US joins hypersonic arms race in space: Is it a gamechanger?

Updated: Apr 06, 2022, 04:30 PM(IST)

Amid the Ukraine war,  the US conducted an aircraft-launched hypersonic missile test. The missile maintained a speed of more than Mach 5.

US joins hypersonic race

Amid the Ukraine war, the US military said it has tested a new hypersonic missile. The US conducted an aircraft-launched hypersonic missile test. The missile maintained a speed of more than Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound.

Hypersonic missiles pose a potential threat to the global military balance. They can deliver nuclear weapons precisely on target at speeds too fast to intercept.

Weapons travelling at hypersonic speed allow attackers to overcome defence installations.


AUKUS decides to work on hypersonics

Russia, North Korea and China claim the top spot in the hypersonic missile race. Russia has touted the development of hypersonics in recent years. President Putin believes the weapons will give Russia an edge over the US.

Russia had claimed it had fired two hypersonic missiles on Ukraine.

Last year, China had stunned the world with a hypersonic missile test. The US was caught off-guard by the Chinese display. The US has so far struggled to put its hypersonic missile power in order.

And now it has conducted a new test. Also this week, the UK, US and Australia(AUKUS) agreed to work on hypersonics under a new defence pact.


US B-52 bombers

Hypersonic weapons and air and missile defense are key priorities of the United States Department of Defense's National Defense Strategy

The Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) program matures critical technologies to high speed flight and accelerates the weaponization of Hypersonic strike capabilities, according to Lockheed Martin.

The hypersonic systems provide advantages in terms of speed to target, manoeuvrability and survivability to reach hard and well-defended targets.

At hypersonic speeds, friction and air resistance create an incredible amount of heat, which needs to be managed through tough but lightweight heat shields and thermal protection systems. Sensors and electronics must also be hardened to withstand extreme conditions, the company highlighted.


Hypersonic systems built for the kill

Hypersonic systems are designed to operate in contested environments and must be capable of overcoming a wide range of defenses with the system moving at a mile every second needs to operate with an incredible degree of precise maneuverability.

Basic operations like communications become a significant challenge during hypersonic flight. The system has to maintain connectivity to operators and decisionmakers through a global communications and sensor systems.

The missile was built with tactical hardware and instrumented to collect thermal, mechanical and digital data from the flight vehicle through a telemetry stream and an on-board data recorder.


Chinese scientists are building JF-22 wind tunnel

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, Russia's hypersonic 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.


'Quite a Sputnik moment'

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.


Hypersonics the new frontier in missile technology

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.


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