Hypersonic missiles: What are they and can they be stopped?

The US, China and Russia are racing to develop hypersonic missiles - a missile system so fast no modern defence system can stop it. Here is a rundown of current and future projects.

Adam Muspratt

An overview of hypersonic missiles

After a long hiatus, hypersonic missile research and development is back in full swing. Major Powers, such as Russia, China and the US have been racing to develop hypersonic missiles – a missile system so fast that it cannot be intercepted by any current missile defence system.

Hypersonic missiles will play a huge role in foreign policy in the years to come, as core pillars of geopolitics such as geography and technological power can be undermined by hypersonic missiles. And, given a recent uptick in “successful” tests from the likes of China and Russia, hypersonic missiles are much closer than we think, forcing a global re-assessment of traditional notions of deterrence.

Defence IQ wanted to explore this topic in greater detail, so we have sought the expertise of Dr James Bosbotinis, a UK-based specialist in defence and international affairs, with a particular focus on maritime and air force developments.

What is a hypersonic missile?

A hypersonic missile travels at speeds of Mach 5 and higher - five times faster than the speed of sound (3836 mph), which is around 1 mile per second.  Some missiles, such as Russia’s upcoming Kh-47M2 Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile, are allegedly capable of reaching Mach 10 speeds (7672 mph) and distances up to 1200 miles.

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For comparison, the US Tomahawk cruise missile – the United States Navy and Royal Navy’s go-to long range missile-system – is subsonic, travelling around 550 mph and travelling a maximum distance around 1500 miles.

A subsonic US Tomahawk missile - Source: US Navy

Subsonic missile - US Tomahawk. Source: US Navy

Hypersonic missiles come in two variants; hypersonic cruise missiles and hypersonic glide vehicles.

  • What is a hypersonic cruise missile?

    This type of missile reaches its target with the help of a high-speed jet engine that allows it to travel at extreme speeds, in excess of Mach-5. It is non-ballistic - the opposite of traditional Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) which utilises gravitational forces to reach its target.

  • What is a hypersonic glide vehicle?

    This type of hypersonic missile utilises re-entry vehicles. Initially, the missile is launched into space on an arching trajectory, where the warheads are released and fall towards the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds.

    Rather than leaving the payload at the mercy of gravitational forces – as is the case for traditional ICBMs – the warheads are attached to a glide vehicle which re-enters the atmosphere, and through its aerodynamic shape it can ride the shockwaves generated by its own lift as it breaches the speed of sound, giving it enough speed to overcome existing missile defence systems. The glide vehicle surfs on the atmosphere between 40-100km in altitude and reaches its destination by leveraging aerodynamic forces.

Check out the video below for a more detailed look at the different types of hypersonic missile

When hypersonic missiles become operational, the gap between missile defence systems and missile offence will be huge. Simply put, there is no operational missile defence system that is capable of intercepting a hypersonic missile, which is why the race to develop hypersonic weapons is such an important one.

Hypersonic missiles remain a closely guarded secret, but in recent months, many governments have announced successful tests and future projects.

What impact will hypersonic missiles have?

"Hypersonic missiles offer a number of advantages over subsonic and supersonic weapons, particularly with regard to the prosecution of time-critical targets (for example, mobile ballistic missile launchers), where the additional speed of a hypersonic weapon is valuable," Bosbotinis said.

"It can also overcome the defences of heavily-defended targets (such as an aircraft carrier).

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"The development and deployment of hypersonic weapon systems will provide states with significantly enhanced strike capabilities and potentially, the means to coerce. This will be particularly the case where a major regional power, such as Russia, may seek to coerce a neighbour, leveraging the threat of hypersonic strikes against critical targets. As such, the proliferation of hypersonic capabilities to regional states could also be destabilising, upsetting local balances of power. However, it could also strengthen deterrence.

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"In this regard, consider the implications of Iran deploying hypersonic weapons versus an Israeli deployment. Hypersonic weapons may also be problematic in terms of escalation control in the context of a NATO-Russia or US-China confrontation. This concerns dual-capable systems, that is, systems with both conventional and nuclear capabilities, for example, the Kinzhal."

Bosbotinis also explained that dual-capable systems raise the issue of discrimination: how does one know if the incoming threat is conventional or nuclear? In the context of hypersonic threats, this is compounded by the reduced time available to decision-makers to respond to an incoming threat.

Moreover, the development of submarine-launched hypersonic missiles would raise the potential threat – real or perceived – of attempted decapitation strikes, utilising the combination of the inherent stealth of a nuclear-powered submarine and the speed of a hypersonic missile.

What is the difference between subsonic, supersonic and hypersonic?

  • Subsonic – Subsonic missiles are slower than the speed of sound. Most well-known missiles fall into this category, such as the US Tomahawk cruise missile, the French Exocet, and the Indian Nirbhay. Subsonic missiles travel at a speed around Mach-0.9 (705 mph).

    Subsonic missiles are slow and easier to intercept, but they still play a huge role in modern battlefields. Not only are they substantially cheaper to produce as the technological challenges have already been overcome and mastered, but subsonic missiles provide an additional layer of strategic value due to its low speed and small size.

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    Once a subsonic missile has been launched, it can loiter in proximity to its intended target, as a result of its fuel efficiency. This, combined with its comparatively low speed, gives senior military decision-makers ample time to decide if a strike should be continued or abandoned. Comparatively, a hypersonic or supersonic missile compresses the time afforded to senior decisions makers into a matter of minutes. 

  • Supersonic – A supersonic missile exceeds the speed of sound (Mach 1) but is not faster than Mach-3. Most supersonic missiles travel at a speed between Mach-2 and Mach-3, which is up to 2,300 mph. The most well-known supersonic missile is the Indian/Russian BrahMos, is currently the fastest operational supersonic missile capable of speeds around 2,100–2,300 mph.

Supersonic missile - Brahmos. Source: Wikimedia

  • Hypersonic – A hypersonic missile exceeds Mach-5 (3,800 mph) and is five times faster than the speed of sound. Currently, there is no operational defence system that can deny the use of these strategic weapons. As a result, many world powers including the US, Russia, India, and China are working on hypersonic missiles. However, there are many technological hurdles to overcome, particularly with regards to sustaining combustion inside the missile system, while enduring the extreme temperatures of hypersonic speed. 

What countries are developing hypersonic missiles?

There have been suggestions, including from senior US military officials, that the US has fallen behind Russia and China in the race for hypersonic missiles. This is to an extent, true.

United States hypersonic missiles 

The US is developing a range of advanced hypersonic systems and has recently awarded Lockheed Martin contracts for the development of two systems: the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon ($928 million) and AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon ($480m).

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Hypersonic missile - Boeing X-51. Source: US Air Force

With regards to current US projects, Bosbotinis says the US has not focused to the same extent as Russia and China on the operational deployment of hypersonic capabilities.

"Moscow and Beijing both seek to counter US missile defence systems and are developing respective anti-access/area denial capabilities. 

"The US, in contrast, has not prioritised hypersonic systems to the same extent as Russia and China, and is pursuing arguably more advanced systems capable of long-range conventional precision strike, as opposed to nuclear-armed weapons where accuracy is not so important (although the Kinzhal, Tsirkon, Avangard and Chinese systems include conventional variants)."

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That said, the US can be accused of relying too heavily on its nuclear-powered aircraft carrier groups to project power. Russia and China will have the capability the hit carrier groups with hypersonic missiles before they can get in operational range to launch airstrikes, as the upcoming F-35 stealth fighter jets have a combat radius of 450-600 miles, meanwhile hypersonic missiles potentially have a range in excess of 1,200 miles.

Current supersonic missiles, such as BrahMos, have a range of around 370 miles, but this can be increased with glide vehicles, meaning that carriers will have to move dangerously close to hostile territory to be effective.

President Donald Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which authorised a $717 billion defence budget for 2019. It is clear that the US is aiming to bridge the gap with regards to missile technology – a gap which has widened over the last decade as Russia and China have poured resources into their respective hypersonic projects.

United Kingdom and France hypersonic missiles 

Since 2011, the Royal Navy and the French Navy have also been co-developing a hypersonic missile designed to replace the ageing Harpoon and Exocet respectively. The missile, Perseus, is expected to feature an agile and stealthy airframe that is powered by a ramjet motor built around a high compact Continuous Detonation Wave Engine. It is expected to come into service around 2030.

Chinese hypersonic missiles 

China has a number of ongoing hypersonic projects. The nation is reportedly close to deploying a ballistic missile-launched hypersonic glide vehicle, the DF-17 and has publicly exhibited a scramjet-powered missile, the Ling Yun.

Chinese operational doctrine calls for a weapon that would ward of US carrier groups, keeping them out of their operational range. The DF-ZF is a short to mid-range hypersonic missile glide vehicle and – when operational – would be able to largely mitigate any potential threat stemming from US carrier groups, fulfilling a long-term strategic goal without having to compete through naval strength.

In addition, China has also allegedly performed successful tests of the Starry Sky-2 hypersonic vehicle. The Starry Sky-2 can achieve a top speed of Mach 6 (4603 mph), switch direction mid-flight and can carry a payload consisting of either conventional warheads or nuclear weapons. It will likely take China another five years to make the weapon operational.

Russian hypersonic missiles

Russian doctrine calls for short and long-range capability, as the Kremlin will have to contend with European NATO members as well as the US on the other side of the Atlantic. As such, Russia has an array of missiles that fit this purpose, such as the U-71, BrahMos II and the 3m22 Zircon.

In addition, Russia has deployed an operational hypersonic system, the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile, capable reportedly of attaining a speed of Mach 10 and a range of 1700 miles, and is believed to be close to deploying a hypersonic cruise missile, the 3K22 Tsirkon. The Tsirkon, a sea-and ground-launched missile is intended to attain high supersonic to hypersonic speeds, between Mach 4.5 and Mach 6, and have a range of 300-620 miles. Russia has also developed an intercontinental ballistic missile-launched hypersonic glide vehicle, Avangard, which may enter service in 2019.

Can hypersonic missiles be stopped? 

Hypersonic missiles are so valuable because there is currently no operational or reliable method of intercepting them. However, as defence technology progresses countermeasures will emerge. Technologies such as directed energy weapons, particle beams and other non-kinetic weapons will be likely candidates for an effective defence against hypersonic missiles.

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"Hypersonic weapons reduce the time required to prosecute a target (especially compared to current subsonic cruise missiles), the warning time available to an adversary, and the time available for defensive systems to engage the incoming threat," says Bosbotinis.

Although hypersonic threats would pose a significant challenge to current surface-to-air and air-to-air missile systems, such systems would, particularly in the conventional precision strike role, require a robust intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) network.

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"Targeting the supporting network kinetically and through means such as cyber and electronic attacks could significantly degrade the operational effectiveness of long-range hypersonic weapons. In addition, counterforce operations targeting the launch platforms ‘left-of-launch’ can be undertaken, although, this may not be possible in the case of long-range systems such as the Kinzhal and Avangard. In the mid-to-long term, directed energy weapons and electromagnetic rail guns, as well as enhanced performance missile interceptors, could provide defence against hypersonic threats.”

The USN is already close to outfitting its ships with a 150-kilowatt laser that will be able to target missiles, drones and other modern threats. 

Another countermeasure has been proposed by the Missile Defense Agency. A network of space-based satellites and sensors would theoretically be able to track hypersonic glide vehicles globally. This would be a huge first step in hypersonic missile defence. In addition, Lockheed Martin was awarded a $2.9 bn contract to develop Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared Satellites. There is a high chance that these satellites will aim to fill the hole that exists for early supersonic/hypersonic detection.

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This is all future technology though. At the moment, the race for operational hypersonic missiles is closely contested between the US, Russia, and China.

However, is the strategic value of hypersonic missiles limited? After all, there is still no effective defence against a barrage of conventional ICBMs.

Let us know what you think – or if there are any other hypersonic missile projects you think deserve a mention.



James Bosbotinis
J B Associates