying whether HSWs should be classified as a unique weapon is the model the J-HyperSPEC2 JT team is addressing. Specific to the use aspect, the JT team identified early in C2 CONOPS development that there was a distinct lack of fielded planning tools to support planner’s efforts to incorporate HSWs into operations. J-HyperSPEC2 JT identified that the Air Force Standoff Munitions Activity Center (SMAC) and Navy Cruise Missile Support Activity (CMSA) were develop­ing such tools; however, they would not be ready for CCMDs or other organiza­tions to use during PS20-2. To enable effective testing of the C2 CONOPS, the J-HyperSPEC2 JT developed a mission planning handbook (MPH) as a surrogate for the in-development planning software applications. The MPH, which was used as a planner reference and not evaluated as part of the C2 CONOPS, provided mission planners at PS20-2 with the requisite HSW attributes, enabling successful planning with current processes.

Additionally, the team’s effort to investigate several Service-related mission planning aspects has benefited CONOPS design and development. This was accomplished by leveraging the SMAC and CMSA to provide a central­ized planning capacity for HSWs. By identifying these agencies in the CONOPS, the Warfighter is informed of in-place capabilities. Also, due to similarities with cruise missile planning, the J-HyperSPEC2 JT identified the option to modify the Tomahawk (Cruise Missile) Planning System software as a cost-effective solution for planning sea- and land-based HSW operations. This finding has the potential to provide advanced mission planning capabilities to the Warfighter with significant reductions in development time and cost compared to the procurement of new standalone systems.

The J-HyperSPEC2 JT has already benefited the Department of Defense (DoD) in getting ahead of the “buy, field, develop concept of use” approach. While the DoD prioritized the develop­ment and fielding of HSWs in the FY20 budget provided to Congress, J-HyperSPEC2 JT’s focus on HSW usage within the Services and CCMDs provides a measure of forward thinking to support development of use concepts before, not after, a weapons system is fielded. As the Services field HSWs, enabling them the capability to hold distant, defended, fleeting, and high-value targets at risk, the Warfighter will be better equipped to meet national objectives and impose costs on potential adversaries by having a way to do this via the C2 CONOPS.

The J-HyperSPEC2 JT ended in mid- September 2020, as directed by the test sponsor, USSTRATCOM. The resulting C2 CONOPS will provide an effective operational and strategic context to inform HSW use and, eventually, look to inform future development by the Services of tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs). Such TTPs will further reinforce the use of HSW by empowering the commander to develop standards in the areas of manning, equipping, training, and planning in the Joint Force. In the interim, the J-HyperSPEC2 JT-developed C2 CONOPS will provide planners and their supporters with a starting point for HSWs while also serving to help focus future DoD and industry investment.


Mr. F. Patrick Filbert (U.S. Army, Retired) served as a Test Planner for the OSD J-HyperSPEC2 JT. His post-military career includes supporting four OSD Joint Tests, serving as a Senior Intelligence Analyst in two Air Force Intelligence Squadrons, as Intelligence Contract Team Lead in the Air Force 432 RPA Wing Operations Center, and as Project Manager for the USINDOPACOM J2 Socio-Cultural Intelligence Analysis effort. Mr. Filbert holds a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Hawaii, a master’s degree in strategic intelligence from American Military University, and OUSD (I&S) Intelligence Fundamentals Professional Certification.


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