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April 21, 2016
Notes from the Pentagon

Pentagon to counter hypersonic missiles with lasers
The U.S. is moving to counter Chinese and Russian hypersonic strike vehicles using lasers, the director of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency revealed last week.

But Vice Adm. James Syring told a House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces hearing that he lacks the funding to counter hypersonic missile threats, but that money has been requested in the defense authorization bill to deal with the threat.

“I’ve asked for $23 million to begin a low-power laser demonstrator this year to demonstrate the feasibility by 2021,” the three-star admiral said.

Critics say the Missile Defense Agency has been remiss by not beginning work earlier in countering future Chinese and Russia high-speed maneuvering strike vehicles. The relatively low funding and long lead time for a demonstration of a laser against a hypersonic strike vehicle are not likely to address the growing threat of hypersonic missiles.

The ultra-high-speed maneuvering delivery vehicles are being built by China and Russia for use with nuclear and conventional missiles. China’s glider was tested most recently in November and is called the DF-ZF. Russia tested a hypersonic vehicle in February 2015

. The Pentagon also is developing hypersonic gliders and scramjet-powered vehicles, but the program has been hampered by sharp defense budget cuts under the Obama administration.

China has conducted six tests of its hypersonic glide vehicle, an indication the program is a high priority for Beijing’s weapons designers. Russia also is building hypersonic weapons.

Officials from both countries have said the reason for building hypersonic strike vehicles is to defeat U.S. missile defenses, which are currently designed to counter limited missile strikes from North Korea and, potentially, Iran.

Rep. Mike Rogers, Alabama Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, said he is concerned about the hypersonic threat.

“I’m troubled that Russia and China continue to outpace the U.S. in development of these prompt global strike capabilities, complain about our tepid development programs, and the Obama administration’s ideological reductions to the Missile Defense Agency budget have denied that agency the resources to do anything to develop defenses,” Mr. Rogers told Inside the Ring.

Current missile defenses — ground-based interceptors, sea-based defenses and mobile defenses — all were designed to counter long-range missiles with predictable ballistic trajectories that pass through space and then re-enter the atmosphere on their way to targets

. The missile defense satellite and radar-tracking network that sends data to targeting systems can be frustrated by high-speed maneuvering warheads or missiles, such as hypersonic gliders that can travel at speeds of Mach 5 to Mach 10, or 3,836 miles per hour to 7,673 miles per hour. At such speeds, the high heat and pressure make flight and precision targeting difficult

. Adm. Cecil Haney, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command that oversees both nuclear forces and missile defenses, said hypersonic weapons are among a growing number of new missile and strategic weapons threats.

“Nuclear and non-nuclear nations are prepared to employ cyber, counter-space, and asymmetric capabilities as options for achieving their objectives during crisis and conflict, and new technologies such as hypersonic glide vehicles are being developed, complicating our sensing and defensive approaches,” the admiral told a conference on nuclear deterrence in July

The Army general nominated to be the next commander of U.S. Forces Korea shed light on mercurial North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who was described this week as more dangerous and unpredictable than his father.

Gen. Vincent Brooks said in written answers to questions posed by the Senate Armed Services Committee that the supreme leader has ordered brutal executions of senior North Korean military and civilian officials.

“Kim Jong-un demands to be the center of attention during his guidance visits, enjoys the spotlight, routinely gives speeches and displays gregariousness, openness and energy, in contrast to his more serious and much less active father,” Gen. Brooks wrote.

His emphasis on public projects such as an amusement park, an aquarium and a ski resort initially won Mr. Kim support from the North Korean people, the general noted.

“However, his public humiliation of his uncle and subsequent executions of those associated with that uncle, along with other purges and executions, appear to have tempered earlier enthusiasm and we now see greater potential for instability as a result of Kim Jong-un’s behaviors and the absence of advisers he is willing to consult.”

The uncle, Jang Sung-taek, was executed in December 2013 for treason, reportedly using large-caliber anti-aircraft guns. The execution set into motion a purge of at least 70 senior officials that has continued. In January, South Korean officials disclosed that Mr. Kim ordered the execution of his military chief of staff, Gen. Ri Yong-gil.

“Compared to his father, Kim Jong-un is more aggressive with advancing the North’s nuclear program and ignoring international concerns,” Gen. Brooks said.

While Mr. Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, was willing to engage in negotiations to ease Chinese and international pressure on the Pyongyang regime, Kim Jong-un has refused to negotiate and appears to be willing to take more risks and dangerous military provocations.

“This is most evident in his bellicose statements threatening the U.S. and [South Korea] and his willingness to aggressively publicize his nuclear weapons program,” Gen. Brooks said.

According to Gen. Brooks, China is frustrated with its fraternal communist ally in Pyongyang but has been “unwilling to apply pressures that could threaten the viability of the North Korea and its regime.”

“Fear of instability is a core concern for PRC leaders, and fear that [South Korea] may seize control over a destabilized North Korea are more threatening to Beijing than a North Korean nuclear program,” he stated, using the acronym for the People's Republic of China.

China also “agrees with the North that the U.S. hostile policy toward the North needs to be addressed as part of any final denuclearization deal,” he said.

During a troop talk aboard the aircraft carrier USS Stennis last week, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter was asked by one sailor what the Pentagon was doing to prevent cyberattacks from China.

“China is one of actually many countries that we have found engaging in cyber misbehavior,” Mr. Carter said.

The defense secretary then said he does not like using the term “cyberattack” because “some of it is about robbing industrial secrets and that sort of thing.”

“Actually, we may have made some progress forward,” Mr. Carter said, “because when the two presidents were together now six months ago or so, they reached an agreement to stop doing that, and we’re watching and seeing if that agreement is honored.”

The comments appear to have let the Chinese off the hook, something U.S. intelligence officials have not been willing to do.

Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper told Congress in February that it was too soon to tell if the Chinese have scaled back cyberattacks such as the theft of more than 22 million federal employee records from the Office of Personnel Management.

“I think the jury’s still out,” Mr. Clapper said, despite the September agreement between President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

A month later, Adm. Mike Rogers, commander of the U.S. Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency, went further.

Despite the no-cyberspying pledge from September, “cyber operations from China are still targeting and exploiting U.S. government, defense industry, academic and private computer networks,” Adm. Rogers told the House Armed Services subcommittee Wednesday.

Mr. Carter acknowledged last week that stopping cyberattacks against defense networks is difficult.

“We’ve got to be good at defending our networks, but you can’t count on anybody not to try to exploit networks as a way of creating vulnerability for you,” he said. “Now that’s most important in our networks in the Defense Department, the networks that you depend on here. They’re the ones we most need to defend, and we’re making huge investments in that, both dollars and really good people, talented people.”

The Pentagon also is working to help society at large defend against cyberattacks.

“Some of this is just from pranks,” Mr. Carter said. “Some of it is from companies trying to steal their secrets, and some of it is by people who want to do damage, including governments that want to have the ability to do damage.”

However, Mr. Carter warned: “Wherever it comes from, we’ve got to be able to defend ourselves in the first instance, and then, people ought to know that if you attack us — I don’t care how you attack us, cyber or whatever, an attack is an attack — we’re going to respond. Not necessarily in cyber, but we’ll respond in the way we choose. But you’ll be sorry you did it.”

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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