A frightening new class of super-fast missiles that fly at hypersonic speeds are set to redefine the landscape of global warfare. Why are these new hypersonic missiles creating such fear and unease around the world?
- Military planners fear hypersonic missiles but want them at the same time
- Hypersonic missiles use scramjet engines that breathe air
- The missiles offer speed, flexibility and surprise
Hypersonic missiles are startlingly fast, traveling at speeds of up to Mach 10 – or about 7,600 mph (12,300 km/h). In comparison, today’s cruise missiles travel at only 500-600 MPH. Hypersonic missiles – under development by China, Russia, India and the U.S – will be capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
Changing The Calculus Of War
Their amazing speed is just one feature that has politicians and military experts so interested in hypersonic missiles. In addition the missiles:
- Can be launched from afar without detection
- Are exceedingly difficult to shoot down
- Are extremely maneuverable during flight
- Are inexpensive compared to ballistic missiles
Launched from subs, aircraft or mobile ground systems, the missiles may change the strategic calculus of war for two main reasons:
- Existing missile defense systems may become obsolete. Missile defense systems are built to find and shoot down older missiles that are slower and have predictable flight pat
- The missiles could be used for first-strikes that could undermine nuclear deterrence
How The Missiles Boost, Then Glide
Hypersonic missiles use scramjet engines and advanced technology to skip along the upper reaches of the atmosphere before gliding down on their targets. Their shallow atmospheric trajectory is in stark comparison to the high arc of ballistic missiles, which are easier to track and shoot down.
Getting a hypersonic missile into the upper atmosphere requires a booster rocket, which falls away before the scramjet engine takes over.
Future versions of the missiles could reach speeds of up to Mach 25, enabling them to hit any target in the world in 45 minutes or less. Speeds above Mach 25 cause objects in the atmosphere to spin out into space.
Hypersonic missiles get boosted by a rocket then skip along the earth’s atmosphere before dropping in fast and overwhelming traditional missile defenses
Rapid Hypersonic Missile Development Driven By Fear
China, Russia, India and the United States are all rushing to develop the new missiles, each seemingly consumed by fears that others will gain superiority first. Calls for hypersonic missile test bans have so far gone unheeded.
Hypersonic missile proliferation seems increasingly certain, driven by fears that include:
- Russia fears U.S. hypersonic missiles will pose a threat to their nuclear arsenal and could diminish the detente effect of their strategic missile forces. Russia is developing its own hypersonic missiles so that it won’t fall behind, including the new Zircon missile, with a reported speed of 4,600 mph
- China fears that U.S. hypersonic missiles could be used to conduct a first strike on their forces. China has recently been testing their WU-14 Mach 10 hypersonic missile, with a range of up to 1,800 miles
- The U.S. fears Chinese and Russian hypersonic technology development could surpass theirs
- India fears Chinese hypersonic weapons could reach Bangalore in 20 minutes, Dehli in less than 10
Perhaps unsurprisingly, each nation portrays its hypersonic missile efforts through the lens of defense; none overtly portray their efforts as being offensive in nature.
Some are calling for space-based defenses against the missiles, which will effectively militarize space and break existing treaties to keep space free from military activity.
As was perhaps inevitable, some are calling it a new arms race. Regardless of intentions, the development of hypersonic missiles seems certain to increase a feeling of vulnerability among all nations that fear attack from hypersonic adversaries.