Hypersonic refers to aircraft, missiles, rockets, and spacecraft that can reach atmospheric speeds in excess of Mach 5, which is almost 4,000 miles per hour or 6,125 kilometers per hour or more. Flying along the edge of space while gliding and maneuvering these missiles would strike targets with unprecedented speed and precision. They may be loaded with nuclear warhead to target cities and government centers. or non-nuclear packages which can be used to destroy facilities, communications, or weapons and generally cripple capabilities. These missiles can also adjust direction very rapidly, meaning that it is almost impossible to tell where they will strike. Hypersonic missiles can also adjust mid-air to change target.
Hypersonic Weapons Race
US, Russia and China are engaged in Hypersonic Weapons Race that shall revolutionize warfare by providing prompt global strike capability and defeat all missile defences. The US and China have both indicated that their hypersonic devices are being developed to carry non-nuclear payloads, while in March 2018, when Russian president Vladimir Putin gave a speech describing his country’s plans for a nuclear-powered cruise missile that could fly around the world at blinding speed, then snake around hills and dales to a target.
Russia is pursuing two hypersonic weapons programs the Avangard and the 3M22 Tsirkon (or Zircon) and has reportedly fielded the Kinzhal (“Dagger”), a maneuvering air-launched ballistic missile. Russia recently unveiled a weapon called the Kinzhal, said to reach Mach 10 under its own power, and another that is boosted by a rocket to an astonishing Mach 27.
China has conducted a number of successful tests of the DF-17, a medium-range ballistic missile specifically designed to launch HGVs. U.S. intelligence analysts assess that the missile has a range of approximately 1,000 to 1,500 miles and could be deployed in 2020. China has also tested the DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile, which could be modified to carry a conventional or nuclear HGV, according to a report by a U.S. Congressional commission. The development of the DF-41 thus “significantly increases the [Chinese] rocket force’s nuclear threat to the U.S. mainland,” the report states.
China has tested the DF-ZF HGV (previously referred to as the WU-14) at least nine times since 2014. U.S. defense officials have reportedly identified the range of the DF-ZF as approximately 1,200 miles and have stated that the missile may be capable of performing “extreme maneuvers” during flight.83 Although unconfirmed by intelligence agencies, some analysts believe the DF-ZF will be operational as early as 2020.84
According to U.S. defense officials, China also successfully tested Starry Sky-2 (or Xing Kong-2), a nuclear-capable hypersonic vehicle prototype, in August 2018.85 China claims the vehicle reached top speeds of Mach 6 and executed a series of in-flight maneuvers before landing.86 Unlike the DF-ZF, Starry Sky-2 is a “waverider” that uses powered flight after launch and derives lift from its own shockwaves. Some reports indicate that the Starry Sky-2 could be operational by 2025.87 U.S. officials have declined to comment on the program
According to multiple reports, Russia is expected to begin production soon of its 3M22 Zircon, a hypersonic missile that will travel 4,600 miles per hour — five times the speed of sound — and will have a range of 250 miles. That’s just three minutes and 15 seconds from launch to impact. Guided hypersonic missiles will be more accurate than traditional ballistic missiles and could conceivably be armed with nuclear warheads, according to the geopolitical analysis firm Stratfor.
US intends to develop a sea-launched hypersonic cruise missile by 2018-2020, and a hypersonic aircraft by 2030. For its part, the US Air Force is aiming for a 2020 initial operational capability for its Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon (HCSW), an air-breathing, ram-jet-powered cruise missile being developed by Lockheed Missiles and Space for $928 million. The USAF also awarded a separate $780 million contract to Lockheed Missiles and Fire Control in 2017 to develop the Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), a boost glide hypersonic system, which uses a rocket to accelerate its payload to high speeds, before the payload separates from the rocket and glides unpowered to its destination at up to M20. Australia and other countries are also developing hypersonic weapons.
Although the United States, Russia, and China possess the most advanced hypersonic weapons programs, a number of other countries including Australia, India, France, and Germany are also developing hypersonic weapons technology.
Hypersonic speed is defined as anything above Mach 5. There are two types of weapons emerging: hypersonic cruise missiles and hypersonic glide vehicles. Most long-range missiles follow a ballistic curve that takes them high above the atmosphere and then down through it, a trajectory that can be detected early and modeled accurately. Boost-glide missiles ride a ballistic launcher to attain hypersonic speed, then use momentum to glide at low altitude while taking maneuvers to elude ground defenses. Scramjets use air-breathing engines to travel far, fast, and lower still, making them that much harder to detect and shoot down.
Hypersonic cruise missiles are powered all the way to their targets using an advanced propulsion system called a SCRAMJET which can operate between Mach 5 and Mach 15. These are very, very fast. You may have six minutes from the time its launched until the time it strikes. However, In order to maintain sustained hypersonic flight, a vehicle must also endure the extreme temperatures of flying at such speeds and require ultra high temperature materials.
Boost-glide vehicles, one of the most common hypersonic weapon designs, are unpowered and require some sort of booster to get them to the appropriate speed and altitude, after which they glide back down to earth. Ballistic missiles, or derivatives thereof, have traditionally served as the launch platform for these systems. Tactical Boost-Glide type approach already tested by both Russia and China: a rocket motor boosts the missile up to hypersonic speed, after which it glides to the target. The goal is to “skip” off the atmosphere like a skipping stone over water, allowing it to go vast distances at extreme speeds
“It’s like a plane with no engine on it. It uses aerodynamic forces to maintain stability to fly along and to maneuver,” said Rand senior engineer George Nacouzi. What’s more, Moore notes that because it’s maneuverable “it can keep it’s target a secret up until the last few seconds of it’s flight.” . Getting this to work requires progress in aerodynamics, stability, and controls, as well as materials, Bussing said. 3D printing can help in all these areas.
Hypersonic cruise missiles can fly at altitudes up to 100,000 feet whereas hypersonic glide vehicles can fly above 100,000 feet. An “air-breathing” hypersonic vehicle approach allows less range than boost-glide but greater maneuverability. Air-breathers can also be significantly smaller. A rocket has to carry large amounts of oxidizer to burn its fuel. A jet just sucks in oxygen from the atmosphere. But normal jets don’t have to suck in air moving at Mach 5-plus. A jet that works at hypersonic speeds will require some breakthroughs — and, again, 3D printing can help grow the exotic components.
Systems that operate at hypersonic speeds—five times the speed of sound (Mach 5) and beyond—offer the potential for military operations from longer ranges with shorter response times and enhanced effectiveness compared to current military systems. General John Hyten has stated, hypersonic weapons could enable “responsive, long-range, strike options against distant, defended, and/or time-critical threats [such as road-mobile missiles] when other forces are unavailable, denied access, or not preferred.” Conventional hypersonic weapons use only kinetic energy”energy derived from motion”to destroy unhardened targets or, potentially, underground facilities.
Hypersonic Military Capability to make Traditional Missile Defense Obsolete
Hypersonic missiles pose challenges to radar designers due to their high velocities, manoeuvrability, and radar cross section. Ballistic missile defense systems based on velocity and trajectory of a ballistic missile path use mathematical algorithms to determine interception points to accurately guide an intercepting missile. The predictable ballistic trajectory of ballistic missiles makes them vulnerable to land and naval-based interceptor missiles,
The Hypersonic glide vehicle defeats this logic by not traveling in a predictable ballistic path. It is launched like a ballistic missile, but it stays within the atmosphere skipping and gliding irregularly across thin air before going downward hypersonically into a highly maneuverable and evasive path before striking its target. The high maneuverability and the hypersonic speed make it very difficult to be intercepted by exo-atmospheric kill vehicles as well as lessens the time it can be detected, fired at, or reengaged if there is a miss.
Terrestrial-Based Detection of Ballistic Missiles vs. Hypersonic Glide Vehicles
For example, terrestrial-based radar cannot detect hypersonic weapons until late in the weapon’s flight.Figure depicts the differences in terrestrial-based radar detection timelines for ballistic missiles versus hypersonic glide vehicles. This delayed detection compresses the timeline for decision-makers assessing their response options and for a defensive system to intercept the attacking weapon potentially permitting only a single intercept attempt.
When you are using space sensors to track hypersonic missiles your sensors have to be very fast in tracking. The automatic target recognition algorithms have also have to be very smarter to distinguish between airplane or a missile target amid background of lot of heat signature off the Earth.
Furthermore, U.S. defense officials have stated that both terrestrial- and current space-based sensor architectures are insufficient to detect and track hypersonic weapons, with USD R&E Griffin noting that “hypersonic targets are 10 to 20 times dimmer than what the U.S. normally tracks by satellites in geostationary orbit.” Some analysts have suggested that space-based sensor layers integrated with tracking and fire-control systems to direct high-performance interceptors or directed energy weapons could theoretically present viable options for defending against hypersonic weapons in the future.
Hypersonic gliders, by virtue of their low-altitude flight, are difficult to detect with existing missile defence radars, hence gives less time for interception . However HGVs are considerably slower in the final stages of their flight than most reentry vehicles on a ballistic trajectory to take place before the payload can reach its target. This may leave them vulnerable to interception by advanced terminal point defense systems.
It became clear that the U.S. needed a new constellation of space-based sensors that could detect and track the new threat. The solution that emerged is both simple and complex. Instead of relying solely on the exquisite sensors more than 22,000 miles above the Earth’s surface, the military will build a proliferated constellation located much closer to the planet’s surface in low Earth orbit — less than 1,200 miles up. From that lower vantage, it is easier for infrared sensors to pick up the hypersonic weapons, track them as they move around the globe, and provide the targeting data to destroy them.
This tracking effort effectively has three parts:
A proliferated constellation with wide-field-of-view sensors in low Earth orbit that will pick up and track hypersonic weapons as they move around the globe.
A data transport layer of satellites to connect the sensors on orbit and pass tracking data as the threat moves in and out of view of individual sensors.
A smaller constellation with more sensitive, medium-field-of-view satellites that will provide the final targeting data to a fires solution.
The Space Development Agency is building those first two sections as part of its National Defense Space Architecture, a proliferated constellation in low Earth orbit that will eventually be made up of hundreds of satellites. The Missile Defense Agency will develop the medium-field-of-view satellites, known as the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor, or HBTSS. Meanwhile, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is building Project Blackjack to demonstrate many of the technologies needed to make the entire system work.
There are of course hybrid approaches; for example, ballistic boosted vehicles may also be internally powered and thus be considered HCMs. Similarly, a boost-glide vehicle could be scaled down and air launched, resulting in a tactical HGV. In addition to flying at high speed through most of their trajectories, both categories of HSMWs will also likely impact their targets at velocities in the high-supersonic (Mach ≈ 3.0-4.0) range.
They could maintain significant maneuverability with precision, and thus be capable of engaging fixed or slow-moving targets, such as a runway, command and control facility, or seagoing vessel. Both categories of high-speed weapons may be capable of carrying conventional or nuclear warheads, thereby complicating strategic intent and posture as well as operational identification, response, and engagement. Both types of systems operate below the classical ballistic missile trajectory and above typical low-speed cruise missile operating altitudes.
Nuclear payloads can be placed on hypersonic missiles, but even if missiles don’t have a payload, the kinetic energy released on impact makes hypersonic weapons extremely destructive. This makes them particularly dangerous to ships, said Royal United Services Institute research fellow Justin Bronk. Nuclear payloads can be placed on hypersonic missiles, but even if missiles don’t have a payload, the kinetic energy released on impact makes hypersonic weapons extremely destructive. This makes them particularly dangerous to ships, says Bronk.
One advantage the scramjet has over the boost-glide missile is its ability to stay below radar and continue to maneuver over great distances, all the way to its target. And because it never enters outer space, it doesn’t need to ride a rocket booster, although it does need some powerful helper to get it up to the speed at which first a ramjet, and then a scramjet, can work.
The high maneuverability and the hypersonic speed make it very difficult to be intercepted by exo-atmospheric kill vehicles as well as lessens the time it can be detected, fired at, or reengaged if there is a miss. “A low-flying low-visibility cruise missile armed with a nuclear warhead and possessing a practically unlimited range, unpredictable flight path and the capability to impregnate practically all interception lines is invulnerable to all existing and future anti-missile and air defense weapons,” Putin said.
High-speed maneuvering weapon (HSMW) can fly at high-supersonic (Mach ≥ 3.5)1 or even hypersonic (M ≥ 5.0) velocities, maneuver both for deceptive/ defensive purposes and to increase their range of attack options, and operate both within and outside the atmosphere, following flight paths that place them beyond conventional ballistic and cruise missile defenses.
Hypersonic missiles also give very little early warning which places very severe constraints on speed of command and control particularly to isolate the threat, and provide command to interceptors. “Any software associated with any of those systems might have some capability to track hypersonic systems. While software controlling contemporary ground-based and naval air surveillance radars operates at enviable speeds, the velocities of hypersonic weapons can still cause issues. For example, if a radar needs two seconds to detect and commence tracking a Kh-47M2, if flying at Mach 10, it would in that time have already travelled almost 7 kilometres, Jane’s reported.
The study by Air Force experts stated that “the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation are already flight-testing high-speed maneuvering weapons (HSMWs) that may endanger both forward-deployed U.S. forces and even the continental United States itself.”
As just one example of the degree of integration required, the intrinsic nature of HSMW flight profiles and employment may greatly compress decision and response timelines, which in turn requires any useful countermeasures to be deployed almost immediately. Providing staged responses and avoiding escalations to maximum response will necessitate heuristic processes in the short time window of the HSMW attack. Development of advanced systems may therefore be a necessary element of the command and control doctrine and decision process.
U.S. military satellites are vigilant for flashes that reveal launches of ICBMs and cruise missiles. But they would probably lose track of even a rocket-boosted hypersonic weapon soon after it detaches from its booster, analysts say. To avoid “shooting blindly … you need to continue to track it when it starts doing these maneuvers in the atmosphere,” says Thomas Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.
Such weaponry as hypersonic Avangard missile, which is capable of cruising at a Mach number of 20, calls into question the relevance of the US missile defense network, the editor-in-chief of Arsenal Otechestva (Arsenal of the Fatherland) journal, Alexei Leonkov, said.
“I believe it was a response to the missile defense systems that have been deployed by the United States in Europe. US anti-missiles, including Aegis, may fly at a Mach number of 5 as maximum. In order to intercept a missile flying … at a Mach number of 10, one needs an anti-missile with the speed of a Mach number of 15. The United States lacks such a missile, in this case, [the country] is simply powerless,” Leonkov pointed out. This development threatens the U.S.’s strategic missile defense technology to be obsolete before its fully deployed, on which US has spent more than $100 billion, according to 2011 Arms Control Association report.
Hypersonic Weapon Defense
Hypersonic missiles travel at least five times the speed of sound (Mach 5 or 6,125 kilometers per hour) or more. Flying along the edge of space while gliding and maneuvering these missiles would strike targets with unprecedented speed and precision. Once operational, these missiles would make current strategic missile defenses systems obsolete, they will be able to avoid triggering early-warning systems or detection by radar as well their speed shall complicate interception.
Militaries are now developing various defensive strategies and solutions to counter the threat of hypersonic weapons. To remedy that shortcoming, the Pentagon plans to launch hundreds of small satellites with sensors capable of tracking heat sources an order of magnitude cooler than rocket boosters. “By proliferating them, you make it impossible to take them all out,” Karako says. The full Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor network could be up and running by 2030, he adds. (The satellites would also be used to help guide U.S. hypersonic weapons.) Once you have such sensors, “we can find a way to build the interceptors,” Karako says. Current missile defense interceptors aim to destroy ICBMs near their apex in the upper atmosphere, much higher than a hypersonic weapon flies, and they aren’t maneuverable enough to hit a swerving target. “You’ll need interceptors with more divert capability than we have,” Karako says.
According to C4ISR.net, getting an interceptor to speed to hit a hypersonic weapon like Russia’s Avangard will take powerful engines, and on Feb. 10, Aerojet Rocketdyne announced that it had been selected by DARPA to develop the propulsion system for Glide Breaker. The contract is worth up to US$19.6 million. Militaries might be able to bring together a mix of different approaches, including cyber or electronic warfare effects, to counter hypersonic threat.
An enhanced version of the Army’s Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, is being considered as one system capable of countering hypersonic missiles. The U.S. military currently has 44 interceptors in Alaska and California that can shoot missiles out of silos, with plans to increase the number to 64 by about 2023 and possibly add a third site in the eastern part of the United States.
Other options in future can be Laser Directed Energy Weapons and Railguns. Michael Griffin, the undersecretary for research and engineering, expects future budgets to provide funds for lasers that the missile defense agency can more rapidly develop and field. Space-control needs to have megawatt-class lasers. Hypersonic weapons’ low signature in flight and high degree of maneuverability upon final approach to targets make the weapons difficult to defend against. China has developed Autoguns , that it claims could protect from hypersonic threats.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Glide Breaker project will look into various “component technologies” needed for one or more defense systems, but will focus heavily on a hard-kill interceptor to knock the fast-flying weapons out of the sky. “The objective of the Glide Breaker program is to further the capability of the United States to defend against supersonic and the entire class of hypersonic threats,” DARPA said in an announcement for the July 2018 “Proposers Day.” “Of particular interest are component technologies that radically reduce risk for development and integration of an operational, hard-kill system.”
Glide Breaker’s core objective is deterrence. “A key figure of merit is deterrence: the ability to create large uncertainty for the adversary’s projected probability of mission success and effective raid size,” DARPA said in its Proposers Day notice.
Chinese researchers say they have developed AI to predict the course of hypersonic missiles, reported in May 2022
Chinese military researchers say they have developed an artificial intelligence technology that can estimate the the course of a hypersonic glide missile as it homes in on a target at more than five times the speed of sound.
An air defence system powered by AI can estimate the incoming weapon’s potential kill trajectory and initiate a counter response with a three-minute lead time, according to the researchers.
The average missile stays within a target zone of 8km (5 miles), which is quite narrow for a weapon that can cover the distance in as few as 2 seconds.
“Trajectory prediction is of great significance to combat intent assessment and aerospace defence interception,” Zhang and his colleagues wrote in a paper published in the Journal of Astronautics, a peer-reviewed publication run by the Chinese Society of Astronautics ,on April 30.
National Defense Space Architecture
SDA developed the National Defense Space Architecture to “unify and integrate next generation capabilities across [the Department of Defense (DOD)] and industry.” The NDSA aims to be a “single, coherent proliferated space architecture with seven layers,” which include the data tracking and transport layers depicted in Figure and discussed below. Other layers include the custody layer to support the targeting of mobile ground assets; the battle management layer to provide space-based command and control; the navigation layer to provide “alternate
positioning, navigation, and timing for potential GPSdenied environments”; the deterrence layer to detect potentially hostile actions in deep space; and the support layer to facilitate satellite operations for the other NDSA layers. Once fully fielded, as is planned by 2025, the NDSA
would encompass 550 satellites and provide full global coverage.
SDA began the process of building the tracking layer—which is to “provide global indications, warning, tracking, and targeting of advanced missile threats, including hypersonic missile systems”—through the Tracking Phenomenology Experiment (TPE). The TPE objective is to
develop a missile sensor algorithm capable of tracking hypersonic weapons. In parallel, SDA plans to develop eight satellites as part of a Wide Field of View (WFOV) architecture. SDA then intends to expand this architecture to provide global coverage. SDA requested $72.4 million for TPE and related programs in FY2021.
Working in tandem with the SDA’s tracking satellites will be the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor (HBTSS), previously known as the space sensor layer, which is being developed by MDA and funded by SDA. HBTSS is to provide more sensitive, but more limited (or
Medium Field of View [MFOV]) coverage, compared to WFOV. For this reason, WFOV is intended to provide cueing data to HBTSS, which could then provide more specific, target quality data to a ground-based interceptor.
By 2023 SDA plans to expand the tracking layer to include 70 WFOV and MFOV satellites, which, according to SDA director Dr. Derek Tournear, “will give us enough coverage in low-Earth orbit so that we can have essentially regional persistence.” Section 1682 of the FY2020 NDAA (P.L. 116-92) tasks the director of the Missile Defense Agency to “develop a hypersonic and ballistic missile tracking space sensor
payload”; however, HBTSS was not funded in MDA’s FY2021 budget request due to “competing priorities.”
A US Missile Defence Agency report reveals it has placed an urgent call to its suppliers for improved sensors capable of detecting — and tracking — hypervelocity missiles in flight. It’s called for a new $9.9 billion budget for 2019. It recognises the urgent need to improve its defences against this emerging threat. Enormous nuclear-powered aircraft carriers suddenly seem vulnerable. Hypersonic missile requires persistent tracking and discrimination from space. This evolving threat demands a globally present and persistent space sensor network to track it from birth to death,” Missile Defense Agency Director of Operations Gary Pennett said.
Section 1645 of the FY2021 NDAA (P.L. 116-283) affirms the MDA director’s responsibility for the development and procurement of the sensor payload—in coordination with the director of SDA—“through, at minimum, fiscal year 2022 .” Section 1645 additionally requires that on-orbit testing of the sensor payload begin no later than December 31, 2023, and that integration of the sensor payload into the SDA’s broader space-based sensor architecture begin “as soon as technically feasible thereafter.” Overall, SDA requested $99 million in FY2021 to “develop and demonstrate a hypersonic tracking layer by FY2023.”
SDA has stated that the NDSA’s transport layer, which is intended to connect the tracking layer to interceptors and other weapons systems on the ground, will “enhance several mission areas including missile defense.” SDA has awarded two contracts to build a total of 20 satellites, which are to compose the initial tranche of the transport layer. SDA intends to field this initial tranche in FY2022, adding an additional tranche every two years
In September 2018, MDA commissioned 21 white papers to explore hypersonic missile interceptor options including interceptor missiles, hypervelocity projectiles, laser guns, and electronic attack systems. In January 2020, MDA issued a draft request for prototype proposals for a Hypersonic Defense Regional Glide Phase Weapons System interceptor. This effort is intended to “reduce interceptor key technology and integration risks, anchor modeling and simulation in areas of large uncertainty, and to increase the interceptor technology readiness levels
(TRL) to level 5” (validating components in a relevant environment).
In December 2019, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency revealed the existence of a new counter-hypersonic weapons program, the Regional Glide Phase Weapon System (RGPWS). The program is intended to complement another defense effort designated the Hypersonic Defense Weapon System (HDWS), which began in September 2018 and refined five concepts in September 2019.
In addition, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is working on a program called Glide Breaker, which “will develop critical component technology to support a lightweight vehicle designed for precise engagement of hypersonic threats at very long range.”
DARPA requested $3 million for Glide Breaker in FY2021—down from $10 million in FY2020. Overall, MDA requested $206.8 million for hypersonic defense in FY2021—up from its $157.4 million FY2020 request—and $659 million across the FYDP
In September, when the Missile Defense Agency narrowed down the list of potential bidders for its Hypersonic Defense Weapon System program, naming four interceptors: Lockheed Martin’s Valkyrie and Dart concepts, Boeing’s Hypervelocity Interceptor and Raytheon’s SM-3 Hawk, along with a Raytheon idea for a non-kinetic weapon as technologies it wants the companies to continue to develop. All of the programs are still very early in their development however, so are likely years away from testing and fielding. Outside of the MDA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been developing its Glide Breaker project, focusing heavily on a hard-kill interceptor to knock the speedy weapons out of the sky.
The awards come 10 months after the release of the Trump administration’s Missile Defense Review that called for the deployment of space sensors to monitor, detect and track advanced, maneuvering hypersonic glide vehicles from anywhere on the globe. Space sensors “enjoy a measure of flexibility of movement that is unimpeded by the constraints that geographic limitations impose on terrestrial sensors, and can provide ‘birth to death’ tracking that is extremely advantageous,” the review said.
“MDA is working with the (SDA), DARPA, and the U.S. Air Force to conduct prototype concept design activities for a space-based missile tracking sensor system known as Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor,” Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, the former head of the Missile Defense Agency, said in an April 3 hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “As part of an integrated multi-tier [overhead persistent infrared radar] enterprise architecture, HBTSS would detect and track additional and emerging threats using persistent infrared sensors.”
MDA is exploring various approaches that would enable interceptors to “overmatch” incoming weapons, Feth says. One possibility, she says, is to fly faster—a tall order that would demand new lightweight, heat-resistant composites and alloys. Interceptors could destroy a hypersonic vehicle either by colliding with it or by detonating a warhead nearby.
THAAD extended range (THAAD-ER)
US Congress has expressed interest in the possibility of knocking out hypersonic missiles with an extended-range version of the Army’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system as the United States and Russia race to produce air-launched hypersonic cruise missiles. “Although a materiel solution decision has not yet been made, THAAD-ER could be a vital capability improvement for the ballistic missile defense system to defeat evolving and emerging threats, including hypersonic vehicles and anti-ship ballistic missiles,” the subcommittee’s mark of the fiscal year 2016 defense authorization bill states.
Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), formerly Theater High Altitude Area Defense, is a United States Army anti-ballistic missile system designed to shoot down short, medium, and intermediate ballistic missiles in their terminal phase using a hit-to-kill approach.
“By going to the THAAD extended range (THAAD-ER) version, where you have a bigger booster and a kick stage, you can launch much earlier and you can attack that threat before he might try to do some evasive maneuvers,” Mike Trotsky, vice president of Lockheed’s air and missile defense business development, said. Lockheed has invested more than $30 million over in recent years on engineering design and demonstration work for the extended range THAAD. “MDA has provided us with approximately $2 million in FY14 funding to study the potential concept of operations.”
Unlike the current THAAD interceptor, which uses a single-stage rocket, the longer-range version would have two stages, similar to rockets that launch satellites into orbit. “The first stage gets you out longer and higher against modern threats and the kick stage is responsible for narrowing the distance between the target and the interceptor so you could turn over to the kill vehicle,” Trotsky said.
Although the system could provide some capability against a rudimentary hypersonic threat, the Pentagon is researching other technologies like directed energy weapons and railguns to be optimal solutions. Therefore, the THAAD-ER would be an interim measure to counter the emerging threat until laser and railgun systems capable of performing missile defense come online, expected in the mid to late-2020s.
US needs megawatt class combat lasers to counter hypersonic missiles
The Directed Energy Weapons (DEWs) offer a transformational ‘game changer’ to counter asymmetric and disruptive threats, while facing increasingly sophisticated traditional challenges. Several DEW technologies that have shown promise include high power micro and millimeter wave, and lasers of various kinds (solid-state, chemical, fiber), both airborne and ground. Traveling at the speed of light laser directed energy weapons offer the potential to engage hypersonic targets, or even killing missiles in their boost phase.
MDA is also exploring using directed energy: lasers, neutral particle beams, and microwaves or radio waves. Directed-energy countermeasures were floated in the 1980s as elements of the United States’s “Star Wars” missile defense shield—then abandoned. Four decades later, “They are more plausible,” Karako says. Still, MDA recently scrapped plans to test a prototype 500-kilowatt airborne laser by 2025 and to develop a space-based neutral particle beam.
Lockheed’s missile defense specialists believe the most effective solution to killing missiles in the boost phase is by using high-energy lasers. Lockheed is working to develop a high powered laser deployed on a high-altitude, long-endurance drone aircraft that would target missiles in the boost phase–shortly after launch. “If you can do that, you can kill them long before they can do things during their trajectories to evade defenses,” Graham said. Using lasers against high-speed missiles poses challenging technical problems, he added.
The laser DEW technology now has been demonstrated in an operational environment. In 2014, US Navy’s 30 kilowatt Laser Weapon System (LaWS) was installed aboard USS Ponce, that during testing disabled a small Scan Eagle-sized UAV, detonated a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) and burned out the engine of a rigid hull inflatable boat (RHIB). The LaWS system integrated six solid-state IR beams, tunable to either low output for warning and sensor crippling, or high output for target destruction.
“Sometime in the very near future” the Navy will award a development contract for the larger follow-on system, a laser gun of 100 to 150 kw. That weapon will go out to sea for a demonstration by FY 2018, he said, keeping in line with the goal of transitioning technology from the lab to the warfighter as quickly as possible for operational testing.
The power and cooling requirements are becoming tenable for tactical use.”We think that, with today’s technology, fiber lasers will scale to 300, arguably beyond 300.” With future improvements in the underlying laser technologies, he said, “we think we can get well beyond 500 kw” said Lockheed senior fellow Rob Afzal. The efficiency has also enhanced, at 30 to 35 percent efficiency, 300 kw of output would require just under a megawatt of electrical power.
“A 300-kw laser could kill cruise missiles,” according to Lockheed Martin Enineer. Center for Strategic & Budgetary Assessments report estimates 1MW power would be enough to kill a missile in boost phase. Operations against supersonic, highly manueverable ASCMs, transonic air-to-surface missiles, and ballistic missiles would also require MW class lasers. Current developmental megawatt-class systems emphasize free-electron and diodepumped alkali laser technologies.
Hypersonic missiles may use plasma actuators for maneuverability by changing boundary layer properties, so that a flap creates more lift only when needed. Sufficient powerful lasers can be used to make plasma too can potentially modify the boundary layer properties resulting in the hypersonic weapon becoming unstable and destroying itself. Maintaining stability during hypersonic flight is difficult. The Hypersonic flight also takes material science to its limits of temperature. The additional heat from a sufficiently powerful laser would cause almost any material to fail.
The US has funded several combat laser deployments over the next three years. Lockheed Martin is being awarded a $150 million cost-plus-incentive-fee contract for Surface Navy Laser Weapon System Increment 1, High Energy Laser and Integrated Optical-dazzler with a surveillance system. This contract includes options which, if exercised, would bring the cumulative value of this contract to $943 million. The combat lasers will be 150-kilowatts and could get upgraded to 300 kilowatts for more range and power.
US Navy to mount Railgun aboard its Warship
US Navy’s electromagnetic rail gun uses electrical energy to create a magnetic field and propel a kinetic energy projectile well over 100 miles at Mach 7.5 toward a wide range of targets, such as enemy vehicles, or cruise and ballistic missiles. The weapon can release up to 5 million amps, or 1,200 volts within 10 milliseconds, according to Military.com. That’s enough to speed up a 45-pound projectile from zero to 5,000 mph in one one-hundredth of a second, the site said.
Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder, head of US Naval Research, said the futuristic electromagnetic railgun – so called because it fires from two parallel rails – had already undergone extensive testing on land. It will be mounted on high-speed vessel the USNS Millinocket for sea trials in 2016. “Energetic weapons, such as EM railguns, are the future of naval combat,” said Rear Adm. Matt Klunder, the chief of naval research.
The Navy is evaluating whether to mount its new Electromagnetic Rail Gun weapon aboard the high-tech DDG 1000 destroyer by the mid-2020s, service officials said. The DDG 1000’s Integrated Power System provides a large amount of on board electricity sufficient to accommodate the weapon, Capt. Mike Ziv, Program Manager for Directed Energy and Electric Weapon Systems, told reporters at the Navy League’s 2015 Sea Air Space symposium at National Harbor, Md.
While the weapon is currently configured to guide the projectile against fixed or static targets using GPS technology, it is possible that in the future the rail gun could be configured to destroy moving targets as well, Capt. Mike Ziv, Program Manager for Directed Energy and Electric Weapon Systems explained.
The Navy, in addition to developing the railgun itself, is working on a hypervelocity projectile (HVP) that will support both the railgun and conventional 5-inch guns. The GPS-guided round will fly at hypersonic speeds, but the Navy is still working with the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office to close the fire control loop between the gun and the projectile.
China’s ship-based autogun
China has developed a new weapon, called the Type 1130, a ship-based autogun capable of destroying nearly any incoming target, even if it’s hypersonic. It is meant to counter anti-ship missiles and enemy aircraft by running through 10,000, 30mm rounds per minute, effectively creating a defensive curtain wherever its turret swivels.
With a rate of fire that would see 167 pieces of lead leave the gun’s 11 barrels every second, experts predict that the Type 1130 will have a 90% chance of intercepting any incoming targets including hypersonic threats. The system is guided by radar, but due to its weight and power requirements, is limited to large PLA frigates and destroyers. The system has also been spotted on China’s newest aircraft carrier, the Liaoning.
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