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High time for hypersonic missiles?

High time for hypersonic missiles?

The US is joining Russia and China in developing a new kind of weapon system. In this race they have seemingly fallen behind their competitors, but what does the development of hypersonic weapons mean for warfare in the future as more countries jump on the bandwagon? And does it matter that the US is behind the eight ball in progressing its technology?

The US is joining Russia and China in developing a new kind of weapon system. In this race they have seemingly fallen behind their competitors, but what does the development of hypersonic weapons mean for warfare in the future as more countries jump on the bandwagon? And does it matter that the US is behind the eight ball in progressing its technology?

So, what has created the interest to develop hypersonic weapons? Ballistic missiles already move faster than hypersonic technologies and can currently carry higher payloads including nuclear weapons and deliver them highly accurately. The difference lies in trajectory, and a space that lies between ballistic missile defences and traditional anti aircraft defences. Unlike ballistic missiles, which see their trajectory briefly travel through space, hypersonic weapons remain in the atmosphere. For now this makes them incredibly, and almost impossibly, difficult to defend against.

Why hyper?


Hypersonic weapons are specifically designed for increased survivability against modern ballistic missile defence systems. These missiles are capable of delivering conventional or nuclear payloads at ultra-high velocities over long ranges. Hypersonic missiles are delivered in two ways:

Firstly, unpowered hypersonic boost-glide vehicles (HGVs) can be fired from the last stages of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) or submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and skip along the top of the atmosphere using specialised jet engines to accelerate to hypersonic speeds of up to Mach 27 (the claimed speed for the Russian Avangard HGV).

Secondly, hypersonic cruise missiles (HCMs) are launched from platforms such as aircraft and ships and are powered by rockets or jets throughout their flight.

Hypersonic weapons could be fitted with either conventional or nuclear warheads, but even in conventional form they are very effective against hard targets because of the enormous kinetic energy generated by their very high impact speed.

What makes these weapons systems even more effective at penetrating defences is their ability to manoeuvre and change altitude at flat trajectory to avoid defences. 

Who has what? Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was angered by the US walking away from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, claims to have three hypersonic weapon systems tested and close to deployment, and at the moment this places them well ahead of the US in terms of the development of this newer technology. 

Just after Christmas in 2018, Russia's armed forces launched a ballistic missile carrying a HGV called Avangard from base in the Ural mountains. After separating from the ballistic missile carrier, it is claimed the hypersonic weapon zigzagged 6,000 kilometres across Siberia at speeds up to Mach 27 before hitting a target on the Kamchatka Peninsula. Russia has apparently now put this nuclear capable HGV into service, making Russia the first to be armed with a hypersonic weapon. 

The second design, Kinzhal (dagger), it is claimed can immediately destroy US nuclear bases in Europe. The stationary weapon is ideal for a prompt strike. It can be delivered by a high-speed carrier such as a fifth-generation fighter. The missile has a long-range and hit precision comparable to Iskander missiles. It has a claimed range of more than 2,000 kilometres, a speed of more than Mach 10, and an ability to perform evasive manoeuvres at every stage of flight carrying both conventional and nuclear warheads. Reports have since indicated that the Kinzhal missile has entered service and that up to 10 MiG-31s have been modified to carry the missiles. The 10 aircraft deployed on experimental combat duty in the Southern Military District, bordering Ukraine and the Black Sea.

The third and newest hypersonic weapons the Russians have claimed is 3M22 Zircon or the SS-N-33, which is a maneuvering anti-ship hypersonic cruise missile developed in Russia. The Zircon’s estimated range is 500 kilometres at a low level and up to 750 kilometres at a semi-ballistic trajectory, but the state-owned media in Russia reports the range as 1,000 kilometres. It’s a two-stage missile that uses solid fuel in the first stage and a scramjet motor in the second stage.

Who has what? The US

The US has actively pursued the development of hypersonic weapons as a part of its conventional prompt global strike program since the early 2000s. In recent years, the US has focused such efforts on developing hypersonic glide vehicles, which are launched from a rocket before gliding to a target, and hypersonic cruise missiles, which are powered by high-speed, air-breathing engines during flight. As Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former Commander of US Strategic Command General John Hyten has stated, these 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”.

Funding for such weapons has remained restrained, however with Russia and China developing their capabilities there is now growing interest in its defence community and Congress to ensure they do not fall behind, especially as Russia and China have been openly wanting to integrate nuclear capability into these weapons. 

The Pentagon’s FY2021 budget request for all hypersonic-related research is $3.2 billion – up from $2.6 billion in the FY2020 request – including $206.8 million for hypersonic defence programs.

Whilst the US has tested hypersonic weapons they are yet to place into service either a HGV or HCM. After decades of fits and starts, any advantage that US hypersonic R&D once held has largely eroded away. Its wind tunnels and other testing infrastructure are ageing and challenges such as tweaking designs to ensure engine walls don’t melt have slowed progress on scramjets.

Alongside concerns surrounding strategic stability, US policy makers have also expressed concern that the US is “behind” in a hypersonic arms race – with deployment of US hypersonic capabilities currently slated for 2022.

Who has what? China

Since 2014, China has been developing its hypersonic weapon capabilities with advancements in both HGVs and HCMs. DF-ZF, a hypersonic glide vehicle known in the US as the WU-14, has undergone more than a half dozen development tests between 2014 and 2016. The DF-ZF is launched during the last stage of a missile and can reach nearly Mach 10, as well as manoeuvre to avoid missile defences and zero in on targets. This weapon can be configured to carry a nuclear or conventional warhead and China claims it is precise enough to attack ships at sea. The DF-ZF is scheduled to be operational as early as 2020.

However, it was a different weapon that caught the eye of the world when it was paraded down Beijing's avenue, the Dongfeng 17 (DF-17) hypersonic boost-glide missile. The DF-17 is the weapon that the US intelligence community estimated in 2017 to become the first of its kind to see operational deployment. 

In the case of the DF-17, China has looked to build up a highly precise system. US analysis of the missile’s first tests in November 2017 found an impressive degree of precision, with the test units apparently striking within metres of their targets. 

In a conflict, weapons like the DF-17 would pose a formidable challenge for the US and its allies. For instance, rapid conventional strikes could disable critical US command centres and even airfields along the first island chain.

US officials have expressed concern about their inability to defend against these kinds of threats.

“We don’t have any defence that could deny the employment of such a weapon against us,” Gen John Hyten said in March last year. Especially vulnerable to weapons such as the DF-17 would be naval vessels such as aircraft carriers. 

Who has what? The rest of the world

France and India have active hypersonics development programs, and both are working independently with Russia, according to the US Rand Corporation.

Japan aims to have a hypersonic weapon ready for testing by 2025, presumably with the North Korean nuclear missile threat in mind. Japan has outlined its research and development road map for its homegrown, stand-off hypersonic weapons, confirming that it is seeking an incremental growth in capability and providing more details about the kinds of threats it is targeting with this new class of weapon.

The government said two classes of stand-off hypersonic systems will be deployed — the HCM and the hyper velocity gliding projectile (HVGP).

The former will be powered by a scramjet engine and appears similar to a typical missile, albeit one that cruises at a much higher speed while capable of travelling at long ranges.

Japan’s road map also revealed the country is taking an incremental approach with regard to designing the shapes of warheads and developing solid-fuel engine technology, with plans to field early versions of both in the 2024 to 2028 time frame. They are expected to enter service in the early 2030s.

Australia has collaborated with testing of hypersonic missiles completed down under in 2017. The hypersonic missile was capable of travelling faster than 9,500km/h. The test of the HiFiRE vehicle paves the way for a new generation of hypersonic weapons that can strike enemies with a minimum of reaction time. The test was conducted jointly by Australia's Defence Science and Technology Group and the US Air Force Research Lab at the Woomera Test Range in Australia. The tests involved the HiFiRE scramjet vehicle.

The HiFiRE program has been ongoing since 2009, when the first test involving the scramjet engine took place. Previous tests have involved HiFiRE being lofted upwards on an Orion sounding rocket with an S-30 rocket as a first stage.


As with all new technologies there is often teething issues or concerns raised about its viability or effectiveness. In regards to hypersonic missiles, the issue appears t be with heat management. Some have argued that due to the rigours of traveling at speeds above Mach 5 within the atmosphere would leave hypersonic weapons less accurate than claimed. Unlike ballistic missiles that travel within the atmosphere for only a short time, hypersonic missiles complete their trajectory within the Earth's atmosphere, which creates issues with air friction and the heat created through this. 

Hypersonic weapons travelling at Mach 5-plus experience a whole new level of heat build-up. While a ballistic missile warhead might spend only seconds exposed to air friction, hypersonic weapons experience air friction throughout their entire flight. Chemical reactions with the surrounding air even create a plasma around the hypersonic weapon, which can interfere with the object’s ability to reference GPS or receive outside course correction commands. Heat and friction caused during flight could also damage the weapon, affecting flight dynamics and accuracy.

Your thoughts

Are hypersonic weapons the future of warfare and will they spark a new arms race to create the deadliest technology? Or do current nuclear arsenals and conventional arsenals already provide the coverage and deterrent capabilities without the need for this new tech? What should Australia's role be with this new technology? Should we be providing assistance with development with the US to ensure we have access to the capability in the future or are their better options for the Australian strategic framework.

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