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 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.
Hypersonic Military Capability to make Traditional Missile Defense Obsolete and Shift Strategic Balance
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.
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,
Terrestrial-Based Detection of Ballistic Missiles vs. Hypersonic Glide Vehicles
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
While China could employ these missiles against US Aircraft carriers in South China Sea the ultimate A2/AD weapon. Russian nuclear-armed version that leaves the defender too little time to launch a retaliatory strike would do even more to shift the balance of power, because it would dismantle the painstakingly constructed system of deterrence known as mutually assured destruction , or by the jocular acronym MAD.
“As hypersonic weapons fly at extremely high speeds and some are maneuverable, they are more likely to disrupt the international offense-defense balance of technology, increasingly blurring the line between nuclear and conventional weapons,” Rahul Udoshi, analyst at Jane’s by IHS Markit,Udoshi said. “Striking virtually anywhere in the world within an hour means these weapons affect the perceptions of strategic stability and further risk crisis escalation over ambiguity of warhead types.”
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.
Russia has deployed its own hypersonic Kinzhal missiles in Ukraine, marking perhaps the first time such weapons have been used in war. In March 2022, as the first month of Russia’s war on Ukraine neared a close, Russia launched hypersonic “Kinzhal” missiles at multiple military sites around the war-ravaged country.
And during a test in July 2021, a Chinese hypersonic missile flew around the world before hitting its target. “They launched a long-range missile,” General John Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told CBS News while commenting on China’s hypersonic weapons test on July 27. “It went around the world, dropped off a hypersonic glide vehicle that glided all the way back to China, that impacted a target in China,” he said on Tuesday.
“There is an arms race, not necessarily for increased numbers, but for increased quality,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told Reuters during an interview in his Pentagon offices. “It’s an arms race that has been going on for quite some time. The Chinese have been at it very aggressively.”
The US and China have both indicated that their hypersonic devices are being developed to carry non-nuclear payloads, while in March 2018, 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.
Both of Russia’s operational hypersonic weapons, the KH-47M2 Kinzhal and the Avangard boost-glide vehicle, can be armed with nuclear warheads. China’s DF-17 is considered nuclear-capable but is not openly called a nuclear weapon. Its primary purpose, however, is to engage aircraft carrier-sized targets at great distances (potentially in excess of 1,000 miles), and to date, there’s little evidence to suggest that their targeting apparatus could accomplish such a feat with a conventional warhead.
America only has plans to develop new conventional, or non-nuclear, hypersonic weapons at this point, and that poses larger technical challenges than fielding nuclear ones. Nuclear weapons, as you can imagine, don’t need to be nearly as accurate because of the relative size of their blast radius. A conventional weapon, on the other hand, carries a smaller destructive yield, and as such, must be more accurate in order to destroy its 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.
Prompt Global Strike (PGS) is a U.S. military program to develop weapons—mainly missiles—that can strike targets at any location on earth within one hour using conventional warheads. Such systems could provide significant payoff for future U.S. offensive strike operations, particularly as adversaries’ capabilities advance. China fears the system will be used to knock out its nuclear missiles on the ground in the early stages of a conflict. According to Saalman, “Chinese analysts view PGS as part of a larger U.S. effort to achieve ‘absolute security,’ with BMD as the shield and PGS as the sword. While US wants to develop strike targets at any location on earth within one hour using conventional warheads, China and Russia are also aiming to defeat US missile defence system.
The congressional U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission stated in its latest annual report that the China’s hypersonic glide vehicle program is “progressing rapidly”. China also is building a powered version of the high-speed vehicle that could be fielded by 2025. In a review of over 20,000 patent filings related to hypersonics research, the market research firm Govini found, the number of patents filed related to hypersonics research in China increased about 24 percent each yr. between 2011 & 2016.
Unfortunately, in this category of weaponry, the U.S. is playing catch up. The Pentagon’s 2019 budget called for increased funding for a key hypersonics program from $201 million in 2018 to $278 million in 2019, with close to $2 billion allocated to the program. The US plans to spend an average of over $2bn per year through 2024 on developing hypersonic systems for the Air Force, Army, and Navy. The Pentagon’s fiscal 2021 budget request seeks $3.2bn for these weapons, but only $206.8m of that (about 6%) is for defending against hypersonic threats. Jane’s estimates that the U.S. has spent over $3.3 billion for the research and development of hypersonic technologies and weapons, with an additional 2020 budget request of $2.6 billion. “We have lost our technical advantage in hypersonics,” Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last year, ” but “we haven’t lost the hypersonics fight.”
Although the United States, Russia, and China possess the most advanced hypersonic weapons programs, a number of other countries including Australia, India, France, Germany, and North Korea are also developing hypersonic weapons technology. Since 2007, the United States has collaborated with Australia on the Hypersonic International Flight Research Experimentation (HIFiRE) program to develop hypersonic technologies. The most recent HIFiRE test, successfully conducted in July 2017, explored the flight dynamics of a Mach 8 hypersonic glide vehicle, while previous tests explored scramjet engine technologies. In addition to the Woomera Test Range facilities one of the largest weapons test facilities in the world Australia operates seven hypersonic wind tunnels and is capable of testing speeds of up to Mach 30.
India has similarly collaborated with Russia on the development of BrahMos II, a Mach 7 hypersonic cruise missile. Although BrahMos II was initially intended to be fielded in 2017, news reports indicate that the program faces significant delays and is now scheduled to achieve initial operational capability between 2025 and 2028. Reportedly, India is also developing an indigenous hypersonic cruise missile as part of its Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle program and successfully tested a Mach 6 scramjet in June 2019. India operates approximately 12 hypersonic wind tunnels and is capable of testing speeds of up to Mach 13.
France also has collaborated and contracted with Russia on the development of hypersonic technology. Although France has been investing in hypersonic technology research since the 1990s, it has only recently announced its intent to weaponize the technology. Under the V-max (Experimental Maneuvering Vehicle) program, France plans to modify its air-to-surface ASN4G supersonic missile for hypersonic flight by 2022. Some analysts believe that the V-max program is intended to provide France with a strategic nuclear weapon. France operates five hypersonic wind tunnels and is capable of testing speeds of up to Mach 21.
Germany successfully tested an experimental hypersonic glide vehicle (SHEFEX II) in 2012; however, reports indicate that Germany may have pulled funding for the program. German defense contractor DLR continues to research and test hypersonic vehicles as part of the European Union’s ATLAS II project, which seeks to design a Mach 5-6 vehicle. Germany operates three hypersonic wind tunnels and is capable of testing speeds of up to MachÂ .
In Jan 2022 it was reported that North Korea has reportedly test-fired a hypersonic missile, the reclusive nation’s first major weapons test this year. According to the state news agency KCNA, North Korea’s academy of defence science test fired a hypersonic missile that successfully hit a target 700km away. This is North Korea’s second reported hypersonic missile test, and follows a series of launches conducted amid stalled denuclearisation talks. Reuters reported that the missile test was detected by several militaries in the region.
Finally, Japan is developing the Hypersonic Cruise Missile (HCM) and the Hyper Velocity Gliding Projectile (HVGP). According to Jane’s, Japan invested $122 million in HVGP in FY2019. It reportedly plans to field one HVGP warhead for neutralizing aircraft carriers and one for area suppressionâ€”both in the 2024 to 2028 timeframe. The warheads are expected to enter service in 2030. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency operates three hypersonic wind tunnels, with two additional facilities at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and the University of Tokyo.
Russia developing several air- and sea-launched hypersonic missiles
Russia is reportedly developing several hypersonic weapons systems, including air- and sea-launched missiles. It has also been suggested that Russia is particularly working on devloping episodic weapons systems that can be launched by both land and sea-based means.
During his 35-minute speech, Putin also revealed the existence of four additional strategic thermonuclear weapons systems including the Status-6, the Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), a new hypersonic air-launched cruise missile, and the “Avangard” hypersonic glide vehicle.
Russia’s Avangard ( previously known Yu-71 and Yu-74 )hypersonic missile system became operational in Dec 2019, defence minister Sergey Shoygu has said. The intercontinental weapon can fly 27 times the speed of sound and, unlike a regular missile warhead, can make sharp manoeuvres en route to a target, making it much harder to intercept. Avangard is a hypersonic glide vehicle launched from an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), giving it “effectively ‘unlimited’ range.” Russian media reports indicated that the Avangard will first be mounted on Soviet-built RS-18B intercontinental ballistic missile. It is expected to be fitted to the prospective Sarmat heavy intercontinental ballistic missile after the missile becomes operational.
The glider was said to reach speeds of up to 7,000 miles per hour. Avangard features onboard countermeasures and will reportedly carry a nuclear warhead. It was successfully tested twice in 2016 and once in December 2018, reportedly reaching speeds of Mach 20; however, an October 2017 test resulted in failure. Russia’s new Yu-74 ultra-maneuverable hypersonic glide vehicles may become yet another response to the deployment of NATO’s missile installations in Eastern Europe, according to analytical website Ostkraft, says Sputnik.
Russia will deploy a regiment of them armed with nuclear warheads. The blast yield of a nuclear warhead carried by the Avangard is reportedly more than 2 megatons TNT. This new arms race promises to upend strategic calculations. Russian officials have cast nuclear-armed hypersonic craft as a hedge against future U.S. prowess at shooting down ICBMs, which could undermine nuclear deterrence.
The weapon system was first publically discussed by Putin in his state-of-the-nation address in March 2018. He added that it is designed with new composite materials, and can, therefore, withstand Avangard temperatures of up to 2,000 Celsius (3,632 Fahrenheit) resulting from a flight through the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds. He emphasised earlier this week that Russia is the only country armed with hypersonic weapons and that it is leading the world in an entire new class of weapons.
In addition to Avangard, Russia is developing Tsirkon, a ship-launched hypersonic cruise missile capable of traveling at speeds of between Mach 6 and Mach 8. Tsirkon is reportedly capable of striking both ground and naval targets. According to Russian news sources, Tsirkon has a range of between approximately 250 and 600 miles and can be fired from the vertical launch systems mounted on cruisers Admiral Nakhimov and Pyotr Veliky, Project 20380 corvettes, Project 22350 frigates, and Project 885 Yasen-class submarines, among other platforms.
According to multiple reports, Russia is expected to begin production soon of its 3M22 Zircon, a hypersonic cruise 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. These sources assert that Tsirkon was successfully launched from a Project 22350 frigate in January 2020. U.S. intelligence reports indicate that the missile will become operational in 2023
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced during his annual State of the Nation address that the Russian defense industry has begun developing an intercontinental-range nuclear-powered cruise missile capable of penetrating any interceptor-based missile defense system. “We’ve started the development of new types of strategic weapons that do not use ballistic flight paths on the way to the target. This means that the missile defense systems are useless as a counter-means and just senseless,” Putin said in his speech. The expert also stressed that a Mach number of 20 was equivalent to the first space speed, or 6 km per second, adding that the missile was capable of maneuvering with a high degree of precision, which made it an unparalleled type of weaponry and an unattainable target for any US missile defense system.
“One of them is creation of a small-size highly powerful nuclear power plant that can be planted inside the hull of a cruise missile identical to our air-launched X-101 or the United States’ Tomahawk, but at the same time is capable of guaranteeing a flight range that is dozens of times greater, which is practically unlimited,” he added.
Russia has tested a new hypersonic anti-ship missile that can travel a blistering 6,138 miles an hour, or 1.7 miles a second. The missile, known as Zircon, will attack ships at sea and land-based targets. It is expected to enter production in 2021 and service with the Russian Navy in 2022. Russia plans to test-fire a salvo of new hypersonic cruise missiles from a warship before the end of the year, Russian state media reports.
According to Russian state media source TASS, Zircon is designed to launch from vertical launch silos on several types of Russian Navy ships, including the Steregushchy-class Corvettes and Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates. The battlecruisers Admiral Nakhimov and Pyotr Velikiy will also get Zircon during scheduled refits. Per Naval Recoginition, both battlecruisers should get the ability to launch up to ten Zircon missiles each.
The real threat, however, is from the Russian Navy’s new Yasen-class submarines. According to TASS the same vertical launch missile launchers that allow the Yasen class to carry up to 40 anti-ship missiles also allow the submarines to carry Zircon. Unlike surface ships, which could be tracked, a Yasen-class submarine could launch them from an unexpected location and direction.
Russia is also developing the P-800 Onyx, which some experts suspect could be a hypersonic missile as well. “It could be a fundamentally new missile, possibly hypersonic”. Russian officials have said their hypersonic arms development is aimed to penetrate U.S. missile defenses.Army General Dmitry Bulgakov, the deputy minister of defense, told reporters that the ministry has developed a special new fuel to enable missiles to fly at hypersonic speeds.
In a significant military development in Russia, the latest sea-based missile launcher system being developed for Tsirkon (Zircon) hypersonic missile will also be able to fire the P-800 Oniks (Onyx) supersonic missile.
Oniks missiles are typically deployed on the Bastion coastal missile system and underwater-based carriers. After firing the hypersonic missile Kinzhal on Ukraine early in the conflict, the Russian troops also fired several Bastion-P missiles to destroy Ukrainian warehouses. In Nov 2022 it was revealed that Russia developed and manufactured a mobile launcher for a coastal version of the Tsircon (Zircon) hypersonic missile, as noted by EurAsian Times.
In addition, Russia has reportedly fielded Kinzhal, a maneuvering air-launched ballistic missile modified from the Iskander missile. According to U.S. intelligence reports, Kinzhal was successfully test fired from a modified MiG-31 fighter (NATO code name: Foxhound) as recently as July 2018 striking a target at a distance of approximately 500 miles and is expected by U.S. intelligence sources to become ready for combat by 2020. Russia plans to deploy the missile on both the MiG-31 and the Su-34 long-range strike fighter. Russia is working to mount the missile on the Tu-22M3 strategic bomber (NATO code name: Backfire), although the slower-moving bomber may face challenges in “accelerating the weapon into the correct launch parameters.”
Russian media has reported Kinzhal’s top speed as Mach 10, with a range of up to 1,200 miles when launched from the MiG-31. The Kinzhal is reportedly capable of maneuverable flight, as well as of striking both ground and naval targets, and could eventually be fitted with a nuclear warhead. However, such claims regarding Kinzhal’s performance characteristics have not been publicly verified by U.S. intelligence agencies, and have been met with skepticism by a number of analysts.
China developing hypersonic, precision-guidance, and boost-glide technologies
In October 2021 , the top U.S. military officer, General Mark Milley, confirmed a Chinese hypersonic weapons test that military experts say appears to show Beijing’s pursuit of an Earth-orbiting system designed to evade American missile defenses.
China’s military sees hypersonic weapons (as well as cyberwarfare and electromagnetic pulse strikes) as an “assassin’s mace”: a folklore term for a weapon that gives an advantage against a better-armed foe, says Larry Wortzel, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council who serves on the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. If tensions were to spike over Taiwan or the South China Sea, for instance, China might be tempted to launch preemptive strikes with conventional hypersonic weapons that could cripple U.S. forces in the Pacific Ocean, Wortzel says. China’s hypersonic weapons, he warns, “seem deliberately targeted at upending the tenuous strategic stability that has been in place since the end of the Cold War.”
China is conducting substantial research into both countering and developing hypersonic, precision-guidance, and boost-glide technologies, with the DF-21D and WU-14 weapon systems as just two recent examples, according Dr. Lora Saalman, Associate Professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. Indeed, some analysts believe that China may be planning to mate conventionally armed HGVs with the DF-21 and DF-26 ballistic missiles in support of an anti-access/area denial strategy. China has reportedly not made a final determination as to whether its hypersonic weapons will be nuclear- or conventionally-armed or dual-capable. In May 2020, workers at the Beijing Academy of Sciences ran a scramjet for 10 minutes, according to a report in the South China Morning Post.
DF-17: China’s Newly Tested Ballistic Missile Armed With a Hypersonic Glide Vehicle
China showed off a rocket-boosted hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) of its own, the Dongfeng-17, in a recent military parade. HGVs are capsules on the top of a missile that hold the payload. They break apart from the main body of the projectile after it has reached its highest altitude, and glide to the target until impact.
China appears to have deployed the first one, called the Dongfeng-17, a ballistic missile that carries glide vehicles. Some of those gliders are billed as capable of knocking out U.S. Navy supercarriers. For such a mission it need not pack a nuclear or even a conventional warhead, instead relying on its enormous kinetic energy to destroy its target. And there’s nothing that any country can now do to defend against it. China in Aug 2018 announced that it has successfully tested its first cutting-edge hypersonic aircraft which could carry nuclear warheads and penetrate any current generation anti-missile defence systems.
The source said that the DF-17 was a medium-range missile system that had a range between 1,800 and 2,500 kilometers. It is capable of carrying nuclear and conventional payloads, and may be able to be configured to have a maneuverable reentry vehicle instead of an HGV. 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.
DF-ZF hypersonic glide vehicle, which the US calls Wu-14
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. Although unconfirmed by intelligence agencies, some analysts believe the DF-ZF will be operational as early as 2020. The strategic strike weapon is extremely advanced and can travel at 10 times the speed of sound, or 12,231 kph. Also, American defense officials said the vehicle, which speeds along the edge of the earth’s atmosphere, demonstrated a new capability during the latest test: that it was able to take evasive actions. It has several control surfaces to ensure stability and maneuverability.
DF-ZF could be used for nuclear weapons delivery but could also be used to perform precision-strike conventional missions (for example, next-generation anti-ship ballistic missiles), which could penetrate “the layered air defenses of a U.S. carrier strike group. 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.
Also, American defense officials said the vehicle, which speeds along the edge of the earth’s atmosphere, demonstrated a new capability during the latest test: that it was able to take evasive actions. “At a minimum this latest test indicates China is likely succeeding in achieving a key design objective: building a warhead capable of withstanding the very high stress of hypersonic maneuvering,” Rick Fisher, a China military expert, told the WFB. “It is likely that the test vehicle will form the basis for a missile launched weapon.”
“The Wu-14 is designed to penetrate US missile defense systems, meaning the PLA is capable of defending China’s territorial sovereignty. But such a test is only a nuclear deterrent. Neither China nor the US wants to declare war over the South China Sea issues,” said Professor He Qisong, a defense policy specialist at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.
Analysts suspect that the WU-14 will first be used in shorter-range roles as an anti-ship missile. China has already believed to have developed advanced capabilities for precision ASBM strike against U.S. aircraft carriers and other naval forces operating in the western Pacific, at ranges between 1,500 and 2,000km, under its sea-denial strategy.
China is also believed to be developing capability on an Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM) variant that adopts a boost-glide for long range precision strikes – at least out to 8,000km – against a broad range of targets, including ships at sea.
The National Air and Space Intelligence Center has testified to Congress that China’s hypersonic glide vehicle will be used to deliver nuclear weapons. A variant also could be used as part of China’s conventionally-armed anti-ship ballistic missile system, which is aimed at sinking U.S. aircraft carriers far from Chinese shores.
“China’s hypersonic weapons development program is probably less developed than the American program, but China might be able to develop its program more quickly,” said James Acton of the Nuclear Policy Program and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
US Catching up in Hypersonic Race
Mike White, assistant director for hypersonics from the office of the undersecretary for research and engineering, at the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement Counter Hypersonic Weapons Summit, said the department has taken a fast-track, four-phase approach. The first phase consisted of concept demonstrations, test and evaluation and weapons system prototype, he said. The next phase was in transitioning promising technology development to concept demonstration. Phase three will be in accelerated fielding of capability and weapons system prototypes to warfighters, White said, and phase four, starting with the fiscal year 2022 budget cycle, will be buying hypersonic weapons in numbers and delivering prototypes to the warfighter for future production buys in programs of record.
US government agencies are developing hypersonic technology for short-term and long-term goals. The near-term goals are hypersonic weapons that are expected to mature in the early 2020s and unmanned surveillance aircraft in the late 2020s or early 2030s, with hypersonic vehicles to follow in the longer term. Air-breathing access to space is a much longer-term goal. The general development strategy is to start small with weapons and to then scale up to aircraft and space vehicles as the technology and materials mature, reports Janes.
According to open-source reporting, the United States has a number of major offensive hypersonic weapons and hypersonic technology programs in development, including the following:
- U.S. Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS);
- U.S. Army’s Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW);
- U.S. Air Force’s AGM-183 Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW, pronounced “arrow”) The US Air Force has validated the loading procedures for its first air-launched hypersonic weapon with the B-52H aircraft at the Barksdale Air Force Base (AFB) in Louisiana, US. The US Air Force’s 2nd Bomb Wing is based at Barksdale Air Force Base in northwestern Louisiana. The service said the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon, or ARRW, is anticipated to be prepared for deployment as early as the fall of 2023. The Lockheed Martin AGM-183A ARRW is a long-range hypersonic missile developed for the United States Air Force. The missile is projected to boost the USAF’s hypersonic strike capability at stand-off ranges, allowing it to attack heavily defended, high-value targets.
- DARPA’s Tactical Boost Glide (TBG);
- DARPA’s Operational Fires (OpFires); and
- DARPA’s Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC, pronounced “hawk”).
In a June 2018 memorandum, DOD announced that the Navy would lead the development of a common glide vehicle for use across the services. The common glide vehicle is being adapted from a Mach 6 Army prototype warhead, the Alternate Re-Entry System, which was successfully tested in 2011 and 2017.24 Once development is complete, “Sandia National Laboratories, the designer of the original concept, then will build the common glide vehicles. Booster systems are being developed separately.”
The Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS) is expected to pair the common glide vehicle with a submarine-launched booster system, achieving initial operational capability (IOC) on a Virginia-class submarine with Virginia Payload Module in FY2028. The Navy is requesting $1 billion for CPS in FY2021 an increase of $415 million over the FY2020 request and $496 million over the FY2020 appropriation and $5.3 billion across the five-year Future Years Defense Program (FYDP).
The Army’s Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon program is expected to pair the common glide vehicle with the Navy’s booster system. The system is intended to have a range of 1,400 miles and “provide the Army with a prototype strategic attack weapon system to defeat A2/AD capabilities, suppress adversary Long Range Fires, and engage other high payoff/time sensitive targets.” The Army is requesting $801 million for the program in FY2021 $573 million over the FY2020 request and $397 million over the FY2020 appropriation and $3.3 billion across the FYDP. It plans to conduct flight tests for LRHW from FY2021 to FY2023, field combat rounds in FY2023, and transition to a program of record in the fourth quarter of FY2024
Deployment of a long-range hypersonic weapon system by the U.S. Army is expected by 2023, the Association of the United States Army (AUSA) was told at its annual convention. Robert Strider, deputy director of Army hypersonic programs told attendees of the convention that a battery of eight missiles launched from a mobile ground platform are intended to be capable of breaking speeds of Mach 5 — about 3,800 mph on land — and that the hypersonic weapons system leads the Army’s list of priorities. The missile’s construction includes a Common Hypersonic Glide Body (C-HGB), modified trucks and trailers, and existing command-and-control technology. Dynetics Technical Solutions of Huntsville, Ala., has been contracted to manufacture C-HGB prototypes.
“This new booster would allow a lot more controllability and mobility for the army, and an ability to really use the system and the most effective way versus any other existing booster that’s out there,” Walker explained. If the programme moves into Phase 2, it will be a 12-month effort to mature designs to critical design level and culminate in hot/static fire tests of at least two of the booster test articles.
U.S. Air Force
The AGM-183 Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon is expected to leverage DARPA’s Tactical Boost Glide technology to develop an air-launched hypersonic glide vehicle prototype capable of travelling at speeds up to Mach 20 at a range of approximately 575 miles. Despite testing delays due to technical challenges, ARRW completed a successful flight test in June 2019 and is expected to complete flight tests in FY2022. ARRW is a project under the Air Force’s Hypersonics Prototyping Program Element, which is intended to demonstrate concepts “to [enable] leadership to make informed strategy and resource decisions for future programs.”
In February 2020, the Air Force announced that it had cancelled its second hypersonic weapon program, the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon (HCSW), which had been expected to use the common glide vehicle, due to budget pressures that forced it to choose between ARRW and HCSW. Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper explained that ARRW was selected because it was more advanced and gave the Air Force additional options. “[ARRW] is smaller; we can carry twice as many on the B-52, and it’s possible it could be on the F-15,” he explained. The Air Force will continue its technical review of HCSW through March 2020
Over the last two years DARPA and the teams of Raytheon/Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin successfully completed a pair of flight tests of the scramjet-powered Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC). The hypersonic missile flew faster, higher, and farther than its predecessor hypersonic concepts — NASA’s X-43 and the X-51 scramjet-waverider from the Air Force Research Laboratory.
DARPA, in partnership with the Air Force, continues to test Tactical Boost Glide, a wedge-shaped hypersonic glide vehicle capable of Mach 7+ flight that “aims to develop and demonstrate technologies to enable future air-launched, tactical-range hypersonic boost glide systems.” TBG will “also consider traceability, compatibility, and integration with the Navy Vertical Launch System” and is planned to transition to both the Air Force and the Navy. DARPA has requested $117 million down from the $162 million FY2020 request and the $152 million FY2020 appropriation for TBG in FY2021.
In addition to working with the USAF on TBG and HAWC, DARPA has partnered with the US Army on the Operational Fires (OpFires) development programme that is essentially a ground-launched capability with the TBG “front end”, Walker explained. As part of the effort, the agency and army have awarded three companies with Phase 1 base effort contracts, which include booster preliminary design and proof of concept testing to demonstrate key elements of the propulsion system.
DARPA’s Operational Fires reportedly seeks to leverage TBG technologies to develop a ground-launched system that will enable “advanced tactical weapons to penetrate modern enemy air defenses and rapidly and precisely engage critical time sensitive targets.” DARPA has requested $40 million for OpFires in FY2021 down from the $50 million FY2020 request and appropriation and intends to transition the program to the Army.
In the longer term, DARPA, with Air Force support, is continuing work on the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept, which “seeks to develop and demonstrate critical technologies to enable an effective and affordable air-launched hypersonic cruise missile.” Assistance Director for Hypersonics Mike White has stated that such a missile would be smaller than DOD’s hypersonic glide vehicles and could therefore launch from a wider range of platforms. Director White has additionally noted that HAWC and other hypersonic cruise missiles could integrate seekers more easily than hypersonic glide vehicles. DARPA requested $7 million to develop HAWC in FY2021 down from the $10 million FY2020 request and $20 million FY2020 appropriation
Raytheon has been awarded a USD 174 million contract for work on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA’s) Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) programme, according to a 28 October Pentagon announcement. USD3.4 million of the cost-plus-fixed-fee deal was awarded, according to the announcement. HAWC is a joint project with the US Air Force (USAF) to “develop and demonstrate critical technologies to enable an effective and affordable air-launched hypersonic cruise missile”, according to DARPA.
Raytheon and Lockheed Martin are both working on HAWC projects. The latter is also working on DARPA’s Tactical Boost-Glide (TBG) programme. Both HAWC and TBG are feeding into the USAF’s High Speed Strike Weapon (HSSW) effort, which the service intends to demonstrate around 2020. The military envisions developing TBG as an air-launched rocket with speeds faster than Mach 5 and able to reach altitudes of nearly 200,000 ft. The HAWC is also designed to be air launched but is envisioned as a hypersonic cruise missile.
US is developing Air launched conventional hypersonic weapon based on X-51 technologies. X-51 Waverider demonstrated Scramjet in 2010. The flying prototype is expected by 2021. US intends to develop a sea-launched hypersonic cruise missile by 2018-2020, and a hypersonic aircraft by 2030. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is eyeing flight tests later this year for two hypersonic weapons, and it is teaming up with the US Army on developing such a ground-launched capability.
US launched hypersonic glide body test in March 2020 in race to catch up with China and Russia. “I’d likely point out today that the Army, in a joint effort with the Navy, conducted a successful long-range flight of a hypersonic glide body missile,” McCarthy said in a briefing dominated by questions about how the Army Corps of Engineers would help address things such as coming hospital shortages. To reach speeds of Mach 20, or 20 times the speed of sound, the glide body that will carry the nation’s fastest land-based missile passes between the upper atmosphere and space. The test conducted at the Pacific Missile Range facility brings the military a step closer to catching up with adversaries who already have hypersonic missiles in their inventory.
Brad Leland, Lockheed’s program manager for Hypersonics makes the case for the jet on the company’s website, stating: “Hypersonic aircraft, coupled with hypersonic missiles, could penetrate denied airspace and strike at nearly any location across a continent in less than an hour… Speed is the next aviation advancement to counter emerging threats in the next several decades. The technology would be a game-changer in theater, similar to how stealth is changing the battlespace today.” 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.
US Hypersonic Weapons
Prompt Global Strike (PGS) is a U.S. military program to develop weapons—mainly missiles—that can strike targets at any location on earth within one hour using conventional warheads. This capability may bolster U.S. efforts to deter and defeat adversaries by allowing the United States to attack high-value targets or “fleeting targets” at the start of or during a conflict.
The 2006 QDR noted the need for prompt global strike capabilities to provide the United States with the ability “to attack fixed, hard and deeply buried, mobile and re-locatable targets with improved accuracy anywhere in the world promptly upon the President’s order. The 2010 QDR also noted that “enhanced long-range strike capabilities are one means of countering growing threats to forward deployed forces and bases and ensuring U.S. power projection capabilities.”
In 2003, the Air Force and DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) initiated a program, known as FALCON (force application and launch from continental United States) that was designed to develop both a launch vehicle similar to a ballistic missile and a hypersonic reentry vehicle, known as the common aero vehicle (CAV) that, together, would provide the United States with the ability to meet the requirements of the prompt global strike mission.
US is funding several hypersonic programs: Lockheed Hypersonic Technology Vehicle-2, Air Force’s Force Application and Launch from Continental United States, known as FALCON, Raytheon Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC), and the Raytheon/Lockheed Tactical Boost Glide. The Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency gave Raytheon $20 million and Lockheed $24 million for the latter.
DARPA indicated that the goal for the HTV-2 program is to develop a vehicle that can launch into the Earth’s upper atmosphere and descend across the Pacific Ocean with speeds of more than 13,000 miles per hour. It should be able to travel from Vandenberg Air Force Base to a target near Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean in 30 minutes.
The Army is also developing a hypersonic glide vehicle, known as the advanced hypersonic weapon (AHW). Like the HTV-2, the AHW would use a hypersonic glider to deliver a conventional payload, but could be deployed on a booster with a shorter range than HTV-2 and, therefore, may need to be deployed forward, on land or at sea.
The Army conducted a successful flight test of the AHW on November 17, 2011. The system launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Hawaii, and used the strategic targets system (STARS) booster stack, which is derived from the Navy’s Polaris ballistic missile. According to press reports, the vehicle traveled 2,400 miles, from the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Hawaii to Kwajalein Atoll. The test collected data on hypersonic boost-glide technologies and test range performance. The mission also tested the thermal protection technologies for the vehicle, an area where concerns exist because of the high temperatures generated during flight.
The high cost of hypersonic missiles will likely drive the Air Force to build only small inventories of them, relying more heavily on other types of munitions such as lower-speed cruise missiles, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said in Feb. 2022.
“Hypersonics are not going to be cheap anytime soon,” Kendall said on a streaming broadcast with the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. “So I think we’re more likely to have relatively small inventories of [hypersonic missiles] than large ones, but that still remains to be seen, and hopefully, we can drive down the cost to where they’re more attractive.”
Kendall wonders whether “you could do the job with cruise missiles at less cost, [but] just as effectively?” Hypersonic missiles are useful “but they’re not the only way” to hit the time-sensitive targets the Air Force needs to strike.
“You could penetrate defenses with stealth and countermeasures, and so on, with a combination of tactics,” Kendall said. “So we need to look across the spectrum and make smart decisions about the munitions we buy.”
In Europe, France and Germany have both invested in hypersonic weapons, with France allocating part of its €37bn nuclear revamp funding and Germany currently sourcing contracts for a hypersonic weapon. Australia, Japan and other countries are also developing hypersonic weapons. The United States and Australia have concluded a series of hypersonic test flights at the Woomera test range in South Australia. The tests were conducted under the auspices of the Hypersonic International Flight Research Experimentation (HiFIRE) programme, says Australia’s Department of Defence in a statement. In the statement, defence minister Marise Payne said that the tests have achieved “significant milestones, including design assembly, and pre-flight testing of the hypersonic vehicles and design of complex avionics and control systems.”
Japan plans to develop Operational Hypersonic Weapons
Japan is reportedly pursuing development of two hypersonic weapons using different boost-glide vehicle warheads. The plan could offer the Japanese military game-changing capabilities to deter its regional opponents, primarily China in the East China Sea, and is also the latest signal that the country is moving away from its pacifist post-World War II constitution.
The U.S., Russia and China are ahead of other nations in developing hypersonic weapons,” Richard Speier, adjunct staff with Rand, told CNBC. Speier, who worked to initiate the Pentagon’s Office of Counter-Proliferation Policy, added that France, India, and Australia are also developing military uses of hypersonic technology. “Japan and various European countries are working on civilian uses of the technology, such as space launch vehicles or civilian airliners, but civilian uses can be adapted for military purposes,” Speier noted.
On Oct. 15, 2018, Japan’s Mainichi Shimbun newspaper, citing unnamed sources, said the country’s Ministry of Defense had crafted the hypersonic weapon plan with an eye toward having the initial system in service no later than 2026. The second type would hopefully arrive in 2028. The Japanese government first officially revealed it was working on what it calls the Hyper-Velocity Gliding Projectile (HVGP), in an annual defense white paper that came out in August 2018.
The HVGP program’s primary stated objective is the development of a weapon “for the defense of remote islands, which can glide at high velocity and attack a target in order to enable island-to-island firing,” according to the Ministry of Defense’s white paper. “Remote islands” here is a reference to a hotly disputed group of islands that the Japanese refer to as Senkaku and the Chinese refer to as Diaoyu. The Senkakus lie more than 260 miles southwest of Okinawa, which itself is more than 300 miles away from the Japanese Home Islands. The area is much closer to the Chinese mainland and Chinese warships and military aircraft routinely conduct patrols in the area to challenge Japan’s claims.
The HVGP program is seeking weapons that can strike targets between around 185 and 310 miles away. The initial Japanese design will by a conical boost-glide vehicle with small fins to adjust course, according to the Mainichi Shimbun. This type of boost-glide vehicle, however, generally has a limited overall glide time, which can lead to a reduced range. The follow-on hypersonic weapon will use a flatter “talon-shaped” warhead. The Ministry of Defense budgeted more than $40 million in the 2018 Fiscal Year for hypersonic weapon development and has requested more than $120 million to continue that work in the upcoming 2019 fiscal cycle.
India and Russia developing hypersonic cruise missiles
Unlike the U.S. and China, both of whom focus their hypersonic development efforts on boost-glide vehicles, Russia and India are seeking to build hypersonic cruise missiles. NPO Mashinostroeyenia, is collaborating with India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to develop BrahMos-II or or BrahMos Mark II, a hypersonic cruise missile expected to have a range of 290 kilometres (180 mi) and a speed of Mach 7, expected to be ready for testing by 2017.
According to the company’s website, the BrahMos-II will be powered by a scramjet engine instead of a ramjet one. “As a variation of the ramjet,” the company explains, “scramjets allow combustion to occur in a supersonic airflow, thereby expanding the operating range above Mach 4.”
Hypersonic Weapons Market
The global hypersonic weapons market size is expected to reach USD 14.64 Billion in 2028, and register a CAGR of 13.7% during the forecast period (2021-2028). The growing need for weapons that can travel at higher speed and possess capability of maneuvering during flight such as hypersonic weapons is a key factor driving market revenue growth. Increasing investments in research and development of technologically advanced weapons by various countries to strengthen respective defense capabilities.
Among the range segments, the intermediate range segment accounted for the largest revenue share in 2020. North America market accounted for the largest revenue share in the global hypersonic weapons market in 2020, due to presence of a large number of major players in countries in the region, and increasing investments in development of advanced weapons by manufacturers and government.
Europe market accounted for second-largest revenue share in 2020, due to increasing investments to develop technologically advanced supersonic weapons, and well-developed defense sector in countries in the region. Increasing investments to develop radar systems capability that can detect hypersonic weapons is a key factor that could hamper market growth to an extent
Key players include Lockheed Martin Corporation, Raytheon Company, The Boeing Company, Northrop Grumman Corporation, Brahmos Aerospace, Kratos Defense & Security Solutions, Inc., SAAB AB, China Aerospace Science & Industry Corp. Ltd., and Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings, Inc.
References and Resources also include: