An état des lieux of military hypersonic technology around the world
In 1925, Edward Grey wrote that “great armaments inevitably lead to war”. Although deterrence is always a possibility, history shows that most military innovations are tested in action at least once. This was the case with Fat Man and Little Boy, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also with relatively simpler arms such as muskets, which soldiers around the world have used countless times.
For great armaments, 2022 could be the year of change. Not just for us, (hopefully) nearing the end of the pandemic, but also for the global distribution of power. Recently, many States have invested billions of euros in the research and development of a new, faster type of armament whose offensive potential could alter the geopolitical status quo: hypersonic missiles.
Understanding hypersonic missiles
Based on their speeds, we can distinguish three broad categories of missiles: subsonic, supersonic, and hypersonic. Subsonic missiles are usually slower than the speed of sound, which normally travels at 343 m/s (or 1235 km/h) in the air, and, therefore, they are the easiest to intercept. However, not only is their production cost sensibly lower due to technological efficiency, but their limited speed and small size make them more valuable from a strategic point of view, as decision-makers have more time to think about the strike. Hence, the most famous missiles – e.g., the American Tomahawk and the French Exocet – fall into this category.
Supersonic missiles can travel at a speed between one and three times that of sound or, in scientific terms, between Mach-1 and Mach-3. The majority of supersonic missiles, however, travel at a speed between Mach-2 and Mach-3, as the Indian/Russian BrahMos, which is currently the fastest (and most famous) operational supersonic missile with top speeds around 3,400-3,700 km/h.
Hypersonic missiles are the fastest, as they can easily exceed Mach-5. For instance, in 2018, President Putin unveiled a new air-launched ballistic missile (Kh-47M2 Kinzhal), which may even reach Mach-10 speeds (12348 km/h) and distances up to 2000 km.
Currently, there is no effective defense system against them, but it is not because of their speed, as we are able to detect traditional ballistic missiles at speeds up to Mach-20. What makes them so dangerous is their maneuverability: these missiles can be remotely controlled almost at any stage of their flight. Thus, they offer a double advantage, as they allow decision makers to change the objective in flight, while ensuring more accurate strikes.
Looking back in time
To enhance the Third Reich offensive capability, Adolf Hitler encouraged the first important steps in hypersonic research by sponsoring development programs that included prototypes of jet fighters and the V-2 missile (which could fly at Mach-4.4). After WWII, the U.S. Army brought Wernher von Braun, the mastermind of the projects, and his team to America and his knowledge played an instrumental role in the technological advancement of the country in the hypersonic field and, eventually, in the space race.
Although the research on hypersonic weapons started even before the end of the Cold War, it was in the 2000s that many technological obstacles started to be overcome and mastered for the first time. The United States played a big role, since they heavily invested in their development as a part of its conventional prompt global strike program. But they were not the only ones: significantly enough, Russia has a long tradition of research on hypersonic weapons that goes back to the 1980s. Nevertheless, Moscow accelerated its efforts following the American missile defense deployments in both the United States and Europe and the U.S. withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABMT) in 2001.
At present, Russia and China seem to have reached a higher level of development, particularly in terms of sustaining combustion inside the missile system, while enduring the extreme temperatures of hypersonic speed. But other world powers, such as the U.S., North Korea, France, and the UK are assiduously working on hypersonic missiles.
These weapons reach hypersonic speeds, yet they cannot escape geopolitical considerations. For instance, Russia needs both long-range and short-range armaments to contend with European NATO members as well as with the United States. Hence, the Kremlin is actively pursuing Avangard and 3M22 Tsirkon (or Zircon), two different programs devoted to the research and development of hypersonic weapons.
Avangard is a long-range hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) equipped with a nuclear warhead and delivered by SS-19 missiles, which are land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). HGVs are much more dangerous than traditional ballistic missiles, as the latter normally exit the atmosphere before releasing their gliders. Since missiles are most vulnerable at high altitudes, where defense systems can detect and counter them safely, HGVs’ flatter trajectory and their in-flight maneuverability account for their popularity among military experts. Currently, part of Moscow’s nuclear retaliatory capability revolves around the Avangard system, which entered into combat duty in December 2019 and can reach speeds of Mach 20. In March 2018, President Putin openly stated that Russian HGVs were developed in response to the U.S. withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002.
The Kremlin is also working on Tsirkon, a cruise missile traveling at speeds of between Mach 6 and Mach 8. Differently from Avangard, Tsirkon missiles are normally launched by combat ships, and they seem to be effective against both ground and naval objectives. Nevertheless, their range is much smaller than the Russian HGV, as some Russian sources suggest that these weapons can hit targets at distances between 400 and 1,000 kilometers approximately. Significantly enough, not only can Tsirkon be fired from vertical launch systems aboard Project 22350 frigates – as shown by the last successful tests in October 2020 and November 2021 –, but it can also be launched from cruisers, corvettes, and submarines (Project 885 Yasen-class). The latest American intelligence reports suggest that this missile may become operational in 2023.
According to Tong Zhao, who is working at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, Beijing and Moscow’s pursuit of hypersonic weapons are motivated by the serious concern that, with such weapons, the U.S. could potentially damage or destroy their nuclear arsenal and supporting infrastructure in a pre-emptive strike. HGV development in these countries may also be linked with fears that the American missile defense systems could limit their retaliatory capability.
China’s most pressing concern, however, is arguably the control of the East and South China Sea, where UNCTAD estimated that about 60% of maritime trade passes. China is, by and large, the top-exporter, accounting for 750 billion of euros of total goods value in 2016, and views the Strait of Malacca as vital for its interests. In this scenario, the development of short-range hypersonic missiles is a priority for Beijing, which would then have the ability to effectively deter the U.S. in the East and South China Sea as part of its anti-access/area denial (A2AD) strategy.
Since 2014, China has tested the DF-ZF, its HGV, at least nine times, according to the latest American intelligence reports. Along with its high maneuverability, there is another reason why the DZ-ZF seems to worry U.S. military officers. Some experts believe that the Chinese HGV could deliver nuclear warheads at speeds between Mach 5 and Mach 10 to ranges of 1,800-2,500 kilometers. Previously known as WU-14, the glider could be fitted to different Chinese ballistic missiles, even though it will probably be used as an anti-ship missile, in line with Beijing’s geopolitical objectives.
Finally, some media reports suggest that China has tested a system incorporating a glide body into a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS), which can place nuclear warheads into low-earth orbit. FOBS are essentially a Cold War technology, as the Soviet Union deployed the R-36O (RS-SS-9 Mod 3 Scarp) in 1968, which was operational until three years after the signing of the bilateral Soviet–US Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty II (SALT II) in 1979. After China’s reported test in 2021, the Pentagon is worried that China may use the system to launch HGVs over the South Pole, thus evading U.S. detection systems that track threats over the Arctic, and further reducing the amount of warning time prior to an eventual strike.
Nevertheless, Leonardo Bruni, a student of the Sciences Po-Peking University Dual Degree, regards Washington’s fears as “exaggerated”, since “China has a rigid no first-use policy pledging never to use nuclear weapons unless attacked with them first, unlike other nuclear powers, such as the United States.”
In the race to the hypersonic, the U.S. are trying to reach and surpass Russia and China. To this end, Americans are pursuing two key technologies: boost-glide systems that place an HGV on a ballistic missile booster or shorter-range rocket systems, and hypersonic cruise missiles that would use a type of engine known as supersonic combustion ramjet (or scramjet).
Kelley M. Sayler wrote in her 2021 report for Congress that the U.S. hypersonic weapons, unlike the Chinese and Russians, “are to be conventionally armed”. Hence, the American armaments need a higher degree of accuracy and more technical expertise in production compared with nuclear-armed Chinese and Russian systems.
Even if the Americans’ intentions were genuine, the Russian and Chinese experts could still accuse them of relying too heavily on nuclear-powered aircraft carrier groups to project power. With their hypersonic weapons, however, Moscow and Beijing could hit American carrier groups well before they can get in operational range. To put this into perspective, the F-35 Joint strike fighters (F-35 JSF) have a combat radius of 700-1,000 kilometers, whereas hypersonic missiles have potential ranges of over 1,900 kilometers.
In an attempt to stimulate fast technological developments, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has recently awarded contracts of approximately $20 million each to Raytheon Co., Lockheed Martin Corp., and Northrop Grumman Corp. Lockheed Martin Corp., in particular, is currently working on two different projects: the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon, and the AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon – i.e., a hypersonic missile intended to intercept and destroy an adversary’s hypersonic projectile in the unpowered glide phase of its trajectory. Apparently, for the Pentagon, attack is the best defense.
In mid-September 2021, North Korea carried out tests of a new long-range cruise missile, which experts identified as a guided ballistic missile, also known as a maneuverable reentry vehicle. Despite its relative unsophisticatedness compared with HGVs, the missile flew for roughly 1,500 kilometers before hitting the intended target in North Korean waters. However, many international sources indicate that the latest tests involved a more advanced boost-glide vehicle.
On 5 and 11 January 2022, North Korea allegedly tested either a further development of the Hwasong-8 (first launched in September), or possibly an entirely new weapon. Furthermore, various missile tests also took place on 25 January, 27 January, and 30 January, with the 30 January launch assessed as an Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM), which, potentially, could hit targets as far as Guam. According to Joseph Dempsey, research associate for defense and military analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, “If the missile were fired at a normal apogee, its range would be up to 3,500 kilometers to 5,500 kilometers, making it an Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile and North Korea’s longest test since 2017.”
Kim Jong-un’s desire for faster, deadlier armaments is no news for international leaders. However, some reports suggest that North Korea is heavily investing on hypersonic weapons, which would give Pyongyang the strike range it has sought for years. Furthermore, they could also develop short-range missiles to weaken the alliance between Washington and Seoul, which, together with most of the Japanese islands, will be overtly exposed to any eventual strike.
The scenario complicates even more if we consider Russia and China. Last 20th January, in a United Nations Security Council’s (UNSC) meeting, they halted a U.S. effort to sanction five North Korean individuals in response to Pyongyang’s latest missile. Even though their reasons were entirely plausible – both needed more time to study the evidence – this episode arguably shows the complex dynamics at play around Kim Jong-un and his regime.
In particular, China is North Korea’s most important trading partner. Since the imposition of UN sanctions on North Korea in 2016-2017 (Resolution 2270), China has accounted for 95 percent of the world’s reported merchandise trade with North Korea, according to mirror statistics published by the DPRK’s trading partners. It has helped sustain Kim Jong-un’s regime, especially with substantial food exports that contributed to the relative stability of food prices and, potentially, saved many North Koreans from starvation. At times, it has also opposed harsh international sanctions on North Korea in the hope of avoiding a political collapse and the refugee influx across the border that would likely ensue. Nevertheless, both Beijing and Moscow have publicly opposed the North-Korean nuclear armament program, as shown by their unanimous vote for the UNSC Resolution 2270 in 2016.
In Europe, the UK and France are the countries that invested the most on the development of hypersonic weapons. In 2017, the French and British governments gave the green light to the Future Cruise and Anti-Ship Weapon (FC/ASW) Programme, whose main aim is to develop a long-distance, hypersonic anti-ship missile capable of destroying air defenses of targets both at sea and on land. The FC/ASW could have a strike range of 300km and be powered by a ramjet engine capable of reaching speeds of Mach 5.
Ideally, it will have two main deployment modes. The first is top-bottom, with the missile being fired from high altitudes to hit ground targets. The British have already expressed the need for FC/ASW integration with the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter or Typhoon jet, which would likely involve US prime contractor Lockheed Martin and subcontractor BAE Systems UK. The second mode of deployment is vertically launched onboard a naval frigate or submarine, flying at low altitudes for strikes in marine environments. This mode is particularly effective against enemy warships, as they would just have a few seconds to perform an evasive maneuver to avoid being hit.
The FC/ASW programme falls under the Lancaster House Treaties (2010) that approached France and Britain on matters of defense and security. Ideally, the new hypersonic missiles will have replaced anti-ship missiles such as Britain’s Harpoon and France’s Exocet by 2030, as well as the Storm Shadow/SCALP air-launched cruise missile – which is used by both nations.
Although it is true that relations between Britain and France have deteriorated since the Brexit trade negotiations started, experts believe that the status of the programme will not be influenced. “Unless relations across the board severely deteriorate beyond even what we’ve seen,” confessed the RUSI Defense Systems editor Justin Bronk to Global Defence Technology, “I suspect there’ll be enough impetus diplomatically on both the UK and the French side to keep that cooperation going.”
Can they be stopped?
At the moment, there is no operational or reliable method of intercepting hypersonic weapons. However, in the next five to ten years, countermeasures are likely to emerge as defense technology progresses. Directed energy weapons, particle beams and other non-kinetic weapons are only some of the technologies that could be employed to counter hypersonic missiles. Arguably, the U.S. is working on one of the most promising systems of defense yet conceived against these new arms.
Late last December, the U.S. MDA authorized a pair of contractors—L3Harris Technologies and Northrop Grumman—to pivot from design to prototype fabrication of a Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor (HBTSS) system that should detect and track the HGVs that fly in the shadow areas of today’s radar network. HBTSS will try to solve the issue by continuously tracking long-range missiles throughout their flight. Furthermore, it will also be able to send information to ships, aircraft and ground forces, which could then fire their own missiles at incoming threats.
Crucially, the HBTSS relies on a new network of orbiting sensors for heat signatures, which the Pentagon has already begun placing in low-earth orbit. Last June, they sent experimental and prototype payloads into orbit, whereas various launches of initial operation payloads are scheduled in 2022 and 2023. The White House is particularly committed to the project, as shown by Biden’s signature of the ‘National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022’, which includes $256 million for HBTSS.
A counterintuitive consequence of the use of hypersonic weapons may be fewer civilian deaths, as these new arms are extremely precise. Nevertheless, a Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) might be needed to avoid repeating a Cold-War-type of scenario, when both superpowers continued the nuclear build-up even after realizing that they had already acquired the capability of destroying the world multiple times. MAD should be no option.