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All lights and no show: Demystifying the misunderstood world of hypersonic weaponry

Is hypersonic technology the new game changer? Photo: Lockheed Martin

“Hypersonic weapon” – it sounds impossibly fast, nearly invincible, and potentially devastating in its destructive power.

“Hypersonic weapon” – it sounds impossibly fast, nearly invincible, and potentially devastating in its destructive power.

Many defence industry experts could be forgiven for thinking that the new and exciting world of development in the field of hypersonic missiles will lead to a major equipment upheaval.

Unfortunately, it looks likely that hypersonic weapons will not deliver as the much-touted chief game changer that results in a dinosaur-versus-meteorite style, wiping of all other military equipment and providing an unconquerable advantage in the modern world.


The truth behind the headlines is that hypersonic missiles aren’t actually built with a winner-takes-all purpose; most aren’t ready for fielding and current examples that have already been fielded in places like Ukraine aren’t even true to the name.

The tech wizardry at play behind the photography

In general, a hypersonic weapon applies to a missile that travels at least at Mach 5 (at least five times the speed of sound) inside of the Earth’s atmosphere where it can use the combination of high speed, range, and manoeuvrability to strike areas usually protected by conventional missile defence and tracking.

In confirmation of the technology’s importance, US defence officials have previously stated that both terrestrial and current space-based sensor architectures are insufficient to detect and track hypersonic weapons.

Current hypersonics are generally of two different flavours, but they are both launched outside the range of defence and detection equipment before travelling quickly (across 1,000-3,000 kilometres) outside a normal ballistic trajectory to their targets within a short timeframe (15–30 minutes).

The two general types include a compact air-breathing scramjet cruise missile variety that is lighter, less expensive, and does not carry its own oxidiser; the other is a bigger, more expensive, and longer-range glide vehicle variety that is launched via solid rocket motor and travels in an unpowered “glide” with energy derived from the initial boost.

All of this information sounds great on paper, it looks great in press photos and provokes some enticing thoughts about the possible replacement of intercontinental ballistic missiles with undefendable nuclear hypersonic weapons zipping and zigzagging across the sky, but unfortunately, that’s not the case.

The hard truth is that hypersonics are designed for quick, accurate, and effective strikes because they are intended as deterrence by denial weaponry. Their usage is primarily envisioned to act against distant, defended or time-critical threats using standard conventional explosive warheads (in the Western world as opposed to interchangeable payloads in PRC and Russia). They primarily hold targets at range in a complementary role alongside traditional stores of standard shock-and-awe nuclear deterrence.

Both the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia have arguably led the development of current hypersonic weapons research. Russia is reportedly pursuing two programs including the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle launched via ICBM and the Kinzhal manoeuvring air-launched ballistic missile; although a Tsirkon ship-launched hypersonic cruise missile is also reportedly being developed.

There is some debate regarding whether the Kinzhal, which has already seen combat in Ukraine, should even be considered a new hypersonic weapon as it was originally developed from the Russian Iskander missile and could be classified separately as an aero-ballistic missile deployed from aircraft such as the MiG-31 and Su-34.

The PRC has previously conducted hypersonic glide vehicle weaponry testing on DF-17 medium range ballistic missiles, DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missiles, DF-ZF hypersonic glide vehicle and Xing Kong-2 (Starry Sky-2) nuclear capable hypersonic vehicle, according to the US Department of Defense.

The US Department of Defense itself has highlighted hypersonic technology as a priority and separate development programs for hypersonic cruise missiles and glide-body weaponry has been announced by the US Army, US Navy, and US Air Force. It’s understood the US has largely been caught behind the eight ball in regard to hypersonic development with flight testing planned later this year and the potential fielding of first generation systems in the next couple of years.

A number of other countries – including the United Kingdom, Australia, India, Iran, France, Germany, South Korea, North Korea, Israel, and Japan – are also reportedly conducting initial and intermediate hypersonic weapons technology research.

Final thoughts

Despite the popularity and media attention that hypersonic weaponry has received, development remains at a very immature stage and the development of defence from hypersonic weaponry is even less advanced.

It should also be mentioned that hypersonic missiles are not likely to provide a viable financial alternative to current nuclear deterrence provided by ICBMs. Hypersonic missiles could cost one-third more to procure and field than ballistic missiles of the same range with manoeuvrable warheads, according to information released by the US government.

If game-changing technology exists in the industry to take the well-established crown off nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles, it isn’t hypersonic missile technology that has been unveiled publicly.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on the current standard, future of hypersonic weaponry and what you would like to see from the hypersonic weapons industry’s major players in the comments section below, or get in touch at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at eThis email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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