Hypersonic missiles, what are they and why are they so scary

On March 18, 2022, Russia launched a hypersonic missile at a Ukrainian arms depot in the western part of the country. It may sound intimidating, but the Russian technology used in that attack wasn’t particularly advanced. However, Russia, China and the United States are developing next-generation hypersonic missiles, which pose a major threat to national and global security. Given their maneuverability throughout their course, these new systems pose a major challenge. These missiles must be tracked in their path because their flight paths can change as they travel.

Another major challenge is that they operate in a different part of the atmosphere than other existing threats. The new hypersonic weapons fly much higher than the slower supersonic missiles, but much less than the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The United States and its allies do not have good tracking coverage for this intermediate region. Neither Russia nor China.

Russia claims that some of its hypersonic weapons are capable of delivering nuclear weapons. Whether or not this statement is true, this statement alone is cause for concern. If Russia were to use this system against an adversary, that country would not be able to know in time whether the weapon in question was conventional or nuclear.

In the case of the United States, if it is determined that the weapon is nuclear, there is a high probability that the country will respond with nuclear weapons. The hypersonic speed of these weapons makes the situation even more dangerous because the time for any last-minute diplomatic solution will drop sharply.

Perhaps the destabilizing effect of modern hypersonic missiles represents the greatest risk of possible escalation of conflicts. A diplomatic approach to the management of these weapons by world powers would be desirable.

Calling the car hypersonic means that it flies much faster than the speed of sound, which is 1,225 km/h at sea level and 1,067 km/h at 10,668 meters where passenger jets fly. Passenger aircraft travel at a speed of just under 966 km / h, while hypersonic systems operate at a speed of 5,633 km / h, that is, approximately 1.6 km per second and beyond.

Ultrasound systems have been in use for decades. When John Glenn returned to Earth in 1962 from the first American manned flight around the Earth, his capsule entered the atmosphere at supersonic speed. All ICBMs in the world’s nuclear arsenals are hypersonic, with a maximum speed of 24,140 km/h, or approximately 6.4 km per second.

Credits: US Air Force

ICBMs are launched at large rockets and then fly in a predictable trajectory that ejects them from the atmosphere into space and back into the atmosphere. New generation hypersonic missiles fly very fast, but not as fast as ICBMs. They are launched on smaller rockets that keep them inside the upper atmosphere.

Other than ICBMs, there are three different types of hypersonic weapons: air-launched projectiles, planning vehicles, and cruise missiles. A hypersonic air-ballistic system is launched from an aircraft, accelerated to supersonic speed with a missile, and then follows a ballistic trajectory, that is, an unpowered trajectory. The system that Russian forces use to attack Ukraine, the Kinzhal, is an air-to-air ballistic missile. The technology has been around since about 1980.

A hypersonic vehicle is propelled into a missile that flies at a high altitude and then glides toward its target, maneuvering along the way. Examples of hypersonic glide vehicles include the Chinese Dongfeng-17, the Russian Avangard, and the US Navy’s traditional rapid-strike system. US officials have expressed concern that China’s hypersonic glide vehicle technology is more advanced than the US system.

A hypersonic cruise missile is powered by a supersonic missile and then uses an “air-breathing” engine called a scramjet to maintain that speed. Because they incorporate air into their engines, hypersonic cruise missiles require smaller launchers than hypersonic glide vehicles, meaning they can cost less and can be launched from more places. China and the US are developing hypersonic cruise missiles, and the US reportedly conducted a test flight of a hypersonic Scramjet missile in March 2020.

The main reason countries are developing the next generation of hypersonic weapons is that they are difficult to intercept due to their speed, maneuverability and flight path. The United States has begun to develop a layered approach to defense against hypersonic weapons that includes an array of sensors in space and close cooperation with key allies. This approach is likely to be very expensive and will take many years to implement.

With all this activity on and defense against hypersonic weapons, it is important to assess the threat they pose to national security. High-speed missiles with conventional and non-nuclear warheads are primarily useful against high-value targets, such as an aircraft carrier. The ability to eliminate such a target can have a significant impact on the outcome of a major conflict.

Leave a Comment