Russia’s Su-57 Felon stealth fighter is reported to be carrying prototypes of what’s “claimed” to be a new hypersonic air-to-ground missile. If true, it could be a first-of-kind event wherein a stealthy fifth-generation fighter jet fires a hypersonic air-to-ground missile at speeds five times the speed of sound.
Quoting unnamed sources, a report in Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti newspaper says the missiles used in Su-57 tests were “functional, full-size mock ups,” but not yet launched. The RIA Novosti essay adds that the “dummy missiles lack a propulsion system, fuel and warhead but are otherwise identical to the real weapon in terms of weight and dimensions.”
The source cited in the Russia paper also says that test versions of the weapon include “seeker heads and electrical circuits.” The paper adds even more detail about the new weapon, describing it as “a compact, air-to-surface weapon intended to destroy adversary air and missile defense systems, and cruise and ballistic missile launchers.”
An interesting report in TheDrive mentions that Russia already has an air-launched hypersonic weapon, called the Kinzhal aero-ballistic missile system.
“This combines a modified MiG-31 Foxhound interceptor with the Iskander surface-to-surface missile, which has reportedly received the NATO codename Killjoy in its air-launched form,” TheDrive reports.
TheDrive reports that these kinds of air-launched hypersonic weapons typically rely upon a scramjet engine for propulsion, something which the U.S. Air Force has had some success with. In recent years, the Air Force succeeded in launching the X-51 waverider hypersonic drone from a B-52.
Fighter jet-launched hypersonic weapons, however, would introduce new threats for U.S. defenses, as the principle reality associated with enemy hypersonic weapons is simply that they are extremely difficult to defend against. Long-range, ship-launched or even intercontinental hypersonic weapons can already travel unparalleled distances in minutes, exponentially decreasing flight time to target, so fast-maneuvering stealthy fighter jets attacking with hypersonic missiles would provide defenders with even less time to respond to an attack before being hit.
A fifth-generation fighter would bring an ability to maneuver much closer to target areas, presenting unanticipated complications for defenders hoping to stop hypersonic attacks. When it comes to defending hypersonic weapons, however, there is much work being done by the Pentagon. Some of these involve new innovations related to disrupting the air flow or “boundary layer” surrounding hypersonic weapons, using laser interceptors as they travel at the speed of light or even using hypersonic interceptors themselves to hit approaching hypersonic attacks. All of these methods of course will rely heavily upon high-speed methods of threat detection and sensor data analysis.
There already are several emerging and tactically relevant air-launched U.S. weapons, including the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile and bomber-launched cruise missile, the Long Range Stand-Off weapon. An Air Launched weapon moving at hypersonic speeds, while likely on the developmental radar, may not yet exist. Along these lines, the level of technical maturity of the reported Russian weapons may not be known, or very clear, and the Russian media has a long history of “hyping up” or “exaggerating” weapons capabilities.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.