If the U.S. military wants to keep up with China, it must do so at hypersonic speeds. That’s the message of a memo the White House issued last week invoking the Defense Production Act to galvanize U.S. mass production of components for hypersonic weapons systems.

Per the March 8 memo, the White House calls on the Federal Government to jumpstart and speed up production of “air-breathing engines, advanced avionics position navigation and guidance systems, and constituent materials for hypersonic systems,” which it says are “essential to national security.”

The Defense Production Act is a law by which the President can direct private-sector businesses to produce certain critically needed items. It’s gone into effect more than 50 times since its enactment in 1950, mostly in response to a wartime threat or a public-safety emergency. The law stepped up U.S. aluminum and titanium mining during the Cold War; respirator production amid the COVID-19 pandemic; and firehose manufacturing in response to wildfires in 2021; to give a few examples.

The Threat Detected

The White House clearly sees a new threat in hypersonic missiles, which can travel at low altitudes, maneuver around defenses, and most importantly, fly at five times the speed of sound or faster–a combination of strengths that makes them almost impossible to shoot down. It has a good reason for worry: China.

The Chinese military has been developing and fine-tuning hypersonic weapons intensively over the last decade, and the U.S. intelligence consensus is that it is well ahead of our military on this. The evidence is in a string of successful Chinese flight tests of hypersonic weapons in the last few years, including a 2021 test that launched a missile from low-orbit space and sent it in a complete circle around the globe.

And Defense Information Agency (DIA) scientist Paul Freisthler told Congress last week that China might already have a hypersonic weapon capable of hitting the U.S. mainland. Freisthler, chief scientist for the DIA’s analysis division, told a House subcommittee that China’s been testing an intercontinental ballistic missile with a hypersonic warhead since at least 2014 and has in recent years “dramatically advanced its development of conventional and nuclear-armed hypersonic missile technologies and capabilities” in general.

Playing Hypersonic Catch-up

The U.S. military, meanwhile, is trying to play catch-up. U.S. hypersonic weapons testing got well under way in the last few years and is only recently starting to make some real progress. Last December, the U.S. Air Force successfully test-launched a hypersonic missile, the AGM-183A Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), from a high-flying B-52 bomber. It followed one month later with the successful launch of the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) from another B-52 bomber in flight.

These and other hypersonic weapons development programs are moving forward in the U.S. military, but none have been declared battle-ready. They will all need more testing.

And they will need a lot more production. The United States hasn’t had a hypersonic production industry before, and it must belatedly start one, as it’s facing a Chinese adversary with a hypersonic arsenal that may be past the testing stage and fully prepared to unleash hypersonic shock-and-awe against U.S. forces in a future armed clash.

And that’s not all: It’s facing a rival China whose capacity to mass-produce anything is renowned the world over. There is a reason why businesses across the globe outsource factory production to China. China’s domestic manufacturing industry is a behemoth, one that its autocratic government can utilize to assemble enormous supplies of just about any desired mechanical components on command. That includes components for weapons that can strike and kill U.S. forces at more than five times the speed of sound.

If the United States is serious about keeping pace, then it must pull out all the stops to do so. With its recent citation of the Defense Production Act, the White House is leading the charge.


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Rick Docksai is a Department of Defense writer-editor who covers defense, public policy, and science and technology news. He earned a Master's Degree in Journalism from the University of Maryland in 2007.