Hypersonic technologies

As the modern warfare is getting hi-tech, there is a growing crave for investment into military capacity building to strengthen missile defence and sharpen attack capabilities by employing hypersonic missiles which can fast penetrate into enemy systems with lightening speed.

In order to increase the capabilities of modern missiles and missile defence systems, leading militaries are investing significantly in research and development which has led to the development of technologies to enhance the speed, accuracy and destructive power of missiles.

Current innovations are oriented towards increasing speed with hypersonic missiles, shooting down missiles in mid-air with interceptors, enhancing anti-aircraft carrier capabilities, increasing payload capacity, facilitating navigation and introducing stealth capabilities.

Many countries are developing fast travelling missiles which will be hard to detect. While the US and China are leading the race, countries such as India and Russia are jointly developing hypersonic missiles that can reach speeds of up to Mach 5.26.

This gives a fresh opportunity for deploying hypersonic missiles which can pierce through enemy defences.

Indeed, hypersonic weapons are ultra-high speed weapons launched atop missiles that accelerate to speeds of between Mach 5 and Mach 10-five and ten times the speed of sound.

The vehicles can fly along the edge of space and can glide and maneuver to targets.

The US has also launched the X-15A Waverider, a hypersonic cruise missile, as part of its prompt global strike program.

China has initiated the process to equip its upcoming missiles with infrared technology in order to increase accuracy, while the Taiwanese defence ministry has launched a program to develop an anti-aircraft-carrier missile capable of being launched from mobile platforms.

Missile defence systems are likely to account for the highest proportion of spending in the global missiles and missile defence systems market, followed by SAMs and ASMs, in that order.

Demand for missile defence systems is anticipated to be higher than other categories, largely due to an increase in the number of programs being developed by various countries around the globe in response to the threat posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, primarily by North Korea and Iran. Apart from hypersonic missiles, Chemring Defence of the UK has developed a multiple-effects rocket system (MERS) which can fire missiles without emitting any smoke.

This benefits the person firing the missile as the enemy will not be able to judge the place from where the missiles are being fired, reducing the risk of enemy attack.

MERS has a new ground target smoke capability, in which the smoke payload can be fired at an angle along the ground to mark a target for directing fire or aerial attack.

Also, the advanced propellant used enables the payload to travel at a greater speed, making it more stable and accurate in flight, particularly in windy conditions.

The system is designed to reach targets at distances of 300-600 metres without varying the length of the missile packing. Chemring also has plans to introduce MERS with a range of 1,000 metres.

As hi-tech missiles are able to fly at kinetic speed, the University of Michigan in the US has developed a novel laser technology capable of blinding in-flight heat-seeking missiles.

The laser technology protects helicopters by using inexpensive telecommunications fiber optics to produce sturdy and portable mid-infrared supercontinuum lasers. These lasers produce a focused beam of light from a much broader range of wavelengths which can mimic the electromagnetic signature of the helicopter and confuse the missile.

New technologies

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has granted US$1 million to build a second-generation prototype of the technology.

Boeing has also successfully completed the initial design of an electron laser weapon which generates an intense laser light emission that can disable or destroy targets when a beam of high-energy electrons are passed through a series of powerful magnetic fields.

The US which has three hypersonic projects-including the Lockheed Martin Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 program, the Raytheon Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC), and the Raytheon/Lockheed Tactical Boost Glide-are being reexamined over whether they would remain conventional weapons, or whether they would spurn the other military superpowers, China and Russia, into developing more nuclear weapons.

The concerns are that hypersonic missiles will allow the US to launch nuclear weapons that could strike targets at longer ranges, in less time than conventional ballistic missiles require, and move so fast current missile defence systems and fighter jets could not intercept them.

Reports suggest that the new generation of missiles can switch between two modes: scramjet-which uses air flowing at supersonic speeds through its engine to further accelerate the missile-and a “boost glide” system-this would extend the range of missiles by making them ‘skip’ across the Earth’s upper atmosphere. Hypersonic weapons can be more survivable because of the extreme speed and high altitude. They would be hard to stop, said J R Smith, director of Raytheon’s Advanced Land Warfare Systems.

At this point, our hypersonics program is really a technology development program, purely focused on ‘conventional’ payloads, said Stephen Welby, assistant defense secretary for research and engineering at The Pentagon.

There is nothing in the budget related to modelling, researching, or exploring nuclear-armed hypersonic.

It is 2020 for the missile, 2030 until you get into something that is refurbishable and probably 2040 until you get into something that’s a totally reusable type of capability.

Last year, four flight tests of the X-51 WaveRider-the US’s prototype hypersonic aircraft-had taken place in June.

During the last test the aircraft flew more than 230 nautical miles at Mach 5. It was launched from under the wing of a B-52 bomber and travelled at a height of 70,000 ft.

China and Russia are developing hypersonic missiles not only to defend themselves but to launch massive attack on US and its allies.

Hypersonic systems

Hypersonic weapons are being developed by China and Russia to defeat US strategic missile defences that currently are designed to counter non-maneuvering ballistic missile warheads that travel in more predictable flight paths that are tracked by sensors and can be hit by missile interceptors.

The National Air and Space Intelligence Center has testified to Congress that China’s hypersonic glide vehicle will be used to deliver nuclear weapons. A variant also could be used as part of China’s conventionally-armed anti-ship ballistic missile system, which is aimed at sinking US aircraft carriers far from Chinese shores.

Russian officials have said their hypersonic arms development is aimed to penetrate US missile defences.

China has conducted four tests of what the Pentagon calls a Wu-14 hypersonic glide vehicle. The four tests over the past several years are an indication the program is a high priority for Beijing. The Pentagon is also developing hypersonic vehicles, both gliders and “scramjet” powered weapons. A year ago, an US Army test of a hypersonic weapon blew up shortly after launch from Kodiak Island, Alaska.

The US is developing a hypersonic missile that could travel five times the speed of sound, and it’s all part of the next arms race among multiple nations.

It is called the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept, which is a joint DARPA/Air Force program that would “enable transformational changes in responsive, long-range, strike capabilities against time-critical or heavily defended targets,” according to DARPA.

In other words, a missile traveling that fast would be very hard for an enemy to defend against, and they’d have little time to do anything about it anyway. We’re talking about minutes instead of hours for a transcontinental flight.

But the US is not the only one developing hypersonic weapons. Russia, China, and India are all trying to develop them as well.

It is basically amounted to a “Mach 5 arms race.”

The nature of battle will fundamentally change. Missile defence systems will struggle to counter hypersonic flight, making targets-especially large naval warships - more vulnerable to attack.

But as has been the case for revolutionary military technologies in the past, the best defense will be to destroy the missiles before they can launch, increasing war planners’ emphasis on offensive action.

A new arms rivalry between Russia and the United States is heating up as the two major military powers rush to develop a new class of hypersonic, non-nuclear missiles that can strike any target on the globe within one hour of launch with devastating accuracy.

The United States is leading the chase for the new weapons, which Russia firmly believes poses a significant threat to its own nuclear missile forces.

“Russia considers this trend as a path to obtaining [non-nuclear] means of depriving Russia of its deterrent capability,” Dr Eugene Miasnikov, director of the Moscow-based Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies said.

Russia’s sensitivity to threats to its nuclear deterrence could lead it to mistake a hypersonic missile launch as the opening moves of a larger attack, some analysts say, arguing that the weapons are so destabilizing that their mere development could spark a nuclear war between major powers.

New development

Hypersonic missiles are being developed in the United States as part of the Conventional Prompt Global Strike program, a loosely defined Department of Defense initiative to develop the capability to accurately hit targets with non-nuclear intercontinental missiles in record time.

The idea has its roots in US post-9/11 counter-terrorism strategy, when the United States decided it needed the capability to hit targets as soon as they had been located.

To date, a reported $1.5 billion has been spent on the Conventional Prompt Global Strike program.

A few billion dollars more would likely be needed to attain true hypersonic capability, according to James Acton, a senior associate in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The most prominent example of hypersonic weapons currently in development are so-called “boost-glide” weapons.

These are missiles that, instead of arcing into space before coming down on their target, are fired at a shallow trajectory that barely exits the atmosphere. After reaching a hypersonic speed, the missile’s warhead is released and glides the rest of the way to its objective.

As the weapon begins to glide, its relatively shallow angle of approach makes it extremely difficult to track and defend against-a detail Russia’s leadership finds troubling.

The missile’s casing is falling away to allow the black warhead to detach and plunge back into the earth’s atmosphere.

While hypersonic weapons are still in the development phase, they have already raised the prospect that Russia might pull out of Cold War nuclear arms treaties with the United States.

President Vladimir Putin in 2013 warned that the hypersonic missile development could negate all previous agreements on the limitation and reduction of strategic nuclear weapons, thereby disrupting the strategic balance of power.

Nuclear arms control agreements between Russia and the United States have only gotten shakier since then.  

In July of last year, amid the tensions of the Ukraine crisis, Washington suggested Moscow had violated the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), which bans an entire class of nuclear missiles.

In October, Putin told Serbian newspaper Politika that he considered Western sanctions over Ukraine an attempt to blackmail Russia and that the West should remember the risks that a spat between major nuclear powers incurs for strategic stability.

Little information is available on the state of Russia’s domestic hypersonic program, but the head of Russia’s Tactical Missiles Corporation, Boris Obnosov, said last year the company is working with dozens of firms to implement a development program for a hypersonic missile.

The Tactical Missiles Cooperation produces many of Russia’s guided missile systems. Another piece of the Russian hypersonic puzzle may have been unveiled last week, when President Vladimir Putin signed an order uniting Russia’s largest defence contractor, the Almaz-Antey air- defence concern, with several smaller military space firms.

Though not directly related to the development of hypersonic missiles, the move might signal a greater focus on developing defence against the weapons.

Leading players

Although few Americans are aware of it, both Russia and China are racing to deploy new ballistic missiles or nuclear-weapon delivery systems that can defeat any US missile defence system.

Russia is close to deploying its new RS-26 ballistic missile and China reportedly has an accelerated development program to deploy its new hypersonic weapon delivery program called the WU-14.

Recently, the Russian RS-26 is described as a new super-missile with capabilities not previously possessed by any ballistic missile.

It can fly as a ballistic missile for most of its trajectory, but then it can dive to a low altitude and approach its intended target(s) with the flight profile of a cruise missile.

Because it is launched from a mobile missile launcher that can regularly be moved around to new locations, it is very hard to target and destroy. Reportedly, Russia developed this new missile without even China being aware of it.

China has rapidly been developing its new WU-14 hypersonic vehicles which can deliver nuclear weapons to a target via such a high rate of speed that no missile defence system can intercept it.

The development of China’s new weapon system is now further advanced than known in the past. While Russia, the US and India are also reportedly working on hypersonic weapon-delivery vehicles, it seems China is going to be the first to deploy such a weapon system. The Chinese hypersonic vehicle is reported to be capable of speeds of Mach 5 to Mach 10. The US hypersonic vehicle is apparently planned for a Mach 6 speed.

Russian response

Russia’s Tactical Missiles Corporation hopes to create a weapon that would be able to hit targets at hypersonic speeds by the early 2020s, according to a statement by the corporation’s general director Boris Obnosov.

The corporation is working on the project with scientists from the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Advanced Research Foundation under the Military-Industrial Commission in a bid to produce a missile capable of reaching Mach 5, or around 3,800 mph-five times the speed of sound. Some elements of Russian missile systems can already develop hypersonic speeds as they approach their targets.

These are warheads of the Yars and Rubezh long-range missile systems, which in the final stretch of their flight start maneuvering at a hypersonic speed to overcome the enemy’s missile defence system.

The warhead of the Iskander-M short-range missile has the same capability too.

Having said that, at present Russia does not have a missile that can maintain a hypersonic speed throughout its flight.

However, the main difficulties in creating the new weapons lie not only in developing an engine that would be able to work at a hypersonic speed for a long time but also in the missile’s control systems.

“At a speed of Mach 5, a cloud of plasma develops around the object that does not let radio beams through.

That is why if the missile deviates from its trajectory or there are any other problems during the flight, operators are yet unable to rectify the situation remotely,” according to reports. The technical basis for (and research into) hypersonic weapons is old and dates back to Soviet times.

However, after the breakup of the USSR all research was abandoned in the 1990s and money for developing the new weapon only began to be allocated relatively recently.

The biggest progress in the development of hypersonic weapons has been made by the Americans.

The US has created the Х-51 Waverider spacecraft, which managed to maintain a speed of 6,250 kilometers per hour for four minutes. However, those were one-off tests, without a warhead, a guidance system, etc. How the rocket will behave in full gear is still a question.