Key Point: Some hypersonic weapons are so fast and maneuverable that they are unlikely to even be seen by existing radars.
A new technological competition has begun, one in which America’s rivals, particularly Russia and China, may be ahead. This is the race to build and put in the field super-fast or hypersonic weapons and vehicles. The military defines a hypersonic weapon as one that travels at least Mach 5 or five times the speed of sound. In comparison, commercial aircraft fly at around Mach 1 while some military jets can push themselves to around Mach 3, but only for a short time.
There are two basic types of hypersonic weapons: super-fast cruise missiles, and boost-glide vehicles that are mounted on ballistic missiles. Hypersonic cruise missiles, which would most commonly be launched from aircraft, maintain powered flight from launch to impact. Boost-glide vehicles are lofted by a ballistic missile launched from an aircraft, ship, submarine or ground unit to the edge of space from which point they use their speed and aerodynamic design to skip along the top of the atmosphere for up to 10,000 miles.
Hypersonic weapons have several advantages over existing cruise and ballistic missiles. Because they fly so fast, they can close on their targets in a very short period of time. Compared to slower weapons, their extremely high speed means that these weapons can evade or outrun any existing air and missile defenses. Some hypersonic weapons are so fast and maneuverable that they are unlikely to even be seen by existing radars.
Aircraft capable of hypersonic flight will be able to penetrate layered anti-aircraft defenses. During its career as one of the Air Force’s premier Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) platforms, the venerable SR-71, which could fly at speeds up to Mach 3, was fired upon unsuccessfully hundreds of times. There are reports that a new hypersonic reconnaissance plane capable of cruising at Mach 6 is in the works.
Senior U.S. defense officials have publicly stated that Russia and China are ahead of us in this new arms race. Last year, Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, testifiedbefore the Senate Armed Services Committee that “both Russia and China are aggressively pursuing hypersonic capabilities. We’ve watched them test those capabilities.” Dr. Michael Griffin, the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, was even more dire in his description of the hypersonic threat: “In the last year, China has tested more hypersonic weapons than we have in a decade…If Russia were to invade Estonia or China were to attack Taiwan tomorrow, it would be difficult to defend against their strike assets.”
Last December the Russian military published a video of one of its fighters carrying a hypersonic cruise missile called the Kinzhal, or dagger. According to Russian sources, this missile flies ten times faster than the speed of sound, has a range of more than 1,250 miles, and can carry a nuclear or a conventional warhead.
In response to this threat, the Department of Defense (DoD), which has yet to deploy a single hypersonic weapon, has pushed the research and development accelerator to the floor. Under Secretary Griffin has made hypersonics his number one priority. DoD hopes to be able to deploy its first hypersonic weapon by the mid-2020s.
DoD has harnessed the energy and talent of the aerospace and defense industry to meet this challenge. A leader in this area is Lockheed Martin. In the last several years, Lockheed Martin has received more than $2.5 billion in DoD contracts for work on hypersonic weapons. Three of these programs are with the Air Force: the Tactical Boost Glide Vehicle, the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon, and the Arrow program to develop an air-launched rapid response hypersonic system. For the Navy, the company is working on the Intermediate-Range Conventional Strike Weapon System which would be launched from submarines.
Lockheed is also reported to be developing a hypersonic fighter that will use a combination of a traditional turbine engine and a dual-mode ramjet or scramjet, to achieve speeds of Mach 6 or higher. Marillyn Hewson, Lockheed Martin’s CEO, recently declared that “we’re proving a hypersonic aircraft can be produced at an affordable price. We estimate it will cost less than $1 billion to develop, build and fly a demonstrator aircraft the size of an F-22.”
Raytheon and Northrop Grumman are working with the Air Force and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) on a program called Hypersonic Air-Breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC). HAWC will be launched from a fighter or bomber and fly at the top of the atmosphere using a scramjet engine.
Boeing is working on both hypersonic aircraft and weapons systems. The company has been operating X-51 hypersonic test vehicles for several years. Boeing is said to have a hypersonic ISR aircraft under development.
DARPA and the Army have awarded contracts to Aerojet Rocketdyne, Sierra Nevada Corporation and Exquadrum as part of the Operational Fires (OpFires) effort to develop land-based, mobile, tube-launched hypersonic boost-glide systems. Through OpFires, the Army could acquire several different missile systems of various ranges and capabilities.
In an era of hypersonic weapons, defenses will take on increased importance. A 2016 study by the National Academy of Sciences called for a sustained R&D effort to develop the necessary sensors, weapons, and battle management capabilities to defend against hypersonic weapons. Defense officials see the need for a new array of low orbiting space-based sensors to detect and track hypersonic weapons along with long-range hypersonic interceptors or directed energy weapons.
Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.
This article by Dan Gouré originally appeared at Real Clear Defense in 2019. It is being republished due to reader interest.
Image: A U.S. Air Force B-52 carries the X-51 Hypersonic Vehicle out to the range for a launch test from Edwards AFB, California in this handout photo provided by the U.S. Air Force on May 1, 2013. REUTERS/Bobbi Zapka/USAF/Handout via Reuters