For much of the past few decades, the global arms race was concentrated on acquiring nuclear weapons, which were seen as ideal deterrents against enemy forces. However, a new arms race is emerging. And this time, countries are frantically trying to develop the fastest hypersonic missiles they can. While the previous arms race was about destructive power, the current one is about speed.
The new arms race
“When we talk about hypersonic weapons today we are referring to two specific types… namely, hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV) and hypersonic cruise missiles (HCM). HGV are launched on a missile and released at high altitudes — about 40km or higher. Their initial speed and altitude allows them to maintain hypersonic speeds — they are not powered — while ‘gliding’ on top of the atmosphere to their target. They can manoeuvre during their trajectory making it difficult to predict their future location. HCM are cruise missiles that reach hypersonic speeds,” George Nacouzi, senior engineer at research and analysis organization RAND, said in a statement (Air Force Technology).
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As far as the U.S. is concerned, Russia and China are the two nations that pose the most serious threat. These countries have the resources and technological know-how to develop hypersonic weapons that could make U.S. military assets vulnerable. Russia already has the Kinzhai missile that it claims can travel at speeds of up to Mach 12. The country’s military is also developing the 3K22 Tsirkon HCM, which is believed to have a lower speed of around Mach 6. However, the real danger seems to be an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) HGV, the Avangard. This missile is said to be so powerful that Putin himself called Avangard “invulnerable.”
“Avangard, also known as ‘Objekt 4202,’ is a hypersonic boost-glide missile system that is supposed to combine a high-performance ballistic missile with an unmanned glider vehicle for significant improvements in maneuverability and sustained top speed. This technology allows Avangard missiles to travel at up to 20 Mach or approximately 24,700 km per hour, a speed made possible by the use of ‘new composite materials’ to stay within a stable range of 1,600 to 2,000 degrees Celsius,” according to The National Interest.
In September 2018, China tested three hypersonic missiles at once. The scaled-down models, codenamed D18-1S, D-18-2S, and D18-3S, apparently achieved hypersonic velocity. A month earlier, the experimental flight of a hypersonic glider named Starry Sky 2 achieved speeds of Mach 6. What makes Beijing’s hypersonic missile development a bigger headache for America is that China might become emboldened by such weapons and try to stake a claim on the South China Sea or even invade Taiwan.
America’s hypersonic missiles
The U.S. developed a hypersonic test aircraft with speeds of around 4,500 mph back in 1959. But American interest in the technology waned in the following years, which allowed countries like Russia and China to catch up. However, the Trump administration seems to have understood the threat and has proposed allocating US$3 billion to develop hypersonic weapons and defense systems to counter the security risk facing the country.
“Russia and China are going really fast in hypersonics right now; we’re going to move fast to make sure we can do that,” Gen. John Hyten, head of U.S. Strategic Command, said in a statement (Space War). Last year, the Pentagon awarded Lockheed Martin a US$1.4 billion contract to develop hypersonic missiles. And in January this year, the U.S. Air Force successfully tested Lockheed’s hypersonic missile from a B-52 bomber. The company expects the missile to be completed by 2022.