Hypersonic Weapons Development and Impact

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As early as March 2018‭, ‬Michael Griffin‭, ‬U.S‭. ‬Undersecretary for Research and Engineering‭, ‬declared that hypersonic capabilities‭ ‬were his number one priority‭. ‬In July 2020‭, ‬Ellen M‭. ‬Lord‭, ‬Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment re-emphasized that‭ ‬“Hypersonics and counter-hypersonics remain one of the Defense Department’s highest technical modernization priorities‭.‬”‭ ‬Russia and China claim to have fielded hypersonic weapons‭ ‬–‭ ‬the Kinzhal and DF-17‭ ‬respectively‭. ‬This short article will provide a primer on hypersonic‭ (‬also known as hypervelocity‭) ‬systems‭, ‬then examine Russian‭, ‬Chinese‭, ‬and U.S‭. ‬efforts in this area‭, ‬and close with a brief examination of the operational impacts of hypersonics‭.‬‮ ‬

Primer on hypersonics
Hypersonic weapons are those that travel between Mach 5‭ (‬5,500‭ ‬kilometers/hour‭) ‬and Mach 25‭ (‬28,000‭ ‬kilometers/hour‭). ‬Today there are three types of weapons referred to as hypersonic‭.‬
1‭ ‬
Hypersonic boost-glide vehicles‭:‬‭ ‬They are boosted to speed and altitude by a rocket before gliding on top of the atmosphere to the target‭. ‬Their primary advantage over ICBMs‭ (‬Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles‭) ‬is that they can maneuver during the glide phase so it is impossible to predict the target and interception is much more difficult‭. ‬Boost-glide missiles will reach the top range of hypersonic speed and have intercontinental range‭. ‬Illustration one shows the flight profile of a boost-glide missile‭.‬
2‭ ‬
Hypersonic cruise missiles‭: ‬These missiles are powered by high-speed‭, ‬air breathing engines known as scramjets‭. ‬The weapons must be accelerated to close to‭ ‬Mach 5‭ ‬before launch since scramjets only work at that speed and higher‭. ‬With a speed of Mach 5‭ ‬to Mach 8‭, ‬they are significantly slower than boost-glide weapons but have the great advantage on not requiring a large booster to get them into space‭. ‬As a result‭, ‬they should be much cheaper and more prolific than boost-glide systems‭. ‬Their current range is over 2,500‭ ‬kilometers‭.‬‮ ‬
3‭ ‬
Gun-launched hypersonic weapons‭ ‬which travel at Mach 6‭ ‬to Mach 8‭ ‬with a range out to 160‭ ‬kilometers‭. ‬These weapons have a good deal of appeal since they can be‭ ‬fired from existing ground and naval artillery‭. ‬Leveraging existing military systems speeds fielding of these systems and lowers costs‭.‬
The science and engineering of all forms of hypersonics remains extremely difficult‭. ‬The extraordinary velocities involved create extreme temperature and violent airflows over flight surfaces‭. ‬This requires new understanding of flight at that speed as well‭ ‬as new materials and designs‭.‬‮ ‬
Russian Hypersonics
Russia claims it is pursuing hypersonic weapons as a hedge against improving U.S‭. ‬ballistic missile defenses combined with concerns that the United States will develop effective first strike capability against existing Russian nuclear weapons‭.‬
As a result‭, ‬Russia is pursuing two hypersonic weapons programs‭. ‬On 28‭ ‬December 2018‭, ‬it launched an ICBM with an Avangard glide‭ ‬body as the payload‭. ‬Upon separation‭, ‬it maneuvered for 6,000‭ ‬km at Mach 27‭. ‬The Avangard is designed as part of a MIRV‭ (‬Multiple-Independent Reentry Vehicle‭) ‬payload for an ICBM‭. ‬It is believed to be capable of carrying either a conventional or two-megaton nuclear warhead‭. ‬President Vladimir Putin has stated the system is operational‭.‬
Russia has also developed and tested the Kinzhal Air-Launched Ballistic Missile‭. ‬With a reported range of 1,500-2,000‭ ‬kilometers‭, ‬a payload of 480‭ ‬kg‭ (‬nuclear or conventional‭), ‬and a potential top speed of Mach 10‭, ‬its trajectory is ballistic so does not maneuver after launch from the aircraft carrying it‭.‬‮ ‬
China’s Hypersonics
China has stated its efforts to develop hypersonics reflect concern that a combination of U.S‭. ‬missile defense systems and emerging hypersonic weapons could enable the United States to conduct a pre-emptive strike against China’s nuclear deterrent‭.‬‮ ‬
In response‭, ‬China is developing the DF-ZF Hypersonic Glide Vehicle‭. ‬While it will primarily be deployed on the DF-17‭ ‬missile‭ (‬range 1,600-2,500‭ ‬km‭), ‬China may also be preparing to deploy it on the DF-21‭ (‬range 1,500-1,700‭ ‬km‭) ‬and DF-26‭ (‬range‭ ‬–‭ ‬4,000‭ ‬km‭) ‬missiles‭. ‬To provide increased range‭, ‬China is developing the DF-41‭ ‬ICBM which could deliver either a conventional or‭ ‬nuclear warhead to the United States’‭ ‬mainland‭.‬‮ ‬‭ ‬China has also successfully tested the Xing Kong-2‭ ‬a nuclear capable hypersonic vehicle but it is not expected to be‭ ‬operational until 2025‭.‬‮ ‬
China has invested heavily in the infrastructure necessary to build and test hypersonic vehicles‭. ‬At the end of 2018‭, ‬Michael Griffin‭, ‬then Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering stated that‭ ‬“China has tested more hypersonics weapons than we have in a decade‭.‬”‮ ‬
U.S‭. ‬Hypersonics‮ ‬
As noted in the opening paragraph‭, ‬the United States’‭ ‬interest in hypersonic weapons has been reinvigorated at the top levels of the Pentagon‭. ‬However‭, ‬unlike the Russian and Chinese systems‭, ‬U.S‭. ‬hypersonics will only carry conventional weapons‭.‬‮ ‬
The U.S‭. ‬Navy is leading development of Conventional Prompt Strike which pairs a common glide vehicle to a submarine-launched booster‭. ‬Still in early stages of development‭, ‬the Navy is not projecting initial operating capability‭ (‬IOC‭) ‬until 2028‭. ‬The U.S‭. ‬Army will use the same common glide vehicle and booster in its Long-Range Hypersonic Weapons program but on a much faster timeline‭. ‬The Army hopes to field combat rounds with a range of 1,400‭ ‬miles by 2023‭. ‬The U.S‭. ‬Air Force has successfully tested its hypersonic glide vehicle prototype as a concept demonstrator‭. ‬The glide body will be incorporated into the AM-183‭ ‬Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon program for deployment from B-52s and possibly F-15s‭. ‬The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is working with the Air Force on the Tactical Boost Glide hypersonic test vehicle to develop future air-launched‭, ‬tactical boost glide systems‭. ‬It is also leading the development of a Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept for smaller air-launched weapons‭.‬
The United States has developed and tested a family of hypervelocity cannon rounds‭. ‬These rounds can be fired by existing 155mm‭ ‬artillery systems as well as the Mk 45‭ ‬naval gun mounted on U.S‭. ‬destroyers and cruisers‭. ‬Depending on the weapon used‭, ‬the rounds can reach out from 65‭ ‬to 110‭ ‬kilometers‭. ‬They also have great potential as air defense weapons against both aircraft and cruise missiles‭.‬
Other nations
Australia‭, ‬India‭, ‬France‭, ‬and Japan are all conducting research and development of hypersonic weapons‭. ‬India paired with Russia‭ ‬in the development of the BrahMos II hypersonic cruise missile and plans initial operating capability‭ (‬IOC‭) ‬between 2025‭ ‬and 2028‭. ‬Australia has cooperated with the United States in the development of hypersonics and has seven hypersonic wind tunnels‭. ‬France has collaborated with Russia and is working to modify its ASN4G missile for hypersonic flight‭. ‬Japan has a program for both a‭ ‬hypersonic cruise missile and a hypersonic gliding projectile with expected fielding by 2030‭.‬
Defending against hypersonic weapons
Defence against hypersonic weapons is an extremely challenging technical problem that currently has no solution‭. ‬The U.S‭. ‬Missile Defense Agency is working on a variety of technologies to defend against hypersonic weapons to include interceptor missiles‭, ‬hypervelocity projectiles‭, ‬lasers‭, ‬microwaves‭, ‬and electronic attack systems‭.‬‮ ‬
Operational impact of hypersonic weapons
While both China and Russia seek hypersonic delivery of nuclear weapons‭, ‬achieving that goal will not fundamentally change the current balance of nuclear deterrence‭. ‬The difficulty of tracking these missiles in flight will raise the uncertainty and increase pressure on leaders to launch on warning‭. ‬This has the potential to create instability in a crisis‭. ‬However‭, ‬as long as leadership in each nation is confident that it has a secure second-strike capability‭, ‬the basic deterrent calculations have not changed‭.‬
In contrast‭, ‬hypersonic weapons have the potential to dramatically change conventional conflicts‭. ‬The speed‭, ‬accuracy‭, ‬and power‭ ‬of these weapons paired with the difficulty in defending against them means large fixed facilities may be extremely vulnerable‭.‬‭ ‬Yet as demonstrated by decades of U.S‭. ‬precision strike‭.‬
Fixed facilities are already dramatically more vulnerable to conventional missiles‭. ‬Therefore‭, ‬these systems may well force militaries to rethink their basing and operational concepts‭.‬‮ ‬
The United States‭, ‬Russia‭, ‬and China are all investing heavily in hypersonics‭. ‬Other nations are following suit on a smaller scale‭. ‬This is part of a global trend driven by the emerging technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution‭. ‬The convergence of these technologies is providing long-range‭, ‬precision strike to a much wider group of states and even some non-state actors‭. ‬While boost-glide weapons are likely to remain prohibitively expensive‭, ‬cruise missiles may be more affordable‭. ‬Hypervelocity cannon‭ ‬rounds will be much more affordable‭, ‬and since they can be fired from existing systems‭, ‬may be available sooner and widely deployed‭.‬‮ ‬

By‭: ‬T‭. ‬X‭. ‬Hammes (‬Researcher in military affairs‭)‬

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