Former national security adviser John Bolton derided President Donald Trump’s daughter and son-in-law during a private speech last week and suggested his former boss’ approach to U.S. policy on Turkey is motivated by personal or financial interests, several people who were present for the remarks told NBC News. Aired on 11/12/19.
House committees heard testimony on Tuesday from an official who listened in on the pivotal July 25 call between President Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart and said he was so alarmed by the call that he reported his concerns to a White House lawyer.
In the call, Mr. Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to open investigations into matters related to the 2016 election and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Those requests, and a temporary hold on aid to Ukraine, are at the center of House Democrats’ impeachment probe.
Alexander Vindman, the director of European affairs at the National Security Council, said he was concerned by Mr. Trump’s July 25 call because he didn’t think it was appropriate to ask another country to investigate a U.S. citizen. According to his opening statement obtained by The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Vindman said he was worried that the requests could be viewed as a “partisan play” that would cause Ukraine to lose the bipartisan support that is the basis for years of American aid in Ukraine’s fight against Russian aggression.
Mr. Vindman, who arrived at the Capitol Tuesday morning to offer his closed-door testimony, is the ninth witness to be interviewed by Democratic-led committees and the first person who was on the summer call to speak before the panels. His testimony comes as Democrats prepare to launch a new phase of the investigation that will include public hearings and release transcripts of witnesses who have testified previously.
Mr. Vindman reported to Fiona Hill, the NSC’s former top Russia adviser, who has already testified. Ms. Hill in turn reported to John Bolton, the former national security adviser. Mr. Vindman, who was three years old when his family emigrated from Ukraine in the former Soviet Union, is an Army officer who served in Iraq and was awarded a Purple Heart.
Mr. Vindman said that he raised concerns to colleagues inside the White House about two critical moments—the July 25 phone call between Mr. Trump and Ukraine’s President Zelensky, as well as a July 10 meeting that Mr. Vindman attended between White House and Ukrainian officials. After both, Mr. Vindman said he reported his concerns to the National Security Council’s lead counsel.
Mr. Vindman, who appears pursuant to a subpoena, said that at the July 10 meeting, U.S. ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland started speaking about Ukraine delivering specific investigations to secure a meeting with Mr. Trump when Mr. Bolton cut the meeting short. Mr. Vindman said that at a debriefing after the meeting, Mr. Sondland “emphasized the importance that Ukraine deliver the investigations into the 2016 election, the Bidens, and Burisma,” the Ukrainian company where Hunter Biden was a board member.
In his prepared testimony, Mr. Vindman said that he then told Mr. Sondland that his statements were inappropriate as the request to investigate Mr. Biden and his son had nothing to do with national security.
Mr. Sondland, in his own testimony earlier this month, acknowledged raising investigations in the July 10 meeting but said he doesn’t recall any NSC officials expressing concerns to him. His testimony is at odds with that of Mr. Vindman; Bill Taylor, the acting ambassador to Ukraine who testified last week; and Ms. Hill, who testified earlier this month.
Mr. Sondland’s lawyer declined to comment on Mr. Vindman’s testimony.
Mr. Trump sought to play down the testimony Tuesday morning, tweeting: “Why are people that I never even heard of testifying about the call.” He added: “How many more Never Trumpers will be allowed to testify about a perfectly appropriate phone call when all anyone has to do is READ THE TRANSCRIPT!”
The White House, under pressure from Capitol Hill following an unnamed whistleblower filing a complaint about the call, released the rough transcript of the July 25 call last month. Mr. Vindman said in his prepared testimony that he is not the whistleblower and doesn’t know who it is.
Some allies of the president, including Fox News host Laura Ingraham and former Rep. Sean Duffy (R., Wis.), questioned on cable news shows whether Mr. Vindman’s stance on Ukraine and Mr. Trump’s comments was related to his being born there, and they questioned his motivations. But prominent House Republicans rejected doubts about his loyalty or patriotism.
“We’re talking about decorated veterans who have served this nation,” said Rep. Liz Cheney (R., Wyo.), a member of GOP leadership. “And it is shameful to question their patriotism, their love of this nation, and we should not be involved in that process.”
Democrats panned the criticism of Mr. Vindman.
“If that’s all they’ve got, to question the patriotism of a lieutenant colonel who took a bullet for us and has a Purple Heart on the battlefield, well, good luck to them,” said Rep. Ron Kind (D., Wis.). “My goodness.”
Mr. Vindman’s brief opening statement sheds no light on another facet of the controversy involving Ukraine—the holdup of nearly $400 million of aid to Ukraine over the summer. The hold on U.S. aid to Ukraine came at the request of acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney on direction from Mr. Trump.
Mr. Vindman’s testimony took place behind closed doors but could become public under a resolution expected to be voted on later this week. House Democrats will use the vote to formally set up a process for the next stage of the inquiry, including holding hearings, authorizing the disclosure of transcripts and outlining procedures to transfer evidence to the Judiciary Committee, which traditionally drafts articles of impeachment. The resolution will also set forth due-process rights for the president and his counsel.
Republicans have said that the resolution does little to legitimize an inquiry that they deride as a sham. They claim that the damage to the president has already been done by a closed-door probe that they say has been marred by selective leaks of information harmful to the president. A federal judge late last week determined that the House inquiries have legal standing as an impeachment investigation.
THE UKRAINE WITNESSES
- Oct. 3: Kurt Volker, former U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations, testifies and hands over text messages with other State Department officials that showed officials attempting to use a potential meeting between Mr. Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart as leverage to press Kyiv to investigate Joe Biden.
- Oct. 11: Marie Yovanovitch, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, testifies that Mr. Trump sought for over a year to remove her and that his allies, including Rudy Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, targeted her in a “concerted campaign.”
- Oct. 14: Fiona Hill, President Trump’s former top Russia adviser, testifies that she and other White House officials grew so alarmed by the administration’s efforts to push Ukraine to open certain investigations that they raised objections with a White House lawyer.
- Oct. 15: George Kent, deputy assistant secretary of state, testifies that he had grown concerned that he had been sidelined from Ukraine diplomacy and that he raised concerns in 2015 about Joe Biden’s son serving on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.
- Oct. 16: Michael McKinley, former top aide to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, testifies that he left his post over frustration with Mr. Pompeo regarding the treatment of Ms. Yovanovitch.
- Oct. 17: Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, criticizes President Trump over his efforts to enlist Ukraine in investigating a political rival and says he and other U.S. officials were “disappointed” by the president’s directive to work with Mr. Giuliani on Ukraine matters.
- Oct. 22: William Taylor, chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, testified that President Trump made nearly $400 million in aid to Ukraine contingent on the Ukrainian president investigating two matters related to U.S. politics.
- Oct. 23: Laura Cooper, Defense Department official overseeing Ukraine, was the first Pentagon official to testify before investigators.
- Oct. 26: Philip Reeker, acting assistant secretary of European and Eurasian affairs, said that top officials stymied a show of solidarity for Ms. Yovanovitch.
- Oct. 29: Alexander Vindman, the director of European affairs at the National Security Council who attended the Ukrainian president’s inauguration in May.
Scheduled to Testify:
- Oct. 30: Kathryn Wheelbarger, the acting assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs; Catherine Croft, who served at the State Department as special adviser for Ukraine; Christopher Anderson, who was a special adviser to Kurt Volker, the former U.S. envoy for Ukraine negotiations
- Oct. 31: Tim Morrison, the National Security Council’s Russia and Europe director
A warmonger is the latest to lose his dignity to Donald Trump.
Say this for Donald Trump. He may be transforming American politics into a kleptocratic fascist reality show and turning our once-great country into a global laughingstock, but as least he’s humiliating John Bolton in the process.
Many people who get involved with this president end up diminished, embarrassed or, in quite a few cases, indicted. Rex Tillerson, once known as a corporate titan, will now be remembered for his brief, ineffectual record as secretary of state. Michael Cohen, Trump’s former attorney, and Paul Manafort, his former campaign manager, are in prison.
Bolton’s comeuppance is of a different kind. By taking to Fox News to kiss up to Trump, he became national security adviser, a job that no other president would have ever given to a discredited warmonger. His reward is that, after devoting his life to the expansion of American power globally, he’s a hapless party to its contraction. For a person to sell out his putative ideals for such a hollow victory would be like a Greek drama, if the Greeks had written dramas about such small men.
Bolton is sometimes described as a neoconservative, but that’s not really right. Neoconservatives purported to champion the expansion of American values, while Bolton just wants to impose American might. On the surface, he seems an excellent fit with Trump, who is also uninterested in human rights and contemptuous of multilateral institutions. Both are
- bellicose nationalists,
- dismissive of climate change,
- eager to empower the Israeli right,
- hostile to Islam but
- solicitous of Saudi Arabia.
But the uber-hawk Bolton, who still refuses to admit that the Iraq war was a mistake, has long believed that America’s most implacable enemies include North Korea, Russia and Iran. One multilateral organization he appears to value is NATO, a counterweight to Russia that he once called “the most successful political-military alliance in human history.” Now, at the summit of his career, he’s part of an administration that makes a mockery of his longtime foreign policy philosophy.
When the George W. Bush administration, in which Bolton also served, lifted some sanctions on North Korea in 2008, Bolton seemed almost heartsick. “Nothing can erase the ineffable sadness of an American presidency, like this one, in total intellectual collapse,” he wrote in The Wall Street Journal.
So one can only imagine the ineffable sadness he felt over the weekend, when Trump stepped into North Korea to shake the hand of his friend Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s totalitarian leader. On Sunday, The New York Times reported that the Trump administration was considering putting aside the goal of getting North Korea to surrender the nuclear weapons it already has, instead trying to get the country to stop making new nuclear material.
Given Trump’s limitations as a statesman, that’s probably the best that can be hoped for. But it’s almost certainly not what Bolton, who was calling for pre-emptive strikes on North Korea just before Trump appointed him, thought he was signing up for. In response to the Times article, Bolton tweeted angrily that he’d heard of no such plan, though he might have simply been out of the loop. After all, while Trump was flattering Kim, Bolton was in Mongolia.
Also on Sunday, Politico reported on a white paper prepared for the Joint Chiefs of Staff about expanding Russian power. “Russia has a growing and demonstrated capacity and willingness to exercise malign influence in Europe and abroad, including in the United States,” the paper said.
Bolton used to decry this influence. Vladimir Putin’s efforts in the 2016 election, wrote Bolton in 2017, was “a casus belli, a true act of war, and one Washington will never tolerate.” When Putin lied to Trump’s face during their first meeting in Hamburg, Germany, Bolton hoped Trump would take it as a “highly salutary lesson about the character of Russia’s leadership.” Obviously, Trump learned no such lesson. At the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, last week, the president joked with Putin about election interference and the murder of journalists, a scene that will now be part of Bolton’s legacy.
There is one major issue left on which Bolton could shape history. On Monday, news broke that Iran had breached a limit on how much nuclear fuel it can possess under the 2015 nuclear deal, which the Trump administration abandoned. That comes after months of escalation on both sides, and the threat remains that Bolton could goad an erratic Trump into war.
Standing between us and that apocalyptic possibility is the Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who has been urging Trump away from a military confrontation with Iran. Last month, Carlson used his opening monologue to eviscerate Bolton, calling him a “bureaucratic tapeworm” for whom war is “always good business.” In normal administrations, national security advisers have more authority than cable news hosts, but it was Carlson, not Bolton, who was with Trump at the Korean Demilitarized Zone this weekend. (Carlson later called into “Fox & Friends” and rationalized North Korean atrocities, said that leading a country “means killing people.”)
It’s nightmarish to live in a country where our foreign policy has been reduced to an intramural battle between Fox News reactionaries. And there’s still a danger that Bolton could outmaneuver the isolationists. But right now there is a thin, bitter consolation in knowing that he, like so many others who’ve worked for Trump, sacrificed his principles for power and will likely end up with neither.
In March 6, 2018, the grand ballroom at the Sphinx Club in Washington was packed with aerospace-industry executives waiting to hear from Michael D. Griffin. Weeks earlier, Secretary of Defense James Mattis named the 69-year-old Maryland native the Pentagon’s under secretary for research and engineering, a job that comes with an annual budget of more than $17 billion. The dark-suited attendees at the McAleese/Credit Suisse Defense Programs Conference were eager to learn what type of work he would favor.
The audience was already familiar with Griffin, an unabashed defender of American military and political supremacy who has bragged about being labeled an “unreconstructed cold warrior.” With five master’s degrees and a doctorate in aerospace engineering, he was the chief technology officer for President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (popularly known as Star Wars), which was supposed to shield the United States against a potential Russian attack by ballistic missiles looping over the North Pole. Over the course of his career that followed, he wrote a book on space vehicle design, ran a technology incubator funded by the C.I.A., directed NASA for four years and was employed as a senior executive at a handful of aerospace firms.
Griffin was known as a scientific optimist who regularly called for “disruptive innovation” and who prized speed above all. He had repeatedly complained about the Pentagon’s sluggish bureaucracy, which he saw as mired in legacy thinking. “This is a country that produced an atom bomb under the stress of wartime in three years from the day we decided to do it,” he told a congressional panel last year. “This is a country that can do anything we need to do that physics allows. We just need to get on with it.”
In recent decades, Griffin’s predecessors had prioritized broad research into topics such as human-computer interaction, space communication and undersea warfare. But Griffin signaled an important shift, one that would have major financial consequences for the executives in attendance. “I’m sorry for everybody out there who champions some other high priority, some technical thing; it’s not that I disagree with those,” he told the room. “But there has to be a first, and hypersonics is my first.”
Griffin was referring to a revolutionary new type of weapon, one that would have the unprecedented ability to maneuver and then to strike almost any target in the world within a matter of minutes. Capable of traveling at more than 15 times the speed of sound, hypersonic missiles arrive at their targets in a blinding, destructive flash, before any sonic booms or other meaningful warning. So far, there are no surefire defenses. Fast, effective, precise and unstoppable — these are rare but highly desired characteristics on the modern battlefield. And the missiles are being developed not only by the United States but also by China, Russia and other countries.
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Griffin is now the chief evangelist in Washington for hypersonics, and so far he has run into few political or financial roadblocks. Lawmakers have supported a significant expansion of federal spending to accelerate the delivery of what they call a “game-changing technology,” a buzz phrase often repeated in discussions on hypersonics. America needs to act quickly, says James Inhofe, the Republican senator from Oklahoma who is chairman of the Armed Services Committee, or else the nation might fall behind Russia and China. Democratic leaders in the House and Senate are largely in agreement, though recently they’ve pressed the Pentagon for more information. (The Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, and House Chairman Adam Smith, the Democratic representative for Washington’s ninth district, told me it might make sense to question the weapons’ global impact or talk with Russia about the risks they create, but the priority in Washington right now is to get our versions built.)
In 2018, Congress expressed its consensus in a law requiring that an American hypersonic weapon be operational by October 2022. This year, the Trump administration’s proposed defense budget included $2.6 billion for hypersonics, and national security industry experts project that the annual budget will reach $5 billion by the middle of the next decade. The immediate aim is to create two deployable systems within three years. Key funding is likely to be approved this summer.
The enthusiasm has spread to military contractors, especially after the Pentagon awarded the largest one, Lockheed Martin, more than $1.4 billion in 2018 to build missile prototypes that can be launched by Air Force fighter jets and B-52 bombers. These programs were just the beginning of what the acting defense secretary, Patrick M. Shanahan, described in December as the Trump administration’s goal of “industrializing” hypersonic missile production. Several months later, he and Griffin created a new Space Development Agency of some 225 people, tasked with putting a network of sensors in low-earth orbit that would track incoming hypersonic missiles and direct American hypersonic attacks. This isn’t the network’s only purpose, but it will have “a war-fighting capability, should it come to that,” Griffin said in March.
Development of hypersonics is moving so quickly, however, that it threatens to outpace any real discussion about the potential perils of such weapons, including how they may disrupt efforts to avoid accidental conflict, especially during crises. There are currently no international agreements on how or when hypersonic missiles can be used, nor are there any plans between any countries to start those discussions. Instead, the rush to possess weapons of incredible speed and maneuverability has pushed the United States into a new arms race with Russia and China — one that could, some experts worry, upend existing norms of deterrence and renew Cold War-era tensions.
Although hypersonic missiles can in theory carry nuclear warheads, those being developed by the United States will only be equipped with small conventional explosives. With a length between just five and 10 feet, weighing about 500 pounds and encased in materials like ceramic and carbon fiber composites or nickel-chromium superalloys, the missiles function like nearly invisible power drills that smash holes in their targets, to catastrophic effect. After their launch — whether from the ground, from airplanes or from submarines — they are pulled by gravity as they descend from a powered ascent, or propelled by highly advanced engines. The missiles’ kinetic energy at the time of impact, at speeds of at least 1,150 miles per hour, makes them powerful enough to penetrate any building material or armored plating with the force of three to four tons of TNT.
They could be aimed, in theory, at Russian nuclear-armed ballistic missiles being carried on trucks or rails. Or the Chinese could use their own versions of these missiles to target American bombers and other aircraft at bases in Japan or Guam. Or the missiles could attack vital land- or sea-based radars anywhere, or military headquarters in Asian ports or near European cities. The weapons could even suddenly pierce the steel decks of one of America’s 11 multibillion-dollar aircraft carriers, instantly stopping flight operations, a vulnerability that might eventually render the floating behemoths obsolete. Hypersonic missiles are also ideal for waging a decapitation strike — assassinating a country’s top military or political officials. “Instant leader-killers,” a former Obama administration White House official, who asked not to be named, said in an interview.
Within the next decade, these new weapons could undertake a task long imagined for nuclear arms: a first strike against another nation’s government or arsenals, interrupting key chains of communication and disabling some of its retaliatory forces, all without the radioactive fallout and special condemnation that might accompany the detonation of nuclear warheads. That’s why a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report said in 2016 that hypersonics aren’t “simply evolutionary threats” to the United States but could in the hands of enemies “challenge this nation’s tenets of global vigilance, reach and power.”
The arrival of such fast weaponry will dangerously compress the time during which military officials and their political leaders — in any country — can figure out the nature of an attack and make reasoned decisions about the wisdom and scope of defensive steps or retaliation. And the threat that hypersonics pose to retaliatory weapons creates what scholars call “use it or lose it” pressures on countries to strike first during a crisis. Experts say that the missiles could upend the grim psychology of Mutual Assured Destruction, the bedrock military doctrine of the nuclear age that argued globe-altering wars would be deterred if the potential combatants always felt certain of their opponents’ devastating response.
This position worries arms-control experts like Thomas M. Countryman, a career diplomat for 35 years and former assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration. “This is not the first case of a new technology proceeding through research, development and deployment far faster than the policy apparatus can keep up,” says Countryman, who is now chairman of the Arms Control Association. He cites examples of similarly “destabilizing technologies” in the 1960s and 1970s, when billions of dollars in frenzied spending on nuclear and chemical arms was unaccompanied by discussion of how the resulting dangers could be minimized. Countryman wants to see limitations placed on the number of hypersonic missiles that a country can build or on the type of warheads that they can carry. He and others worry that failing to regulate these weapons at the international level could have irreversible consequences.
“It is possible,” the United Nations Office of Disarmament Affairs said in a February report, that “in response [to] the deployment of hypersonic weapons,” nations fearing the destruction of their retaliatory-strike capability might either decide to use nuclear weapons under a wider set of conditions or simply place “nuclear forces on higher alert levels” as a matter of routine. The report lamented that these “ramifications remain largely unexamined and almost wholly undiscussed.”
So why haven’t the potential risks of this revolution attracted more attention? One reason is that for years the big powers have cared mostly about numerical measures of power — who has more warheads, bombers and missiles — and negotiations have focused heavily on those metrics. Only occasionally has their conversation widened to include the issue of strategic stability, a topic that encompasses whether specific weaponry poses risks of inadvertent war.
An aerospace engineer for the military for more than three decades, Daniel Marren runs one of the world’s fastest wind tunnels — and thanks to hypersonics research, his lab is in high demand. But finding it takes some time: When I arrived at the Air Force’s White Oak testing facility, just north of Silver Spring, Md., the private security guards only vaguely gestured toward some World War II-era military research buildings down the road, at the edge of the Food and Drug Administration’s main campus. The low-slung structure that houses Marren’s tunnel looks as if it could pass for an aged elementary school, except that it has a seven-story silver sphere sticking out of its east side, like a World’s Fair exhibit in the spot where an auditorium should be. The tunnel itself, some 40 feet in length and five feet in diameter, looks like a water main; it narrows at one end before emptying into the silver sphere. A column of costly high-tech sensors is grafted onto the piping where a thick window has been cut into its midsection.
Marren seemed both thrilled and harried by the rising tempo at his laboratory in recent months. A jovial 55-year-old who speaks carefully but excitedly about his work, he showed me a red brick structure on the property with some broken windows. It was built, he said, to house the first of nine wind tunnels that have operated at the test site, one that was painstakingly recovered in 1948 from Peenemünde, the coastal German village where Wernher von Braun worked on the V-2 rocket used to kill thousands of Londoners in World War II. American military researchers had a hard time figuring out how to reassemble and operate it, so they recruited some German scientists stateside.
Inside the main room, Marren — dressed in a technologist’s polo shirt — explained that during the tests, the tunnel is first rolled into place on a trolley over steel rails in the floor. Then an enormous electric burner is ignited beneath it, heating the air inside to more than 3,000 degrees, hot enough to melt steel. The air is then punched by pressures 1,000 times greater than normal at one end of the tunnel and sucked at the other end by a vacuum deliberately created in the enormous sphere.
That sends the air roaring down the tunnel at up to 18 times the speed of sound — fast enough to traverse more than 30 football fields in the time it takes to blink. Smack in the middle of the tunnel during a test, attached to a pole capable of changing its angle in fractions of a second, is a scale model of the hypersonics prototype. That is, instead of testing the missiles by flying them through the air outdoors, the tunnel effectively makes the air fly past them at the same incredible pace.
For the tests, the models are coated with a paint that absorbs ultraviolet laser light as it warms, marking the spots on their ceramic skin where frictional heat may threaten the structure of the missile; engineers will then need to tweak the designs either to resist that heat or shunt it elsewhere. The aim, Marren explains, is to see what will happen when the missiles plow through the earth’s dense atmosphere on their way to their targets.
It’s challenging work, replicating the stresses these missiles would endure while whizzing by at 30 times the speed of a civilian airliner, miles above the clouds. Their sleek, synthetic skin expands and deforms and kicks off a plasma like the ionized gas formed by superheated stars, as they smash the air and try to shed all that intense heat. The tests are fleeting, lasting 15 seconds at most, which require the sensors to record their data in thousandths of a nanosecond. That’s the best any such test facility can do, according to Marren, and it partly accounts for the difficulty that defense researchers have had in producing hypersonics, even after about $2 billion-worth of federal investment before this year.
Nonetheless, Marren, who has worked at the tunnel since 1984, is optimistic that researchers will be able to deliver a working missile soon. He and his team are operating at full capacity, with hundreds of test runs scheduled this year to measure the ability of various prototype missiles to withstand the punishing friction and heat of such rapid flight. “We have been prepared for this moment for some time, and it’s great to lean forward,” Marren says. The faster that weapons systems can operate, he adds, the better.
Hypersonics pose a different threat from ballistic missiles, according to those who have studied and worked on them, because they could be maneuvered in ways that confound existing methods of defense and detection. Not to mention, unlike most ballistic missiles, they would arrive in under 15 minutes — less time than anyone in Hawaii or elsewhere would need to meaningfully react.
How fast is that, really? An object moving through the air produces an audible shock wave — a sonic boom — when it reaches about 760 miles per hour. This speed of sound is also called Mach 1, after the Austrian physicist Ernst Mach. When a projectile flies faster than Mach’s number, it travels at supersonic speed — a speed faster than sound. Mach 2 is twice the speed of sound; Mach 3 is three times the speed of sound, and so on. When a projectile reaches a speed faster than Mach 5, it’s said to travel at hypersonic speed.
One of the two main hypersonic prototypes now under development in the United States is meant to fly at speeds between Mach 15 and Mach 20, or more than 11,400 miles per hour. This means that when fired by the U.S. submarines or bombers stationed at Guam, they could in theory hit China’s important inland missile bases, like Delingha, in less than 15 minutes. President Vladimir Putin has likewise claimed that one of Russia’s new hypersonic missiles will travel at Mach 10, while the other will travel at Mach 20. If true, that would mean a Russian aircraft or ship firing one of them near Bermuda could strike the Pentagon, some 800 miles away, in five minutes. China, meanwhile, has flight-tested its own hypersonic missiles at speeds fast enough to reach Guam from the Chinese coastline within minutes.
One concept now being pursued by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency uses a conventional missile launched from air platforms to loft a smaller, hypersonic glider on its journey, even before the missile reaches its apex. The glider then flies unpowered toward its target. The deadly projectile might ricochet downward, nose tilted up, on layers of atmosphere — the mesosphere, then the stratosphere and troposphere — like an oblate stone on water, in smaller and shallower skips, or it might be directed to pass smoothly through these layers. In either instance, the friction of the lower atmosphere would finally slow it enough to allow a steering system to maneuver it precisely toward its target. The weapon, known as Tactical Boost Glide, is scheduled to be dropped from military planes during testing next year.
Under an alternative approach, a hypersonic missile would fly mostly horizontally under the power of a “scramjet,” a highly advanced, fanless engine that uses shock waves created by its speed to compress incoming air in a short funnel and ignite it while passing by (in roughly one two-thousandths of a second, according to some accounts). With its skin heated by friction to as much as 5,400 degrees, its engine walls would be protected from burning up by routing the fuel through them, an idea pioneered by the German designers of the V-2 rocket.
Officials will have trouble even knowing where a strike would land. Although the missiles’ launch would probably be picked up by infrared-sensing satellites in its first few moments of flight, Griffin says they would be roughly 10 to 20 times harder to detect than incoming ballistic missiles as they near their targets. They would zoom along in the defensive void, maneuvering unpredictably, and then, in just a few final seconds of blindingly fast, mile-per-second flight, dive and strike a target such as an aircraft carrier from an altitude of 100,000 feet.
During their flight, the perimeter of their potential landing zone could be about as big as Rhode Island. Officials might sound a general alarm, but they’d be clueless about exactly where the missiles were headed. “We don’t have any defense that could deny the employment of such a weapon against us,” Gen. John E. Hyten, commander of United States Strategic Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2018. The Pentagon is just now studying what a hypersonic attack might look like and imagining how a defensive system might be created; it has no architecture for it, and no firm sense of the costs.
Developing these new weapons hasn’t been easy. A 2012 test was terminated when the skin peeled off a hypersonic prototype, and another self-destructed when it lost control. A third hypersonic test vehicle was deliberately destroyed when its boosting missile failed in 2014. Officials at Darpa acknowledge they are still struggling with the composite ceramics they need to protect the missiles’ electronics from intense heating; the Pentagon decided last July to ladle an extra $34.5 million into this effort this year.
The task of conducting realistic flight tests also poses a challenge. The military’s principal land-based site for open-air prototype flights — a 3,200-square-mile site stretching across multiple counties in New Mexico — isn’t big enough to accommodate hypersonic weapons. So fresh testing corridors are being negotiated in Utah that will require a new regional political agreement about the noise of trailing sonic booms. Scientists still aren’t sure how to accumulate all the data they need, given the speed of the flights. The open-air flight tests can cost up to $100 million.
The most recent open-air hypersonic-weapon test was completed by the Army and the Navy in October 2017, using a 36,000-pound missile to launch a glider from a rocky beach on the western shores of Kauai, Hawaii, toward Kwajalein Atoll, 2,300 miles to the southwest. The 9 p.m. flight created a trailing sonic boom over the Pacific, which topped out at an estimated 175 decibels, well above the threshold of causing physical pain. The effort cost $160 million, or 6 percent of the total hypersonics budget proposed for 2020.
In March 2018, Vladimir Putin, in the first of several speeches designed to rekindle American anxieties about a foreign missile threat, boasted that Russia had two operational hypersonic weapons: the Kinzhal, a fast, air-launched missile capable of striking targets up to 1,200 miles away; and the Avangard, designed to be attached to a new Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile before maneuvering toward its targets. Russian media have claimed that nuclear warheads for the weapons are already being produced and that the Sarmat missile itself has been flight-tested roughly 3,000 miles across Siberia. (Russia has also said it is working on a third hypersonic missile system, designed to be launched from submarines.) American experts aren’t buying all of Putin’s claims. “Their test record is more like ours,” said an engineer working on the American program. “It’s had a small number of flight-test successes.” But Pentagon officials are convinced that Moscow’s weapons will soon be a real threat.
Analysts say the Chinese are even further along than the Russians, partly because Beijing has sought to create hypersonic missiles with shorter ranges that don’t have to endure high temperatures as long. Many of their tests have involved a glide vehicle. Last August, a contractor for the Chinese space program claimed that it successfully flight-tested a gliding hypersonic missile for slightly more than six minutes. It supposedly reached a speed exceeding Mach 5 before landing in its target zone. Other Chinese hypersonic missile tests have reached speeds almost twice as fast.
And it’s not just Russia, China and the United States that are interested in fast-flying military power drills. France and India have active hypersonics development programs, and each is working in partnership with Russia, according to a 2017 report by the Rand Corp., a nonpartisan research organization. Australia, Japan and the European Union have either civilian or military hypersonics research underway, the report said, partly because they are still tantalized by the prospect of making super-speedy airplanes large enough to carry passengers across the globe in mere hours. But Japan’s immediate effort is aimed at making a weapon that will be ready for testing by 2025.
This is not the first time the United States or others have ignored risks while rushing toward a new, apparently magical solution to a military threat or shortcoming. During the Cold War, America and Russia competed fiercely to threaten each other’s vital assets with bombers that took hours to cross oceans and with ballistic missiles that could reach their targets in 30 minutes. Ultimately, each side accumulated more than 31,000 warheads (even though the detonations of just 100 weapons would have sparked a severe global famine and stripped away significant protections against ultraviolet radiation). Eventually the fever broke, partly because of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, and the two nations reduced their arsenals through negotiations to about 6,500 nuclear warheads apiece.
Since then, cycles of intense arms racing have restarted whenever one side has felt acutely disadvantaged or spied a potential exit from what the political scientist Robert Jervis once described as the “overwhelming nature” of nuclear destruction, a circumstance that we’ve been involuntarily and resentfully hostage to for the past 70 years.
Trump officials in particular have resisted policies that support Mutual Assured Destruction, the idea that shared risk can lead to stability and peace. John Bolton, the national security adviser, was a key architect in 2002 of America’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia, which limited both nations’ ability to try to block ballistic missiles. He asserted that freeing the United States of those restrictions would enhance American security, and if the rest of the world was static, his prediction might have come true. But Russia started its hypersonics program to ensure it could get around any American ballistic missile defenses. “Nobody wanted to listen to us” about the strategic dangers of abandoning the treaty, Putin said last year with an aggressive flourish as he displayed videos and animations of his nation’s hypersonic missiles. “So listen now.”
But not much listening is going on in either country. In January, the Trump administration released an updated missile-defense strategy that explicitly calls for limiting mutual vulnerability by defeating enemy “offensive missiles prior to launch.” The administration also continues to eschew any new limits on its own missiles, arguing that past agreements lulled America into a dangerous post-Cold War “holiday,” as a senior State Department official described it.
The Obama administration’s inaction helped open the door to the 21st-century hypersonic contest America finds itself in today. “We always do these things in isolation, without thinking about what it means for the big powers — for Russia and China — who are batshit paranoid” about a potential quick, pre-emptive American attack, the adviser said, expressing regret about how the issue was handled during Obama’s tenure.
While it might not be too late to change course, history shows that stopping an arms race is much harder than igniting one. And Washington at the moment is still principally focused on “putting a weapon on a target,” as a longtime congressional staff member put it, rather than the reaction this capability inspires in an adversary. Griffin even projects an eventual American victory in this race: In April 2018, he said the best answer to the Chinese and Russian hypersonic programs is “to hold their assets at risk with systems similar to but better than what they have fielded.” Invoking the mantra of military scientists throughout time, Griffin added that the country must “see their hand and raise them one.” The world will soon find out what happens now that the military superpowers have decided to go all in.