What is the state of hypersonic technology in 2023? Will people be flying to the moon in a hypersonic vehicle any time soon? What about military applications? There is no doubt that hypersonic technology is progressing rapidly. Recent advances in both China and Russia are pushing the United States of America to up its game both in terms of developing hypersonic tech and preparing to defend against it. Here’s a primer on which countries are working on hypersonic technology, and what they have created so far.
Which Countries Are Developing Hypersonic Tech?
It’s lonely on the cutting edge and not many countries have working hypersonic technology yet. China is leading in the field at the moment. The country reportedly has a hypersonic drone, and several types of hypersonic missiles in its arsenal. Russia is next with two types of hypersonic missiles currently in use. The U.S. has been working on hypersonic technology for over a decade. The Department of Defense (DOD) first successfully tested a hypersonic missile in 2011. The Army has plans to procure a battery of hypersonic missiles later this year. In 2020 and 2021, the U.S. government entered into partnerships with Australia (SCIFiRE) and the United Kingdom (with Australia again – AUKUS) to continue research on hypersonic weaponry, among other things. In terms of countries with developing hypersonic technology, North Korea and India both performed tests of hypersonic missiles, and a Swiss company has announced plans to build a hypersonic airplane.
Hypersonic passenger flight is the most complicated prospect, since travel at hypersonic speeds poses a number of dangers. Vehicles traveling at speeds of Mach 5 or above become very hot (up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit), which may be manageable for missiles but is a much more difficult challenge where people are concerned. But heat isn’t the only problem. As guest Dr. Leon Vanstone, rocket scientist and CEO of Verdecode explained in his interview with RSnake, any type of air currents can be extremely dangerous at that speed. “You think turbulence on a plane is bad. Wait until you do that five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten times faster,” he said. The only hypersonic plane currently in existence is a drone. The WZ-8 was unveiled by China in 2019. It is understood to be a reconnaissance drone that supplies general intelligence and targeting information, and has been reported to go to speeds of Mach 6 or 7. Russia may also have a hypersonic plane in development, the PAK DP interceptor. To date, some companies that have announced plans to develop hypersonic passenger planes include Space Transportation (Lingkong Tianxing) in China, Destinus in Switzerland, and Venus Aerospace based in Texas.
Hypersonic weapons (specifically missiles) are here. According to a U.S. Army article, the main purpose of hypersonic missiles is to “kick the door open,” paving the way for other types of weapons. The main advantage of hypersonic missiles is they are harder to detect. They don’t follow the predictable path of ballistic missiles and unlike ballistic missiles, can change course during a flight. A country might only have a few minutes warning before a hypersonic missile reaches its target. The U.S. sees hypersonic missiles as a key part of its Deterrence by Denial strategy. If an adversary knows the U.S. has the capability to respond in kind, it may be less likely to try a hypersonic attack. Since Russia and China already have hypersonic missiles, defending against hypersonic weapons is another important piece of America’s defense strategy. The government committed $246.9 million to hypersonic defense research in 2022. Here are the types of hypersonic weapons currently in use.
These missiles are dropped from an aircraft. A rocket then accelerates the missile to hypersonic speed. Finally, the missile detaches and cruises along, unpowered, to its target. Russia has used its aeroballistic Kinzhal missiles against the Ukraine.
Hypersonic Glide Vehicles
These are hypersonic missiles launched by another vehicle, usually a rocket or ballistic missile. Similar to the aeroballistic missiles, the first vehicle gets the HGV up to speed, then the HGV detaches and zooms along for the remainder of the flight. HGVs typically fly just below the earth’s atmosphere, though some may enter space briefly. Russia and China both have HGVs. The U.S., North Korea, and India are in the process of developing them.
Hypersonic Cruise Missiles
Hypersonic cruise missiles (HCMs) are self-powered and don’t need another vehicle to get them up to speed. Russia has introduced an HCM into service. China has tested one, but it is reportedly several years away from being used.
The race for hypersonic technology is definitely heating up, spurred by advancements in Russia and China. We can only hope that as the future unfolds, we’ll see more developments in the use of hypersonics for transportation and fewer hypersonic weapons. To find out more about the potential use of hypersonic engines for mining operations, listen to RSnake’s conversation with Dr. Vanstone.