Trump's boasts about 'super-duper' missiles reflect misunderstanding of what those weapons actually do

President Donald Trump heads to the Marine One helicopter to depart for a weekend at Camp David, at the White House, May 1, 2020.REUTERS/Carlos Barria
  • President Donald Trump's claim that the US was developing a "super-duper missile" that was faster than any system publicly known was widely met with confusion.
  • Trump has previously described weapons in similar terms and claimed the US possessed "super-fast missiles" that were "four, five, six, and even seven times faster than an ordinary missile."
  • But Trump's suggestions that the weapons are faster than missiles currently held by the US or other countries is false and reflects a misunderstanding of their capabilities.

President Donald Trump's claim that the US was developing a "super-duper missile" capable of reaching speeds far greater than any system publicly known was widely met with confusion from experts and by silence from US officials.

During an unveiling ceremony for the new Space Force flag at the White House on Friday, Trump compared the US's defense capabilities with that of foreign adversaries and claimed the US was developing a missile capable of reaching a speed that would be the "fastest in the world by a factor of almost three."

"I call it the 'super-duper missile,' and I heard the other night 17 times faster than what they have right now, when you take the fastest missile we have right now," Trump said.Advertisement

"You've heard Russia has five times and China's working on five or six times — we have one 17 times, and it's just gotten the go-ahead," Trump added. "Seventeen times faster, if you can believe that."

Trump appeared to be referring to the Pentagon's work on hypersonic weapons, namely nimble hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV) that can reach speeds of at least Mach 5, or roughly 3,800 mph.

Chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman seemed to confirm the president was referring to hypersonic weapons in a reply to a tweet about the comment: "The Department of Defense is working on developing a range of hypersonic missiles to counter our adversaries."

Trump used a similar description for hypersonic weapons in February, saying that the US possessed "super-fast missiles" that were "four, five, six, and even seven times faster than an ordinary missile."

A common hypersonic glide body launches from Pacific Missile Range Facility, Kauai, Hawaii, during a Defense Department test, March 19, 2020.US Navy
Hypersonic prototypes have been of interest to the Defense Department since the early 2000s, with advocates of the program pointing to technological advances made by Russia and China. The US successfully tested an unarmed hypersonic glide body in March, while Russia and China are expected to field operational HGVs as early as this year.Advertisement

US Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested the US was still in the race, despite the two adversaries outpacing it in hypersonic weapons testing: "We have lost our technical advantage in hypersonics," Selva said in January, according to Defense News. "We haven't lost the hypersonics fight."

According to Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, Trump's mention of speeds that were "17 times faster" could have been in reference to the estimated speeds of the HGVs, which range from at least Mach 5 to around Mach 20.

But Trump's suggestion that HGVs are faster than existing missiles is false and reflects a misunderstanding of their capabilities, Reif added.Advertisement

"The reported speed of these weapons (and hypersonic cruise missiles, which are slower than HGVs) are indeed faster than existing conventionally armed US air- and sea-delivered missiles such as the [Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile] and Tomahawk cruise missiles, which fly at subsonic speeds," Reif said. "But they are not faster than US nuclear-armed intercontinental-range ballistic missiles. These missiles reach hypersonic speeds in excess of Mach 20."

Indeed, the US Air Force's LGM-30 Minuteman III, an ICBM, can reach up to Mach 23, or over 17,600 mph.

"Trump's apparent obsession with hypersonic weapons reflects I think an over-hyping and misunderstanding of the value and capability of the weapons that is not confined to Trump and is reflected in much of the conversation about the weapons," Reif said, adding that the US should also focus on "crisis stability and escalation risks hypersonic weapons could pose."Advertisement

"Trump is well known for serving up nonsensical word salads, and this was no exception," Reif said.Read the original article on Business Insider