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Russia has deployed hypersonic missiles — those that travel five times the speed of sound — in its war against Ukraine, while the U.S. is still developing hypersonic missiles.
Russia’s hypersonic missiles are considered primitive. The U.S. versions are expected to have sophisticated abilities to glide, be launched by aircraft and maneuver to avoid defenses. Experts say they are a couple of years from being deployed.
After formally filing for the New Hampshire primary Oct. 18, Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy weighed in on whether the United States needs an Iron Dome missile defense system similar to Israel’s. Ramaswamy concluded it does because the U.S. lags its adversaries’ military capabilities.
"I think the U.S. needs the equivalent of an Iron Dome because Russia has hypersonic missile capabilities ahead of that of the U.S.," Ramaswarmy said. "We are vulnerable to new threats on our homeland. Those hypersonic missiles can reach the United States today, we’re badly vulnerable."
Military experts told PolitiFact they agree that the U.S. lags Russia in the development of hypersonic missiles. However, Ramaswamy ignores that U.S. research and development is ahead of Russia in the pursuit of a more technologically sophisticated and useful generation of hypersonic missiles. The experts said Russia’s hypersonic weapons program is somewhat overhyped.
PolitiFact reached out to Ramaswamy’s campaign. We didn’t hear back.
Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy addresses voters Oct. 14, 2023, at a town hall in Exeter, New Hampshire. (Samantha Putterman/PolitiFact)
We previously examined Ramaswamy’s comments about the Iron Dome, which is Israel’s air defense missile system designed to shoot down incoming projectiles. He said Oct. 9 that "we don’t have an Iron Dome in this country, yet, we’re vulnerable to nuclear missile attacks any given day." We found his view was premised on misunderstandings about U.S. missile defense capabilities and needs.
Experts told PolitiFact that Ramaswamy has a point that today, Russia, unlike the U.S., is able to deploy hypersonic missiles. But they question whether this is as dangerous as Ramaswamy says.
Hypersonic missiles have received heightened attention since Russia began deploying them in Ukraine. But they have existed for decades; since the 1950s, some missiles have qualified as hypersonic by traveling more than five times the speed of sound (or around 4,000 miles per hour). These include intercontinental ballistic missiles, known as ICBMs, which can carry nuclear warheads from one continent to another.
Hypersonic missiles travel so fast because when they reach space, gravity hurls them to hypersonic speeds.
"It's not hard to make a ballistic missile hypersonic," said Brendan Green, a University of Cincinnati professor who has studied nuclear issues. "Nature will do this for you."
A more sophisticated type of hypersonic missile would be one that could "travel at a low level, to glide, to be launched from aircraft, to maneuver to avoid defenses," or some combination of those traits, said Lance Janda, a Cameron University military historian.
One way these weapons can achieve long ranges with limited fuel is by deploying wings that allow them to "glide" for thousands of miles and maneuver without propulsion, at least for a limited time, Janda said. These are the kinds of advances that U.S. hypersonic missiles are expected to include.
Such missiles might be targeted at an aircraft carrier, a command-and-control center, or even a high-value individual, said Iain Boyd, director of the Center for National Security Initiatives at the University of Colorado Boulder.
U.S. engineers were at the forefront of hypersonic research in the late 1950s, but the Vietnam War crowded out that research because hypersonic aircraft weren’t relevant to fighting in the jungle, The Wall Street Journal reported Sept. 18. A lack of testing infrastructure has since slowed the pace of development.
As the U.S. took a backseat, Russia accelerated its efforts on hypersonics.
Now, though, new generation hypersonic missiles are "on the drawing board" for the United States, Janda said.
The U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force are each developing these missiles, and the Pentagon’s 2023 budget includes around $5 billion for the weapons.
Designing and building the new generation of technologically advanced hypersonic missiles is challenging, experts say. Sensitive electronics in the missles have to be shielded from the extreme heat generated by traveling at high speed.
As a result, hypersonic missiles are estimated to cost about one-third more to procure and field than comparable ballistic missiles, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
A common hypersonic glide body launches from the Pacific Missile Range Facility, in Kauai, Hawaii, in March 2020 during a Defense Department flight experiment. (U.S. Navy via AP)
The Pentagon hasn’t released estimates of how many hypersonic missiles they think Russia has. But in March 2022, Russia claimed it had reached a milestone after successfully launching two hypersonic Kinzhal missiles against Ukraine. Kinzhal means "dagger" in Russian.
Available information suggests that Russia’s weapons use decades-old technology, not the advances sought by the United States. This is also supported by reports that Ukraine has been able to intercept and shoot down subsequent Kinzhal missiles.
Boyd called the Russian technology "primitive" compared with U.S. missiles in development.
Janda said there is no evidence that Russians can mass-produce the missiles, "and it also doesn’t mean their missiles are reliable. … so we should all take any claims regarding Russian hypersonic weapons with a huge grain of salt."
China, meanwhile, tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile in August 2021. It circled the globe before hitting near its target. Military analysts believe it is much further along than Russia’s projects.
Ultimately, "I don’t see hypersonics as that big of a deal," Janda said. "They don’t upend our nuclear deterrence. Besides, we’re going flat out to develop new hypersonic systems of our own. And if history is any guide, our stuff will be much, much better."
Ramaswamy said, "Russia has hypersonic missile capabilities ahead of that of the U.S."
Experts say Ramaswamy has a point: Russia has deployed hypersonic missiles against Ukraine while the U.S. is still developing its own hypersonic missiles.
But Ramaswamy’s statement ignores important context: Russia’s missiles are primitive and do not pose the level of threat that he suggests. And the versions the U.S. is developing are expected to have sophisticated abilities to glide, be launched by aircraft and maneuver to avoid defenses.
The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details. We rate it Half True.
Vivek Ramaswamy interview, Oct. 18, 2023
Congressional Budget Office, U.S. Hypersonic Weapons and Alternatives, January 2023
GlobalSecurity.org, Putting the hype into hypersonic, feeling the need for speed, March 2020
PolitiFact, The US may not have an Iron Dome, but the military is spending on this technology. Here’s how, Oct. 13, 2023
USNI News, Report to Congress on Hypersonic Weapons, Feb. 23, 2023
Politico, U.S. ‘not as advanced’ as China and Russia on hypersonic tech, Space Force general warns, Nov. 20, 2021
Reuters, Raytheon $985 mln hypersonic award puts them far ahead in contracting race, Sept. 22, 2022
The Hill, National security at the speed of sound: hypersonics in American defense, Oct. 4, 2022
Financial Times, China tests new space capability with hypersonic missile, Oct. 16, 2021
YouTube, CNN: Russia and China are ahead of US in hypersonic missile technology. Here's why, May 30, 2022
Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD), Accessed Oct. 19, 2023
The Wall Street Journal, Hypersonic missiles are game-changers, and America doesn’t have them, Sept. 18, 2023
Brookings Institution, "Ukraine and the Kinzhal: Don’t believe the hypersonic hype," May 23, 2023
Email interview with Dana E. Struckman, retired U.S. Air Force Col. and professor at the Naval War College, Oct. 20, 2023
Email interview with Jaganath Sankaran, assistant professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin, Oct. 19, 2023
Email interview with John Pike, director of globalsecurity.org, Oct. 19, 2023
Email interview with Lance Janda, military historian at Cameron University, Oct. 19, 2023
Email interview with Brendan Green, University of Cincinnati professor who has studied nuclear issues, Oct. 19, 2023
Email interview with Iain Boyd, director of the Center for National Security Initiatives at the University of Colorado, Oct. 19, 2023
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