Hypersonic Weapons represent a new era in military technology, achieving speeds between 5 and 25 times the speed of sound. The Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), as seen on B-52 bombers, and the R-37 hypersonic air-to-air missile exemplify this cutting-edge capability. Operating at 1 to 5 miles per second, or 1.6 to 8.0 km/s, these missiles surpass both subsonic and supersonic speeds. Beyond hypersonic velocities, atmospheric molecules disassociate posing challenges for control and communication. This limitation underscores the significance of hypersonic speeds within this defined range.
There are two primary categories: Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGVs) and hypersonic cruise missiles.
Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGVs):
Launch Mechanism: HGVs are typically launched into the atmosphere using a rocket. Once the desired altitude is reached, the glide vehicle separates from the rocket.
Glide Phase: After separation, the glide vehicle enters a glide phase, during which it utilizes its high speed and aerodynamic design to travel towards the target.
Speed: HGVs maintain speeds of at least Mach 5 (five times the speed of sound), making them extremely difficult for traditional missile defence systems to intercept.
Manoeuvrability: They can manoeuvre during the glide phase, making it challenging for adversaries to predict and counter their trajectory.
Hypersonic Cruise Missiles:
Propulsion: Unlike traditional ballistic missiles, hypersonic cruise missiles are powered by high-speed, air-breathing engines. These engines allow them to travel at sustained hypersonic speeds throughout their entire flight.
Continuous Propulsion: The air-breathing engines enable hypersonic cruise missiles to maintain high speeds for extended periods, providing a more unpredictable and flexible trajectory.
Versatility: Hypersonic cruise missiles can be designed for various mission profiles, including precision strikes, rapid response, and the ability to cover long distances.
Both Hypersonic Glide Vehicles and Hypersonic Cruise Missiles offer strategic advantages due to their speed, manoeuvrability, and the difficulty they pose for existing defence systems. These capabilities make them potential game-changers in modern military scenarios, influencing the dynamics of deterrence and strategic operations.
Highlighting the Key Distinctions
The exceptional speed of hypersonic missiles poses a substantial challenge to defence systems by dramatically reducing or even eliminating response times. Unlike traditional intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), hypersonic missiles can travel at speeds greater than Mach 5, making them highly elusive and difficult to intercept during their flight.
The distinctive feature of hypersonic missiles lies in their ability to manoeuvre and deviate from predictable trajectories. Unlike ballistic missiles that follow a more predictable arcing trajectory after the boost phase, hypersonic missiles can actively change course and exhibit high manoeuvrability throughout their flight. This characteristic makes them particularly challenging targets for defence systems, as they can alter their path unpredictably, making interception more complex.
In essence, the combination of immense speed and enhanced manoeuvrability makes hypersonic missiles a formidable and elusive threat, requiring innovative defence strategies and technologies to effectively counteract their capabilities.
Cost In Acquisition
The cost estimates provided by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) highlight that hypersonic missiles could be approximately one-third more expensive to procure and field compared to ballistic missiles of the same range with manoeuvrable warheads. According to the CBO, acquiring and sustaining 300 ground- or sea-launched intermediate-range ballistic missiles with manoeuvrable warheads for 20 years would cost an estimated $13.4 billion (in 2023 dollars). In contrast, an equivalent number of hypersonic missiles with similar capabilities would be estimated to cost around $17.9 billion.
It’s important to note that these cost comparisons don’t factor in potential cost overruns, which are common in technically challenging programs. The higher costs associated with hypersonic missiles are attributed, in part, to the complexity of developing systems capable of withstanding the intense heat generated during hypersonic flight.
These cost considerations underscore the financial challenges and resource allocation decisions that governments and military organizations face when pursuing advanced technologies like hypersonic missiles. While these systems offer unique strategic advantages, their development and deployment come with higher associated costs, reflecting the technical intricacies involved in creating and maintaining such cutting-edge capabilities.
Russia’s Hypersonic Missiles
In 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin described hypersonic missiles as “invincible” when unveiling Russia’s arsenal of these advanced weapons. This term reflects the perceived strategic advantage of hypersonic technology, emphasizing the difficulty of defending against missiles travelling at such extreme speeds and exhibiting high manoeuvrability. The use of “invincible” underscores the strategic and geopolitical significance attributed to hypersonic missiles by Russia.
The hypersonic missiles used by Russia in attacks on Ukraine, known as “Kinzhals” or daggers, are approximately 8 meters long. There is some variation in estimates of their speed, with some experts suggesting they can travel as fast as 6,000 kilometres per hour, approximately Mach 5. Others propose even higher speeds, reaching Mach 9 or Mach 10.
The exceptional velocity of these missiles has notable effects, as described by experts. The air pressure generated in front of the weapon can create a plasma cloud as it moves, absorbing radio waves. This phenomenon adds to the complexity of tracking and defending against hypersonic missiles, making them challenging targets for existing defence systems.
Indeed, hypersonic missiles typically fly at much lower altitudes compared to conventional ballistic missiles, following a trajectory known as a low atmospheric-ballistic trajectory. This characteristic poses a challenge for radar-based missile defence systems, as by the time these systems detect hypersonic missiles, they are often near their target. This proximity reduces the reaction time available for the interception, making it more challenging for traditional defence mechanisms to respond effectively.
Moreover, the ability of hypersonic missiles to change direction midflight adds another layer of complexity. This manoeuvrability enhances their evasive capabilities, making them more unpredictable and difficult to track and intercept.
The hypersonic missiles deployed by Russia in Ukraine, such as the Kinzhal, are launched from aircraft. It’s worth noting that the versatility of hypersonic technology allows for various deployment methods. In addition to being launched from aircraft, other hypersonic weapons can also be deployed from ships and submarines.
One notable capability of certain hypersonic missiles is their capacity to carry nuclear warheads, adding a significant dimension to their strategic potential. The Kinzhal type, specifically, is reported to have a range of up to 2,000 kilometres, providing an extended reach for precision strikes. Other hypersonic missiles may have slightly shorter ranges, with some capable of hitting targets at distances of about 1,000 kilometres. The combination of high speed, manoeuvrability, and varied deployment methods makes hypersonic missiles a formidable and versatile component of modern military capabilities.
U.S.-Australia’s joint venture of hypersonics experiment 2024
The U.S. Defense Department is set to collaborate with the Australian military on joint hypersonics experiments, with plans to commence these endeavours as early as next year. Heidi Shyu, the undersecretary of defence for research and engineering, revealed this information at the Reagan National Defense Forum on December 2. The collaboration between the two countries in the field of hypersonics has been deepening over the past year.
The partnership has seen Australia’s involvement in observing the U.S. Defense Department’s Technology Readiness Experiment (T-REX) held at Camp Atterbury in Indiana in May. Following this, members of Shyu’s team visited Australia to witness the Autonomous Warrior exercise. Now, the next step in this collaboration involves conducting joint hypersonics experiments, with efforts underway to determine how to integrate these experimentations in Australia. This collaboration signifies a shared commitment to advancing hypersonic technologies and capabilities between the United States and Australia.
The focus on hypersonic technology is a key component of the second phase of the trilateral pact between Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom, known as AUKUS. While the first phase (Pillar I) concentrated on nuclear submarine development, the second pillar aimed at advancing technology efforts, including hypersonics, as well as quantum computing, autonomy, and electronic warfare.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin led an AUKUS technology summit on December 1, during which collaborative initiatives in technology were launched. The summit underscores the commitment of the three nations to joint efforts in cutting-edge technological domains.
Australia and the U.S. have a longstanding collaboration in hypersonic research, spanning over 15 years. In 2017, they concluded the Hypersonic International Flight Research Experimentation (HiFiRE), a decade-long effort exploring high-speed weapons and subsystem designs. The program included a series of flight tests aimed at advancing the understanding and capabilities of hypersonic systems. The ongoing collaboration reflects the strategic importance placed on hypersonics within the broader AUKUS partnership.
In 2020, the United States and Australia initiated the Southern Cross Integrated Flight Research Experiment (SCIFiRE), building on their hypersonic research endeavours. The primary objective of SCIFiRE is to develop a Mach 5 precision strike missile, powered by an air-breathing scramjet engine, intended to be carried by a tactical fighter aircraft.
The outcomes of this collaborative effort have contributed to the U.S. Air Force’s Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile program, underscoring the practical applications and cross-border impact of joint hypersonic research.
Moreover, discussions within the Pentagon have explored opportunities for integrating the air and missile defence capabilities of the two nations. This includes high-level engagements, such as Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Heidi Shyu and Pentagon acquisition chief Bill Laplante travelling to Australia in the summer for potential collaboration. Subsequent meetings in September continued the dialogue, emphasizing the ongoing commitment to advancing defence capabilities through international cooperation in the realm of hypersonic and missile technologies.
Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, Heidi Shyu, has been engaged in discussions with the U.S. Army and Missile Defense Agency regarding potential collaboration between the United States and Australia on the Integrated Battle Command System. This system is pivotal in connecting sensors and shooters for air and missile defence in Guam.
The U.S. Army leads the acquisition efforts for this system, collaborating with the Missile Defense Agency (MDA). The goal is to deploy the first wave of equipment for the Integrated Battle Command System to Guam in 2024, with Northrop Grumman playing a key role in its development.
Simultaneously, Australia is actively pursuing its own integrated air and missile defence capability through its Joint Air Battle Management System. Lockheed Martin has been selected as the “strategic partner” for this program, showcasing the commitment of both nations to enhance their air and missile defence capabilities through collaborative efforts and advanced technological solutions.