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Global Developments in Hypersonic Weapons


Hypersonic Missile flying in the air in front of the USA Flag

The hypersonic arms race is on with many countries working hard to acquire hypersonic missiles.


So far, China and Russia are leading this technology, with the United States of America and a handful of other countries competing to catch up.


In this article, we take a look at which countries have hypersonic tech, what they have, and why it matters.


What Countries Have Hypersonic Weapons?


Hypersonic missiles, which fly at speeds of Mach 5 or faster, are the latest in defense technology. Although ballistic missiles sometimes go just as fast, hypersonic missiles are less predictable, raising concerns they may be able to get by current detection systems.


Although the U.S. kicked off the development of hypersonic missiles with a successful test in 2011, China and Russia have now both surpassed the U.S. with the hypersonic weapons in their arsenals.


For more information on the different types of hypersonic missiles, read our previous article.


China


China’s hypersonic research is quite advanced. It remains the only country in the world to have a hypersonic drone – the WZ-8.


In terms of weapons, China has one hypersonic missile in service and another two in development.


Already in service is the Dongfeng-17 (DF-ZF). This is a hypersonic glide vehicle that launches on a DF-17 ballistic missile. It has a range of 1,100-1,500 miles.


The YJ-21 was tested in 2022. The Chinese government recently revealed its specifications on a social media post, claiming it can go up to Mach 10 and can’t be intercepted by current defense systems. The YJ-21 is launched from ships.


The Xingkong-2 (Starry Sky-2) is a hypersonic cruise missile. China claimed a successful test of this missile in 2018. It is not believed to be fully operational yet.


Russia


Russia has three hypersonic missiles that are all operational. It has used one of them in its war with the Ukraine.


The Kinzhal is an aeroballistic missile which launches on a rocket from an aircraft, then detaches and cruises at hypersonic speeds for the rest of its journey. Russia reportedly used six of them in an attack on the Ukraine in early March of this year. It is capable of carrying nuclear warheads and has a range of about 1,000-1,240 miles.

The Avangard is a hypersonic glide vehicle that launches from the ground. It is also capable of carrying nuclear weapons. Russian Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, announced its operationalization in 2019. The Avangard has a longer range than the Kinzhal of over 3,700 miles.


Finally, the Zircon is a hypersonic cruise missile. Unlike other hypersonic missiles, it has its own scramjet engine and doesn’t depend on other vehicles. Russia recently claimed the Zircon is in service. The Zircon is said to travel at speeds of Mach 8 and has a range of 620 miles. Russia has test launched it from ships and a submarine.


The U.S.


The U.S. is currently working on a few different hypersonic missiles, and is also spending on hypersonic defense research.


The weapons the U.S. is developing are not intended to be used with nuclear warheads, which means they must have higher precision than the Russian and Chinese missiles.


Projects currently under development are as follows.

  • The Conventional Prompt Strike system is a collaboration between the U.S. Navy and Lockheed Martin. These are hypersonic glide vehicles launched by rockets from ships and submarines.

  • The Offensive Anti-Surface Warfare Increment 2 (OASuW Inc 2), also known as the Hypersonic Air-Launched OASuW (HALO) is also being developed by the Navy. This is a long range missile that would launch from an aircraft. The Navy hopes it will be in service by fiscal year 2028.

  • A Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW) is being developed by the Army. This is another hypersonic glide vehicle, launched from land. It is expected to have a range of 1,725 miles. Tests on the LRHW scheduled in 2021 and 2022 were canceled. Another test may be scheduled for this year.

  • The AGM-183 Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) is an Air Force project. This is a hypersonic missile launched by a rocket from a plane to attack targets on land. The missile was successfully tested in late 2022.

  • A Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile (HACM) is also being developed by the Air Force. This would be a self-powered, air-launched missile with a scramjet engine. This project will operationalize a design created in collaboration with Australia in the SCIFiRE program. The Air Force plans to put the missile in service by fiscal year 2027.

  • The Tactical Boost Glide system is a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Air Force joint venture. Also launched by air craft, it was originally part of the ARRW project, but both programs are now being developed separately.

  • Operational Fires (OpFires) is another DARPA project that seeks to use a Marine Corps truck to launch hypersonic weapons. It was successfully tested in 2022.

  • The More Opportunities with Hypersonic Air-Breathing Weapon Concept (MOHAWC) is a joint venture between DARPA and the Air Force with the goal of developing an air-launched hypersonic cruise missile. This is a continuation of the HAWC program that concluded in January of this year and yielded two successful missile designs.

North Korea


In January of 2022, North Korean officials claimed to have successfully tested a hypersonic glide vehicle, though South Korea disputed this assertion.


South Korea


South Korea, in its own right, has plans to develop hypersonic weapons. The country is developing a hypersonic cruise missile it hopes to operationalize by later this decade.


India


India has also plunged into the hypersonic arms race. The BrahMos 2, an air-launched missile was successfully tested in 2022.


The hypersonic technology demonstrator vehicle (HSTDV), a scramjet-powered cruise missile, is another of India’s projects. It was successfully launched in January of this year. Details are fuzzy on whether or not the test was successfully completed.


How Will They be Used?

According to a U.S. Army article, the main purpose of hypersonic weapons is to “kick the door open.”

Since hypersonic weapons may be more difficult to detect than ballistic or other missiles, they could provide a compelling sneak attack before following with other artillery.


The first American hypersonic weapon was developed with the intent of hitting remote targets quickly. The above referenced U.S. Army article draws a parallel between Osama Bin Laden escaping a U.S. cruise missile attack in 1998 and the Department of Defense requesting funding for the Conventional Prompt Global Strike Program in 2003.


Other countries have their own strategies. Analysts believe some of China’s hypersonic missiles have been developed to challenge U.S. naval dominance in the area. This is important to note as tensions escalate between the U.S. and China over Taiwan.


Russia used its hypersonic missiles against the Ukraine in March seemingly in an attempt to get past Ukrainian defenses. According to this NPR article, only 34 of the 81 Russian missiles involved in the attack were shot down, though it is estimated that only six of those were hypersonic.


Having hypersonic weapons is also understood to be strategic deterrence. Knowing a country could retaliate in kind could deter an aggressor from attacking in the first place.


Hypersonic Weapons and National Security


Hypersonic weapons could pose a new threat to national security since it is believed they could get past current defense systems. Though some debate this, saying the hype around hypersonic weapons doesn’t match the reality, and is leading to a dangerous and unnecessary arms race.


There aren’t currently any international agreements in place governing the use of hypersonic weapons, especially if they are non-nuclear.

There is a nuclear non-proliferation treaty that was originally signed by France, the United Kingdom, the U.S., Russia, and China in the 1960s. In 1995, 180 countries agreed to renew the treaty indefinitely. This, however, only covers nuclear weapons.

The U.S. and Russia have a standing agreement called New Start, signed in 2010, that limits the number of strategic nuclear warheads and delivery systems each country can have.

The two countries also entered an agreement in the late 1980s called the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty which required both countries to get rid of missiles with a range of 310-3,417 miles, including ballistic missiles. This agreement might have applied to hypersonic weapons, but each country accused the other of breaking the terms of the agreement over the years, and the U.S. withdrew from the treaty in 2019.


The Takeaway


With a significant number of countries developing hypersonic technology, this arms race could be over by the end of the decade, but not before billions of dollars have been spent.

But as Dr. Leon Vanstone, rocket scientist and CEO of Verdecode pointed out in his conversation with RSnake, military technology can also be adapted for other purposes. He said, “Just because it was a weapon or it's a theater of war doesn't mean it doesn't have very legitimate civilian uses. Most military technology does.”

For more on hypersonic technology, rail guns, and missiles on the moon, tune in to the full interview.

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