WASHINGTON, D.C. – Although hypersonic weapons might seem like relative newcomers, known advantages of these weapons are both self-evident and multi-faceted as they can be fired from much greater stand-off ranges while having vastly increased ability to defeat, circumvent or simply destroy enemy air and ballistic missile defenses.
USAF Research Laboratory is working round-the-clock on hypersonic weapons designed to come in the next 10-15 years, in order to “expand USAF’s mission options” in the next decades, as an increasingly contested airspace is emerging, limiting US strike capabilities.
The Pentagon has been aggressively pushing for hypersonic weapons development, especially after Russian advances in this field have left the US trailing behind. Given the implications associated with firing weapons able to travel at over five-times the speed of sound, a number of programs have been underway (reportedly, there are up to 8 US hypersonic programs currently underway).
Right now, the most optimistic estimate is that an initial set of more primitive US hypersonic weapons will be operational by the mid-2020s. In late June 2019, USAF conducted its first prototype hypersonic missile flight test, with a B-52 bomber launching a sensor-only prototype of the AGM-183A ARRW (Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon).
Despite some initial success with basic hypersonic design testing and development, there is still much more work to be done when it comes to refining the technology needed for current and future hypersonic weapons flight. Engineering a weapon to fly at 5+ times the speed of sound primarily relies on its ability to survive and neutralize (or at least minimize) the heat generated by extreme speeds.
An area of focus relates to several complex aerodynamic challenges, such as managing the airflow surrounding the vehicle in flight. Referred to by scientists as a “boundary layer”, the airflow characteristics of a hypersonic weapon’s flight trajectory greatly impact the survivability and stability of the system – most of which relate to temperature, as excessive heat at such speed can incinerate the weapon.
Increased heat also brings other challenges, as it increases the weapon’s thermal signature, making it easier to detect and track. For this reason, hypersonic weapons – and ICBMs as well – are constructed with specially engineered heat-resistant materials.
“The larger the nose radius, the smaller the heat transfer on the nose of the vehicle. Trajectory shaping, i.e., velocity and altitude, can also be used to manage the total heat transfer on a re-entry vehicle while meeting other input requirements and constraints, e.g., range, maximum deceleration, and time of flight. Hypersonic weapons have different constraints and requirements compared with reentry bodies. HGVs(Hypersonic Glide Vehicles) and HCMs(Hypersonic Cruise Missiles) will tend to have sharp leading edges, i.e., a small nose radius, which will increase the heat transfer,” a RAND (Speier, Nacouzi, Lee) essay states.
”Also, most hypersonic weapons need to travel for long periods of time at high speeds, when compared to a re-entry body traveling at relatively short distances, therefore, two of the major parameters in the total heat equation, velocity and time, cannot generally be reduced,” the RAND paper states.
Many hypersonic weapons are engineered as kinetic energy strike weapons, meaning they will not use explosives but rather rely upon sheer speed and the force of impact to destroy targets. In addition, hypersonic missiles can also be armed with both nuclear and conventional payloads.
US Armed Forces are currently faced with both tactical and strategic implications of hypersonic weapons. How can carrier strike groups “project power” within a striking range of hypersonic missiles? How can mechanized armored columns maneuver without being badly crippled by hypersonic attacks? How can fighter jets maneuver to avoid impact by hypersonic SAMs, which Russia already fields?
What’s more, low orbit satellites, ICBMs and ballistic missile defense weapons such as ground-based interceptors are also vulnerable. The variables through which hypersonics alter warfare are basically limitless. The dangerous implications for aggressive Western-style warfare are extremely serious.
“In many ways, hypersonics represent the last frontier in aeronautics,” the NASA, AFRL, Case Western University paper states.
Currently, the aforementioned weapons the US is developing can reach Mach 5, which barely falls within the hypersonic category. On the other hand, Russia has already deployed both HGVs (Hypersonic Glide Vehicles) and HCMs (Hypersonic Cruise Missiles), both ship and ground-based, as well as air-launched.
Russia’s premier hypersonic weapon, the Avangard HGV can travel at Mach 27, while the US AHW (Advanced Hypersonic Weapon) HGV is capable of Mach 8 and is yet to enter service (probably in mid-2020s). Russia’s air-launched Kinzhal hypersonic missile (deployed in 2017) has a speed of Mach 12. US equivalent, AGM-183A ARRW, barely fits the category with its Mach 5 speed.
On the other hand, Russia is the only country with the capability to deploy ship-based hypersonic anti-ship and cruise missiles. Zircon HCM (Hypersonic Cruise Missile) is a Mach 9 capable hypersonic weapon which makes any serious naval power projection virtually impossible for the aggressive NATO planners.
The US has been trying to field a working hypersonic weapon for decades as part of its pompously announced PGS (Prompt Global Strike) program. However, after a series of failed tests, the program was discontinued in 2012. The most optimistic estimates are that the US is 5-10 years behind Russia. Yet, this is only in relation to the deployment of hypersonic weapons per se.
Qualitywise, the US will need much more time to match Russia’s massive advantage in weapon’s capabilities. What’s more, Russia has long been in possession of a ground-based tactical hypersonic missile – the Iskander (deployed back in late 2005/early 2006). Its speed is Mach 6 and has a range of just under 500 km. On top of this, Russia is already developing anti-hypersonic radars and SAMs.
The US wasted trillions on ballistic missile defenses around Russia, which is much harder than trying to shoot down bullets with bullets. While a bullet speed is measured in hundreds of meters per second, ballistic missiles fly in kilometers per second. Now, imagine a bullet able to evade your bullet. That’s what hypersonics are. Even Pentagon admits it will match Russia’s current capabilities only in 15-20 years.