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Mike Pompeo warned this week that defending the United States from a hypersonic-missile attack is “a very difficult problem.” The former secretary of state’s remarks provide the latest example of a senior U.S. official vexed by this emerging threat.
The Trump-era top diplomat was speaking Tuesday evening during a session of the Nixon Seminar — a monthly foreign-policy-discussion program — after host Mary Kissel, vice president at Stephens Inc. and Pompeo’s senior adviser at the State Department, asked whether the U.S. can protect against hypersonic missiles from China.
Pompeo, who in January called for fast-tracking new defensive and offensive technologies to deal with the hypersonic threat, suggested that the U.S. doesn’t have the technological capabilities to detect such an attack in time.
His comments followed reports by the Financial Times last year that the Chinese government tested two nuclear-capable hypersonic missiles with advanced technological capabilities. The paper reported that military officials were alarmed and surprised by the tests, which suggested that the Chinese military could have the capability to hit any target on the planet.
During a test in July, a hypersonic-glide vehicle was shot into space using a “fractional orbital bombardment system.” This system demonstrated the capability to fire an additional missile during its flight; experts told the FT that the additional missile might’ve been a defensive system. In August, the Chinese military tested an additional missile combining its orbital system with a glide vehicle.
“It is a very difficult problem, because there’s a risk that the strategic warning won’t be available if it’s an orbital system that can go through a guided missile path that is more like a cruise missile, not just a kinetic or ballistic fall,” said Pompeo.
Former national-security adviser Robert O’Brien, who co-chairs the Nixon Seminar with Pompeo, said that although these new Chinese capabilities are a “tough problem,” the U.S. has some ability to deal with the threat.
“We’ve got to invest more in defenses, but we’re not without capabilities, and our adversaries should know that,” O’Brien added, after Pompeo spoke.
Washington is moving to further develop those capabilities. The U.S. Missile Defense Agency approved designs for satellites that can help track hypersonic missiles, C4ISRNET reported in December. Whether U.S. officials can stand up new defensive technologies in time, however, remains to be seen.
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