How are hypersonic missiles different, is it the new 'wonder weapon'?

 | Updated: Jan 15, 2022, 04:32 PM IST

Hypersonics are the new frontier in missile technology because they fly lower and so are harder to detect than ballistic missiles

hypersonic cruise missile

The race for hypersonic missiles is underway with Russia, North Korea and China claiming the top spots even as the US struggles to put its missile power in order.

Last year in August, China had stunned the world with the  hypersonic test flight involving a high speed missile launch.

The American defence establishment was rattled by the discovery that a Chinese hypersonic glider around-the-earth test flight culminated in the firing of a missile in mid-flight at more than five times the speed of sound over the South China Sea.

Reports claimed China had fired two hypersonic missiles even as the Chinese foreign ministry denied reports.


Chinese hypersonic missile

The United States, Russia and China have all been experimenting with so-called "hypersonic glide vehicles" - defined as reaching speeds of at least Mach 5  - but up to now none had displayed comparable mastery of a mid-flight missile launch.

Weapons travelling at hypersonic speed would enable an attacking military to overcome defence installations through sheer speed and unparalleled manoeuvrability, and allow a country under assault to pick off incoming missiles more easily.

US defence officials were caught off-guard by the Chinese display. The demonstration showed that China has made surprising advances in a technology that many experts had placed much further in the future.

China makes no secret of having developed at least one aerodynamic wind tunnel capable of conducting tests for hypersonic weapons and equipment.


hypersonic cruise missile

The Aviation Industry Corp of China (AVIC) had earlier confirmed that a Mach 8 wind tunnel called FL-64 had been completed and now had "testing capability", including "weapon separation and delivery".

Chinese scientists are also reportedly building the JF-22 wind tunnel which can simulate flight at 30 times the speed of sound, state broadcaster CCTV had reported in August last year.

The US is developing its own hypersonic glider under the ARRW programme, but that system's first real-life test failed in April.


Zircon hypersonic cruise missile

Russia meanwhile recently launched a hypersonic missile, called Zircon, from a submarine and deployed a hypersonic, nuclear-capable ballistic system in 2019, called Avangard.

Moscow has in recent years touted the development of weapons that it hopes will give it the edge in any arms race with the United States at a time of growing tensions with the West.

Hypersonics can travel more than five times the speed of sound and manoeuvre in mid-flight, making them much harder to track and intercept than traditional projectiles.

In November, the Russian military had said that it had fired the Zircon missile from the Admiral Gorshkov warship and hit a test target in Russia's Arctic waters.

The Zircon had already undergone several tests in recent years, including another launch from the Admiral Gorshkov and from a submerged submarine.


Chinese hypersonic missile

Putin had used his state of the nation address in 2018 to reveal new hypersonic weapons, including the Zircon, saying it could hit targets at sea and on land with a range of 1,000 kilometre.

The Zircon looks set to join Avangard hypersonic glide vehicles that were put into service in 2019 and the air-launched Kinzhal (Dagger) missiles in Russia's arsenal. Russia is generally seen as the world leader in hypersonic technology.

In fact, after the surprise launch of the hypersonic missile by China, Pentagon's top general Mark Milley had said it was "quite a Sputnik moment".

The general was referring to Soviet Union's stunning launch of the world's first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, which sparked the superpowers' space race.

China denied the report, saying it was a routine test of a reusable space vehicle.


US hypersonic cruise missile

Hypersonics are the new frontier in missile technology because they fly lower and so are harder to detect than ballistic missiles, can reach targets more quickly, and are manoeuvarable.

That makes them more dangerous, particularly if mounted with nuclear warheads.

The United States, Russia, China and North Korea have all tested hypersonics and several others are developing the technology.

The Pentagon has now awarded defence giants Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman to develop missiles that could protect the United States from hypersonic attacks.

The three contracts were awarded for the development of glide phase interceptors and together are worth more than $60 million.


North Korea missile launch

North Korea which has been building its ballistic missile programme for decades said it conducted a second hypersonic missile test, a sophisticated technology it is pursuing as a top priority for its arsenal.

Last year North Korea had carried out out a number of high-profile weapons tests, including a claimed submarine-launched ballistic missile, a long-range cruise missile, a train-launched weapon, and what it says is a hypersonic gliding missile.

In its first major weapons test of 2022, North Korea says it has carried out a second hypersonic missile test, with a warhead capable of gliding as well as lateral movement during flight.

South Korea's military, which had cast doubt on Pyongyang's initial claims, said the missile launched on Tuesday had reached hypersonic speeds and showed clear signs of "progress" from last week's test.


North Korea's hypersonic missile

North Korean state media had reported that the country's leader, Kim Jong Un, personally oversaw its successful test of a hypersonic missile the day before, the second such launch by the nuclear-armed nation in less than a week, which diplomats have called a provocation.

Hypersonic missiles are listed among the "top priority" tasks for strategic weapons development in North Korea's five-year plan.

It was the third reported North Korean test of a hypersonic gliding missile. The first, which took place four months ago, was followed by one last week.

The missile flew 700 kilometres (435 miles) at an altitude of about 60 kilometres (37 miles) at Mach 10 speed.