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Understanding Hypersonic Weapons

Hypersonic weapons have blasted onto the scene in the last few years, and are changing the landscape of modern warfare. Just what are they exactly, and how are they different from current weapons?

Hypersonic Weapons Concept design flying through the air

Hypersonic missiles can travel at speeds of Mach 5 and above. This is roughly 3,800 miles per hour, and is a speed at which air molecules start to break apart or become electrically charged. It’s really fast.

The United States of America tested its first hypersonic missile in 2011, but these weapons are just now coming onto the international stage. China and Russia announced successful tests of hypersonic missiles in 2018. Today, China has one hypersonic missile in service, and Russia has recently used hypersonic missiles against the Ukraine.

In this article, we take a closer look at what hypersonic weapons are, and the role they play on today’s world stage.

The Role of Hypersonic Weapons in Modern Warfare

The U.S. first became interested in hypersonic weapons as a way to launch missiles quickly over great distances. Hypersonic missiles go at least Mach 5, and some may go as fast as Mach 7 or 8.

Hypersonic weapons are also important because their flight path is reported to be more difficult to detect than ballistic missiles, which follow a predictable arc. Hypersonic missiles are also said to be maneuverable, making them even more capricious.

It is believed that current U.S. defense systems could be penetrated by hypersonic missiles. As a result, the U.S. is working not only to develop hypersonic weapons, but also to bolster their defenses against them.

The main role of hypersonic missiles is to get past defense systems to open up possibilities for more weapons to come through.

Although the U.S. isn’t developing hypersonic missiles that can carry nuclear warheads, Russia and China both have. This is a concern since a potential target would have no way of knowing whether a missile was armed with a nuclear explosive or not. With just minutes to decide how to respond, it’s possible a country may opt to retaliate with nuclear weapons before the first missile even touches down, triggering an accidental nuclear war.

Hypersonic vs. Ballistic Missiles

Ballistic missiles are powered by one or more rockets in the initial stages, then they detach and continue unpowered to their destinations. There are short, medium, intermediate and long-range ballistic missiles. Short-range missiles can go about 620 miles and long-range (intercontinental ballistic missiles) can reach over 3,000 miles.

Ballistic missiles can also fly at incredibly fast speeds. During some parts of a flight, they can go over Mach 20.

However, they differ from hypersonic missiles because of their trajectory. Ballistic missiles follow a predictable arc and don’t change course during a flight. As a result, it’s relatively easy to determine where they will land.

Some hypersonic missiles are launched in a similar way to ballistic missiles, using rockets – some are even launched by ballistic missiles. Other, more advanced hypersonic missiles are completely self-powered. In terms of speed, hypersonic and ballistic missiles are similar at some ranges.

What sets hypersonic missiles apart is their flight patterns. Unlike ballistic missiles, they stay closer to earth, often just at the edge of the atmosphere. Since they don’t follow the same arc as a ballistic missile, their trajectories are unpredictable.

It is also said that hypersonic missiles can be maneuvered during flight. President Vladimir Putin claimed Russia’s hypersonic missiles could get past any current defense system. Though the jury is still out on whether hypersonic missiles really fulfill these expectations.

Types of Hypersonic Weapons

A few different types of hypersonic weapons have already been developed. Most are missiles, though China has also showcased a hypersonic drone.

Aeroballistic Missiles

Yes, they sound like ballistic missiles, but they actually fall into the hypersonic category. These missiles are launched from aircraft with rockets. The rockets get them up to hypersonic speeds, then the missile detaches and zooms through the air unpowered.

Russia’s Kinzhal missiles are in this category.

Hypersonic Glide Vehicles

Hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs) are also in the hypersonic missile category. They are also sometimes called hypersonic glide missiles or hypersonic boost-glide vehicles.

Similar to the aeroballistic missiles, they are launched by a rocket or a ballistic missile, then they detach and continue unpowered to their targets.

However, HGVs aren’t launched from airplanes, but can be launched from the ground or a ship.

The Russian Avangard is an HGV.

Hypersonic Cruise Missiles

The technology for hypersonic cruise missiles (HCMs) is trickier to master. There are fewer of these as a result.

Hypersonic cruise missiles are completely self-powered and don’t need another vehicle to launch them. Their engines keep them going for the duration of a flight.

Russia’s Zircon missile has recently debuted and is an HCM.

Hypersonic Drone

China is the first country to reveal a hypersonic drone called the WZ-8. Although it isn’t a weapon, it is a military vehicle believed to be useful for reconnaissance missions. Some speculate they could be used for suicide attacks on F-22 and F-35 stealth planes. Though whether China would use its most cutting-edge (and likely expensive) technology for suicide missions is up for debate.

Challenges and Risks

Despite the hype around hypersonic weapons, many scientists have pointed out they may not actually live up to their press.

First, they are very expensive to develop. Hypersonic technology requires custom testing facilities like wind tunnels, and high heat and pressure environments. Since objects traveling at hypersonic speeds become very hot (over 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit), they must be made of special materials that won’t break down or melt at those temperatures.

Scientists also point out that since hypersonic vehicles generally stay within the earth’s atmosphere, they experience a lot of drag which slows them down and depletes their energy. As a result, they may not actually go much faster than ballistic missiles.

The claims of maneuverability may also be overrated. Turning even a little could substantially impact a missile’s speed and reduce its range.

The other consideration is the arms race that hypersonic missiles have started. The U.S. seems to be scrambling to catch up to China and Russia who have led the way on hypersonic technology so far. The U.S. boosted its spending on hypersonic technology in the 2022 fiscal year, and the Pentagon has asked for even more funding in 2023. Some say arms races can increase the likelihood of war. With global tensions mounting in the Pacific Rim, and between Russia and the U.S., increased competition over hypersonic weapons could have a negative impact.

The Takeaway

Hypersonic weapons are still in their infancy. Whether they will radically change the face of warfare, or simply take a place beside other weapons like ballistic missiles is yet to be determined.

However, with their ability to carry out long-range, maneuverable strikes, they are likely here to stay.

Interested in hypersonic technology? Tune in to RSnake’s conversation with rocket scientist Dr. Leon Vanstone.

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