When it Comes to Missiles, Don’t Copy Russia and China — Leapfrog Them

June 30, 2020

Nearly five years ago, a SpaceX Falcon 9 first-stage booster dropped tail first from the night sky, igniting one of its nine liquid oxygen/RP1 engines and softly touching down at a landing zone eight kilometers north of its launch site at the Kennedy Space Center nine minutes after delivering a communications satellite to low-Earth orbit. Everyone in the world could see that rockets designed to prioritize affordability and reusability rather than raw performance were possible. They also promised to put humans in space sustainably by completely transforming the economics of reaching orbit.

A short three months later, another Falcon 9 — serial number B1021 — also landed, this time on a robotic ship hundreds of kilometers from the launch site deep in the Atlantic Ocean. B1021 would fly again less than a year later, marking the first time a first-stage rocket would be used twice for an orbital mission. By 2020, the upgraded Block V versions of the Falcon 9 have re-flown as many as five separate times for orbital missions, and can even be reused for manned missions — an unparalleled series of triumphs in space launch technology.



Meanwhile, China and Russia were making large strides in space exploration’s darker twin: missile warfare. The mass production and fielding of highly mobile medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles have transformed the armed forces of China, Russia, and other American adversaries. Over the past two decades, China has built the largest intermediate-range ballistic missile force in the world. In fact, it constructed a new and independent service — the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force — to operate its missile forces as a “buttress for its position as a major power and a cornerstone for defending national security.” Over the same period, Russia set about restoring the intermediate-range missile capabilities denied to it since implementing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty — bringing the whole of Europe under threat of both nuclear attack and conventional precision strike from cruise and ballistic missiles from deep within Russian territory.

China’s new DF-26 is a good example of the type of advanced and highly capable theater-range missile the U.S. military can expect to face over the next decade. Launched from road-mobile transporter-erector-launchers from within China, the DF-26 is able to carry a 1,800-kilogram nuclear or conventional payload as far as Guam, perhaps doubling the range of the current, shorter range DF-21, which itself has been fielded in relatively large numbers. In 2019, during a joint exercise in the disputed South China Sea, the People’s Liberation Army may have tested an anti-ship variant, firing from the mainland to strike simulated targets at sea for the first time. Out to 2030, these weapons will deploy hypersonic glide and powered hypersonic cruise missiles in addition to their current mix of conventional warheads, further complicating the threat.

China intends to operate these missiles in conjunction with over-the-horizon battle networks designed to find, track, and defeat the U.S. military 1,000 to 3,000 kilometers distant from its borders. With a little imagination, one can envision hundreds of Chinese missiles attacking American runways, ports, and logistics infrastructure throughout the Western Pacific, extending a defensive perimeter over which the core attack capability currently in the U.S. military’s inventory — land- and maritime-based strike aircraft — must flee eastward beyond their effective combat range while simultaneously inflicting a catastrophic, Tsushima-like defeat on the fleet at sea.

Building a Post-INF Treaty Missile Force

The United States is unlikely to convince China and Russia to both agree on a new arms control treaty to ban missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. Instead, it should join both in fielding new weapons — particularly in Asia — to offset their large and growing arsenals. As the United States gets back into this competition, the U.S. military should consider several strategic factors before selecting new intermediate-range missile systems too early.

First, a future aerospace strike capability should be forward-looking. The United States should not simply restore a capability that existed 30 years ago in the Pershing II and Gryphon ground-launched ballistic and cruise missile systems. Many current efforts to re-establish intermediate-range strike options from land, sea, and air provide an interim capability to fill an urgent gap.  However, none of these approaches would be unfamiliar to a missileer from the 1960s, and they do not provide the leap-ahead advantages the United States will need to deter and defeat peer adversaries over the next two decades.

Second, a future aerospace strike capability should minimize risks that political or operational challenges will render them ineffective. Most Army missile systems under consideration today rely heavily on forward basing and are dependent on the use of allied territory. This requires difficult and often-fraught forward-basing agreements with host nations. Submarine-based weapons like conventional prompt strike take up valuable payload module space that could be used for maritime strike and other sea control missions. Additionally, they represent a potential opportunity cost to the submarine force. Submarine-launched ballistic missiles tend to have large infrared and radar signatures and should be fired from long range, thus not making the most of submarines’ stealthy ability to get close to the adversary. A family of new air-launched missiles such as the Air Force AGM-183 Air Launched Rapid Response Weapon or the Hypersonic Air-Breathing Weapon Concept are highly capable, but still need to be flown by relatively slow bomber aircraft — usually the venerable B-52. Although the weapons are very fast, it takes hours for the bombers to reach their launch locations, and still come with their own access, overflight, and escort protection requirement challenges.

Third, the U.S. military should not symmetrically mirror Chinese and Russian approaches to theater-range missile warfare and engage in a losing competition to build more missiles. The family of new American intermediate-range weapons will almost certainly be more expensive than adversary counterparts. As a think tank report noted, “If the United States wanted to develop an [intermediate-range ballistic missile] with a 4,000-km range equivalent to China’s DF-26, such a missile may cost $21 million apiece and $1.1 billion to develop.” The cost of Chinese and Russian systems is unknown. However, they will almost certainly be able to expand their missile forces faster and more cheaply than the United States can construct new production facilities and field new systems through its antiquated and outdated acquisition system. Once again, the U.S. military will find itself on the wrong side of a cost curve, emphasizing expensive and exquisite capabilities and ceding the advantage of mass firepower to adversaries.

Washington should consider how it can best convince Beijing and Moscow that their missile forces will be effectively answered, deterring them from pursuing regional objectives by force. A strategic examination of this expanded competitive space suggests that a future advanced aerospace strike capability should present U.S. adversaries with novel military problems. It should be grounded in emerging operational requirements while imposing significant costs on adversaries. Most importantly, it should avail of the unique and growing American technological advantage in advanced and hard-to-replicate reusable rocket technology.

Towards an Advanced Aerospace Strike Capability

What should an advanced aerospace strike concept that successfully addresses this military competitive space look like? A symmetric response, relying on evolutionary — or even backward-looking — concepts based on single-use missiles is anchored in several outdated assumptions about the state of rocket and additive (3D printing) technologies, limiting the U.S. military’s perspective on what is really possible. To illustrate this point, in 2016, I wrote here about the possible use of reusable booster technology for maritime operations, but noted the fact that private rocket companies had not actually reused a recovered rocket. It was not knownat the time if they could in fact be relaunched at all.

Since that time, not only has SpaceX  demonstrated the ability to land an orbital-class rocket on its tail, it proved that it can do it again, and again, and again. With “flight proven” reusable rockets now a reality, range hypersonic weaponry may not be as expensive, exquisite, and rare in the future. This opens up the possibility to develop an entirely new class of weapon over the next decade.

An advanced aerospace strike capability should consist of hundreds of reusable first-stage boosters, evolved from, but far smaller than, today’s Falcon 9 rocket. A first stage built around reusable rocket engines like SpaceX’s Merlin, its more advanced Raptor, or Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR-22 (a Space Shuttle main engine derivative) would accelerate a second-stage “bus” to hypersonic speed — Mach 5 and above. At high altitude, but still within the atmosphere, the booster would release the bus carrying one or more munitions, including unitary warheads, unpowered glide bodies, multiple gliding reentry vehicles with a range of submunitions, aerial drones, powered missiles, or — more advanced and (as we shall see) cost effective yet — a bundle of maneuverable scramjet-powered cruise missiles. After deploying the bus, the first stage would return the launch site (or pre-planned divert sites), landing tail-first, to be reloaded and refueled with another pre-packaged payload bus for another sortie.

At Mach 5 and above, scramjet propulsion is possible. Using the first-stage boosters to get scramjet-powered munitions to operational speed would create further opportunities for low-cost hypersonic strike. Scramjet engines only operate at these high speeds and do not need the complex spinning turbines typical of their jet-powered counterparts. The shape of the engine inlet and ramps to the combustion chamber as well as complex cooling pipes within the body of the vehicle that are required to ignite the fuel air mixture and cool the engine are very difficult to manufacture with today’s techniques.

However, 3D printers and additive manufacturing techniques are now capable of constructing complex components out of advanced metals. This technology may allow for the production of scramjets far more cheaply in the future. A reusable first stage could provide the energy to accelerate 3D-printed scramjet ‘rods’ to hypersonic speed atop the boosters, reducing the cost of intermediate-range hypersonic strike — perhaps comparable to the 30 to 95 percent reduction in the cost per pound to orbit that SpaceX is demonstrating in space lift. This combination of reusable rockets and hypersonic scramjet munitions would effectively combine the speed, range, and penetrating power of missile systems with the flexibility and cost-effective reuse of aircraft.

Don’t Stop Firing Until the Enemy’s Defenses Are Gone

Robert Rubel noted (albeit in a maritime context), that missile-centric warfare “requires … new ways of ‘feeding the fight’” and that the number of missiles fired is central to the outcome. He goes on to note that in missile warfare “It is critical to get missiles into shooting positions as economically as possible, to maximize their number.”

Once the U.S. military is able to refuel, rearm, and reuse booster stages repeatedly, intermediate-range missile forces in the inventory become more airpower-like in their ability to deliver higher volume and weight of fire more efficiently. Hundreds of these systems could potentially rain continuous hypersonic blows against an adversary from 5,000 or more kilometers distant. This ‘missile treadmill’ would set about delivering weapons, sensors, and other capabilities into the fight, largely immune from current and projected air defense systems.

Heavy theater bombardment allowed by advanced aerospace strike is a significant enabler for the rest of the U.S. military, allowing:

… other forces to fulfill their missions in a high-threat environment. By defeating or suppressing key adversary systems, theater-range missiles can create more favorable conditions for other forces to enter the operating area and conduct operations at lower levels of risk.

In addition to their obvious theater-strike and bombardment roles, such systems could be used in a variety of other missions across the range of military operations. Because they return to base, reusable boosters could be used in competition to conduct demonstration flights, much like bomber aircraft conduct deterrence missions today. They could quickly deliver aerial drones or other sensors and communications nodes into a denied area of interest, seeding a battle network at theater ranges in order to improve strike capabilities against moving targets.

Most importantly, an advanced aerospace strike capability based on reusable boosters would begin to place the U.S. military on the right side of the salvo competition with Chinese and Russian missile forces. SpaceX’s Merlin engine price remains a mystery, but external analysis shows the unit cost to be somewhere between $1 and $2 million each. Engines generally make up 65 percent of the cost of the first stage of an orbital vehicle, resulting in a unit cost of $1.5-$3.7 million for the booster stage. Reusing the booster 10 times means the cost of delivering a payload would be roughly $150,000-$370,000 per mission, dropping even more for every successful mission after that. A reusable American analog to the DF-26 might conduct a mission with a cost comparable to between three to seven F-35 flight hours today, but with dramatically greater speed, range, and payload, and without putting a pilot at risk.

Transforming Theater Strike

For the foreseeable future, the United States will have significant advantages in strategic nuclear forces. However, this may not be enough to deter China and Russia from projecting conventional military power under cover of intermediate-range missile salvos. Decades-old skepticism of whether Washington would really go nuclear and risk Boston for a Baltic capital or perhaps Richmond for a reef in the South China Sea might feed Russian or Chinese adventurism. As such, without an American answer to conventional missile forces, the United States and its allies are inviting instability.

In the short term, the U.S. military should not slow or cancel the missile experimentation, development, and fielding efforts now underway. Each represents a critical step in deploying a class of weaponry that closes a significant gap that adversaries are intent to exploit. China, Russia, and others show little sign of slowing down.

The same technologies and capabilities that are transforming the ability of the United States to get to orbit cheaply have the potential to transform the competitive dynamics of the intermediate-range missile competition. A nudge now might ensure that the future intermediate-range/hypersonic capabilities of the U.S. military are not expensive, exquisite, and few, but provide sustained, mass firepower that will be needed to deter — and if necessary, win — a large-scale conflict with one of these two great-power adversaries.

The convergence of reusable rocket technology and additive manufacturing for hypersonic engines may mean that intermediate-range strike may no longer be too expensive and too difficult, but far cheaper and more responsive than we fully appreciate today. In this way, an advanced aerospace strike capability, especially when coupled with newly arriving directed energy defensive systems, could together tip the salvo competition in the U.S. military’s favor.



Jeff Becker is a consultant to the U.S. Joint Staff J7, Joint Futures and Concepts. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not represent the official policy or position of the Joint Staff, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Air Force (Photo by Airman 1st Class Zoe Thacker)