Friday, April 29, 2022

What is a hypersonic missile?

Russia used a hypersonic missile against a Ukrainian arms depot in the western part of the country on March 18, 2022. That might sound scary, but the technology the Russians used is not particularly advanced. However, next-generation hypersonic missiles that Russia, China, and the U.S. are developing do pose a significant threat to national and global security.


Russia has claimed that some of its hypersonic weapons can carry a nuclear warhead. This statement alone is a cause for concern whether or not it is true. If Russia ever operates this system against an enemy, that country would have to decide the probability of the weapon being conventional or nuclear.

In the case of the U.S., if the determination were made that the weapon was nuclear, then there is a very high likelihood that the U.S. would consider this a first strike attack and respond by unloading its nuclear weapons on Russia. The hypersonic speed of these weapons increases the precariousness of the situation because the time for any last-minute diplomatic resolution would be severely reduced.

It is the destabilizing influence that modern hypersonic missiles represent that is perhaps the greatest risk they pose. 

What is a hypersonic missile?

A hypersonic missile is a weapon system which flies at least at the speed of Mach 5 i.e. five times the speed of sound and is manoeuvrable. The manoeuvrability of the hypersonic missile is what sets it apart from a ballistic missile as the latter follows a set course or a ballistic trajectory. Thus, unlike ballistic missiles, hypersonic missiles do not follow a ballistic trajectory and can be manoeuvred to the intended target.

Hypersonic systems have been in use for decades. In 1962, when John Glenn returned from the first U.S. crewed flight around the Earth, his capsule entered the atmosphere at hypersonic speed. All of the intercontinental ballistic missiles in the world’s nuclear arsenals are hypersonic, reaching about 15,000 mph (24,140 kph), or about 4 miles (6.4 km) per second at their maximum velocity.

ICBMs are launched on large rockets and then fly on a predictable trajectory that takes them out of the atmosphere into space and then back into the atmosphere again. The new generation of hypersonic missiles fly very fast, but not as fast as ICBMs. They are launched on smaller rockets that keep them within the upper reaches of the atmosphere.


There are three different types of non-ICBM hypersonic weapons: aeroballistic, glide vehicles, and cruise missiles. A hypersonic aeroballistic system is dropped from an aircraft, accelerated to hypersonic speed using a rocket, and then follows a ballistic, meaning unpowered, trajectory. The system Russian forces used to attack Ukraine, the Kinzhal, is an aeroballistic missile. The technology has been around since about 1980.

A hypersonic glide vehicle is boosted on a rocket to high altitude and then glides to its target, maneuvering along the way. Examples of hypersonic glide vehicles include China’s Dongfeng-17, Russia’s Avangard and the U.S. Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike system. U.S. officials have expressed concern that China’s hypersonic glide vehicle technology is further advanced than the U.S. system.

A hypersonic cruise missile is boosted by a rocket to hypersonic speed and then uses an air-breathing engine called a scramjet to sustain that speed. Because they ingest air into their engines, hypersonic cruise missiles require smaller launch rockets than hypersonic glide vehicles, which means they can cost less and be launched from more places. Hypersonic cruise missiles are under development by China and the U.S. The U.S. reportedly conducted a test flight of a scramjet hypersonic missile in March 2020.


The primary reason nations are developing these next-generation hypersonic weapons is how difficult they are to defend against due to their speed, maneuverability, and flight path. The U.S. is starting to develop a layered approach to defending against hypersonic weapons that includes a constellation of sensors in space and close cooperation with key allies. This approach is likely to be very expensive and take many years to implement.

With all of this activity on hypersonic weapons and defending against them, it is important to assess the threat they pose to national security. Hypersonic missiles with conventional, nonnuclear warheads are primarily useful against high-value targets, such as an aircraft carrier. Being able to take out such a target could have a significant impact on the outcome of a major conflict.

However, hypersonic missiles are expensive and therefore not likely to be produced in large quantities. As seen in the recent use by Russia, hypersonic weapons are not necessarily a silver bullet that ends a conflict.

Which countries possess hypersonic weapons or are in process of developing them?

Apart from Russia, which announced its hypersonic missile ‘Kinzhal’ or Dagger in 2018 and has now used it for the first time in battle conditions in Ukraine, China too is reportedly in possession of this weapon system and has twice used it to circumnavigate the globe before landing near a target in August 2021.

The Russian Kinzhal missile is said to be a modification of its Iskander missile and was test fired from a MiG-31 aircraft in July 2018 striking at a target 500 miles away. As per Russian media reports the Kinzhal has a top speed of Mach 10 with a range up to 1200 miles when launched from a MiG-31. Russia is also said to be using the missile on Su-34 long range fighter and is working towards mounting it on Tu-22M3 strategic bomber.

China is said to have tested a HGV in August 2021 launched by a Long March rocket. There are reports that China may use this weapon system by mating conventionally armed HGVs with the DF-21 and DF-26 missiles that it possesses. China has also extensively tested the DF-ZF HGV with a range of 1200 miles and is said to have fielded it in 2020. According to US defence officials quoted in the Congressional report, China has also successfully tested Starry Sky-2 (Xing Kong-2), a nuclear capable hypersonic vehicle prototype in August 2018.

In the US, the hypersonic weapons are being developed under its Navy’s conventional Prompt Strike Programme as well as through Army, Air Force and Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). While the US, Russia and China are in advanced stages of hypersonic missile programmes, India, France, Germany, Japan and Australia too are developing hypersonic weapons.

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