New weapons: Hypersonics

A hypersonic vehicle is one that moves through the atmosphere at a minimum speed of five times that of sound, or Mach 5.

Hypersonic weapons are a new, state-of-the art weapon family covering various precision missiles, jets and gliders allowing very high deterrence and destruction power also with conventional warheads.

A hypersonic cruise missile travels continuously through the air employing a special high-powered engine. A hypersonic glide vehicle is launched into space atop a ballistic missile, after which it maneuvers through the upper reaches of the atmosphere until it dives towards its target. Both vehicle types can carry either conventional or nuclear weapons.

Hypersonic weapons systems may dramatically alter the existing balance of conventional military power forces between the United States and its major competitors

A new “missile gap” is emerging, one that is based in fact. This is the disparity between the United States and its main competitors, Russia and China, in the field of hypersonic weapons systems. They could strike key military targets such as airfields, command and control centers, depots and force concentrations almost without warning. Hypersonic delivery systems are viewed as particularly useful against aircraft carriers, large surface combatants, amphibious warfare ships and even transports carrying critical military supplies.

The United States

Hypersonic weapons are extremely difficult to track with existing air and missile defense sensors and virtually impossible to intercept. Earlier this year (2019), Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the US is extremely vulnerable to future attack via hypersonic missiles. General Hyten cautioned: “we [US] don’t have any defense that could deny the employment of such a weapon [hypersonic missiles] against us.”

Hyten suggested the US is powerless against hypersonic weapon threats and has to rely on nuclear deterrence. Hyten added, “so our response would be our deterrent force which would be the triad and the nuclear capabilities that we have to respond to such a threat.” In mid-April, Lockheed Martin announced that it had won a $928 million contract to develop a hypersonic missile for the Air Force to counter Chinese and Russian missile defense systems.

Senior US defense officials have made it clear that Russia and China currently have the lead in the race to develop and deploy hypersonic missiles.

During the recent discussion at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in Washington, D.C., Gen. Paul Selva, vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said China has yet to “mass deploy hypersonics or long-range [tactical] ballistic missiles,” however, “they are able now to deploy those capabilities at a large scale” if they decide to move in that direction, he added. Gen. Selva then dropped a bombshell indicating the Pentagon is behind in the demonstration of hypersonic technologies, but he did mention that the Pentagon still holds an advantage when it comes to sensor and sensor-integration technologies. “If we just sit back and don’t react, we will lose our technological superiority” over China, Selva said.

Hypersonic delivery systems will be an integral part of Russian and Chinese anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategies. The goal of these strategies is to create a lethal offensive and defensive environment that reaches possibly thousands of miles from their respective homelands that the adversaries, especially the United States, cannot penetrate. Both countries are already busily deploying highly sophisticated and integrated air and missile defense systems along with land- and sea-based ballistic and cruise missiles, some capable of striking mobile targets. Over the past several decades, the U.S. may have lost its erstwhile lead in a number of advanced military technologies, including hypersonics.

Mike Griffin, a former NASA administrator and now the Pentagon’s defense undersecretary for research and engineering, warned earlier this year that China had built “a pretty mature system” for a hypersonic missile to strike from thousands of miles away. To sum up, this is it – the dying American empire is behind the hypersonic technology curve, as it may suggest: The US could lose its military technological superiority to China sometime in the mid/late 2020s, if it does not properly allocate enough investments into hypersonic technologies. We then ask the question: “What comes next if Washington’s power slips in the Pacific? Well, you guessed it… War.”


Russia has today three projects in the final test phase/early deployment: air-launched Kinzal hypersonic missile, Avangard hypersonic glider attached to ICBMs and Zircon hypersonic missile for naval targets.

Kinzhal (Kh-47M2) hypersonic air-launched missile system, is based on the Iskander ballistic missile and represents the first successful adaptation of a ballistic missile for airborne carry. Its top speed is of Mach 10, or over 12,000 km/h, its combat range is about 2000 km, while flight trajectory carries it to altitudes of 50-80km above the Earth’s surface. At the moment Kinzhal’s carrier is the MiG-31 all-weather interceptor fighter, in the future that role could also be undertaken by the Su-57 fifth-generation fighter. There are tests going with the use of a strategic bomber TU-22M3 as a carrier.  The first Kinzhals entered limited-scale service in December 2017 and they are already available to combat units in the Southern Military District at the end of 2019.

According to military experts, Kinzhal launch procedure is as follows: ascend to the stratosphere, then launch the missile into near-orbital heights where it can reach hypersonic speed before descending onto its target while continuing to gain speed (max.15 Mach). Aerodynamic control surfaces allow the missile to maneuver throughout its trajectory and thus evade air- and missile-defense zones. It is the ability to maneuver at hypersonic speeds that gives the missile its invulnerability which increases its likelihood of striking the target. The missile is also difficult to detect because it approaches its target at an angle of 90 degrees, thus the missile could operate in a US radar blind zone.

Avangard gliding vehicle. The development of a future ICBM with a brand-new payload type in the form of a gliding vehicle was the real technological breakthrough. The testing of Avangard has been successfully concluded. According to available information, Avangard can reach the top speed of Mach 20 and is one of the possible payload options for Sarmat R-28. The warhead can fly in dense layers of the atmosphere over intercontinental distances, while performing evasive dog-legs both horizontally (up to several thousand kilometers) and vertically. Specialists assess that the Avangard has not only an aerodynamic control system but also a propulsion system to be able to perform such maneuvers.

In spite of flying in a plasma cloud, the warhead can receive signals from its command center. It used to be an impossible task, since plasma blocks radio waves. Another challenge that was successfully overcome was the problem of heat insulation. It cannot be ruled out that the Avangard uses new generation high-temperature ceramic composites that use silicon carbide, capable of withstanding temperatures of up to 2,000 C.

By mid-March 2019 it was announced that the first Avangard carriers would become the UR-100N UTTKh (SS-19 Stiletto) ICBMs that will most likely become part of the RS-24 Yars strategic missile system. Once Sarmat is adopted, it will carry Avangard warheads too. First Avangard hypersonic missile systems (with Avangard-tipped Yars missiles) entered combat duty in late 2019 at the Dombarovsky missile division based in the Orenburg Region in the south Urals, Strategic Missile Force Commander Colonel-General Sergei Karakayev said in an interview with Krasnaya Zvezda newspaper.

The secrecy surrounding Zircon 3M22 anti-ship missile reminds the former case of the P-700 Granit heavy anti-ship missile, specifically its exceptional ramjet propulsion. The reports that the Zircon is to be launched from the same 3S14 vertical launchers that are used for the present Oniks- naval missile indicate the two missiles are in the same weight and size class, with comparable range and payload characteristics. One advantage the Zircon will have over the Oniks is the speed, which various sources estimate at between Mach 6 and Mach 9 telling that it may well depend on the missile’s flight altitude.

If a low-altitude trajectory is adopted, the dense layers of the atmosphere would reduce the speed considerably. A high-altitude cruise at 30-40km would enable it to accelerate to maximum velocity likely approaching that of a short-range ballistic missile and attack its target in a steep dive. While the high-altitude approach would provide the adversary with greater opportunity to detect the missile, it still would be a difficult weapon to intercept, particularly since most weapons sent against it would be considerably slower. The differences between high and low flight trajectories likely account for the different cited maximum ranges for the weapon. While some sources list its range as only 400km, others claim the weapon has effective range in excess of 1,000km.

The Russian Navy is set to deploy the world’s first class of hypersonic cruise missile, the Zicron, by the end of 2019. The announcement was made during an inspection of the new corvette Gremyashchiy (2200 tn) at a shipyard in the Kaliningrad region. The warship entered service in December 2019 and while previously reported to deploy the older 3M-54 Kalibr cruise missiles it was later confirmed that the warship was also compatible with the Zicron missile.

The Zicron is set to equip much of Russia’s fleet including attack submarines such as the Kilo Class and newly refurbished Kirov Class battlecruisers – the latter fielding these alongside hypersonic air defenses and having the potential to deploy over 100 of these missiles should they be outfitted as dedicated ship hunters.

Warships fielded by the United States and its allies currently rely on the Harpoon missile for ship hunting duties – the most capable variant of which is expected to enter service in the early 2020s with a range of approximately 300km (present model 130km). The missile is subsonic with a speed of approximately Mach 0.8, and although it will field more capable electronic warfare countermeasures than its predecessors it lacks the extreme manoeuvrability of the Zicron.


As stated above, the DF-17 hypersonic glider vehicle can be used as a multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle, a MIRV, to deliver its warheads, which makes it far more difficult to detect and intercept. China claims to have successfully tested a new hypersonic vehicle. By its other name, Starry Sky-2, it is an experimental design known as “waverider,” which rides the shock waves generated during flight. The missile could one day carry conventional and or nuclear warheads undetected through US missile defense shields.

According to the China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics (CAAA), the hypersonic missile test has been conducted in northwestern China. The CAAA released a statement indicating the Starry Sky-2 was carried into space by a solid-propellant rocket before separating. After separation, it descended to lower altitudes as it autonomously conducted extreme turning manoeuvers, reaching Mach 5.5 for more than 400 seconds, and reached a top speed of Mach 6, or 7.344km/h. Although, the missile is still in the development stage and probably a few years out from series production, waveriders could be used to carry conventional and or nuclear warheads capable of penetrating the world’s most advanced anti-missile defense systems.

Beijing-based military analyst Zhou Chenming told the South China Morning Post that Starry Sky-2 would be used for carrying conventional warheads rather than nuclear ones, adding that such a capability was not in the immediate future. “I think there are still three to five years before this technology can be weaponized,” he said. “As well as being fitted to missiles, it may also have other military applications, which are still being explored.”

The Starry Sky-2 is not China’s first rodeo operating in the hypersonic space, it has been testing hypersonic missiles since 2014 but the latest test is the first to make use of waverider technology.

China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy for its part currently fields the YJ-100 with a range comparable to the Zicron – although it is considerably slower and less manoeuvrable. The newer YJ-XX is expected to enter service in the early 2020s however and will have a similar performance to its Russian counterpart. The new Chinese missile is suspected of having benefited from transfers of technologies from Russia’s own defense sector, the sales of which helped subsidize development costs on the Zicron missile program.