Last week, the world was watching as Russia conducted a nuclear missile test. However, fewer noticed a U.S. test that took place on Wednesday. During the test in Virginia, the U.S. military launched a missile in order to carry out 11 experiments designed to test and collect data for hypersonic weapons research. The successful tests put the U.S. back on track to produce hypersonic weapons on par with Russia and China.
The joint Army-Navy program test at the Wallops Flight Test Facility in Virginia was the second hypersonic test in a year. The U.S. plans on fielding its Long Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW) as early as next year.
The LRHW will be a ground-based, truck-launched missile weapon that will be boosted by a hypersonic glide body called the Common Hypersonic Glide Body. The missile will have a top speed of more than 3,800 miles per hour.
The Army-Navy program will develop hypersonic missiles for both services that can be launched from the ground or sea using the Common Hypersonic Glide Body.
Vice Admiral Johnny Wolfe, the director of Strategic Systems Programs, was pleased with the results.
“As a matter of fact, we’ve just gotten done looking through our key observables, and every piece of data that we wanted to collect – at least preliminarily – has shown that we collected all that data,” he said.
After a Chinese hypersonic weapon test in October 2021, the U.S. sounded the alarm with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army General Mark Milley calling the test “a very significant technological event” that is scratching the surface of China’s military capabilities.
“The Chinese military capabilities are much greater than that” single test, Milley said last October, adding that China is “expanding rapidly in space, in cyber, and then in the traditional domains of land, sea, and air.”
What is a hypersonic missile?
There is a lot of misconception about what hypersonic weapons are. Many people mistakenly believe hypersonics refer to advanced weaponry, which is true; however, the term “hypersonic” refers to the weapon’s speed.
Hypersonic weapons are capable of maintaining speeds in excess of Mach 5, or around 3,800 miles per hour. Due to their speed, hypersonic weapons carry enough kinetic energy to destroy many targets without the need for an explosive warhead. Their incredible speed also makes it nearly impossible to defend against for even the most modern missile defense systems.
Traveling at hypersonic speeds isn’t something out of Star Wars. The Nazis’ V2 rockets used against Britain in WWII traveled at speeds of about Mach 5. The Space Shuttle, when re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, travels at an astounding Mach 25, or more than 17,500 miles per hour. The U.S. and Russian ballistic missiles all travel at hypersonic speeds.
Types of hypersonic weapons
There are two types of hypersonic weapons: hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs) and hypersonic cruise missiles (HCMs). The glide vehicle uses almost the same warhead that a ballistic missile uses. After being launched into the upper atmosphere by a booster rocket, one or more glide vehicles are released and use the momentum of the rocket to speed to their targets.
Hypersonic cruise missiles are difficult to produce and much more expensive than traditional cruise missiles. They rely on a different propulsion system called a scramjet (supersonic combusting ramjet) which is a ramjet engine in which the airflow through the engine remains supersonic or greater than the speed of sound. Scramjet-powered vehicles are envisioned to operate at speeds up to at least Mach 15.
In order to be effective, hypersonic missiles must be deployed from fast-moving aircraft or launched with a booster that will get them to supersonic speeds before the scramjet is activated.
The hypersonic race is much closer than most believe
Many believe that Russia and China are far ahead of the U.S. in the hypersonic race. This is partly because during the Global War on Terror, the Defense Department made a concerted effort to reuse existing arms systems and gave lower priority to developing new ones.
The Chinese have already fielded a hypersonic missile, the Dongfeng-17 (DF-17) system, which is road-mobile and uses a hypersonic boost-glide system. During a live-fire exercise in August, the Chinese launched DF-17 missiles from a ground-based platform near Pingtan Island in the Taiwan Strait. The DF-17 was originally built as an anti-ship missile against American aircraft carriers, which the U.S. uses for force projection.
The Russians have the Avangard, which is packed on a ballistic ICBM, and the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal, which was used in Ukraine to great fanfare by the Russian government. But Kinzhal is based on the 1980s Iskander missile, it doesn’t use a scramjet to gain hypersonic speed, and only has a range of between 950-1,200 miles. Despite Russian boasting, the Kinzhal isn’t a modern hypersonic weapon. While it can reach hypersonic speeds, it is hardly in the class of China’s DF-17 and of many of the weapons the U.S. is developing.
While the U.S. hasn’t hit the panic button about rushing a hypersonic weapon into service, it has definitely picked up the pace in developing and fielding one. The hypersonic arms race is far from over, and it seems after being pretty much dormant for two decades, the U.S. is showing its technological prowess.
Steve Balestrieri is a proven military analyst. He served as a US Army Special Forces NCO and Warrant Officer in the 7th Special Forces Group. In addition to writing for Sandboxx.com, he has written for 19fortyfive.com and SOFREP.com; he has covered the NFL for PatsFans.com for over 11 years. His work was regularly featured in the Millbury-Sutton Chronicle and Grafton News newspapers in Massachusetts.
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