Hypersonic nuclear missiles

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Hypersonic missile

What are they, who owns them, and how to stop them

When the prestigious Financial Times broke the story about China’s launch of a “Fractional Orbital Bombardment System” using a “hypersonic glide vehicle”, all mainstream media broke loose. 

The first test, carried out on July 27, missed the target by 40 kilometers. The second test was carried out on August 13 and little is known about it since China dismissed the news as a “Western hype” rumor. Chinese officials claimed that it was a “routine experiment to test reusable spacecraft”, not a missile.

The media’s hysteria over China’s hypersonic missiles can be easily understood, but it’s hard to understand why so little attention is being paid to Russia’s advancement in hypersonic vehicles and missiles.

As we will see, Russia is far more advanced than any country on earth. But before we get into this, let’s delve a little bit into what hypersonic missiles and vehicles are. 

What are hypersonic missiles

A hypersonic missile is a rocket-propelled weapon that can travel faster than Mach 5 speed (1701.45 m/s), i.e. 5 times faster than the speed of sound (340 m/s). Some hypersonic missiles, typically powered by Supersonic Combustion Ramjets or Scramjet propulsion systems, are capable of reaching Mach 10 speed (3,400 m/s) and can travel up to 12,000 Km on board an ICBM.

In 2019, Russia launched the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal using a MiG-31K from the Olenya airbase. According to Russian sources, the missile had traveled 3.4 km/s (Mach 10) for about 1,200 Km. The missile would have hit the ground target at “Pemboy” proving ground in less than 6 minutes.

The Avangard (previously known as Yu-71 and Yu-74) is a Russian hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV). In 2016 the Avangard was tested aboard the UR-100UTTkh, an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) designed for weapons delivery with a range of 5,500 to 12,000 kilometers. The Avangard left the Domarovsky Air Base traveling at around 3,100 m/s (Mach 10), reaching the target six thousand kilometers away at the Kura training ground. The hypersonic missile would have hit the target in less than 30 minutes. In other words, if a missile was launched from a base in western Russia, the projectile could hit New York in less than 15 minutes.

In contrast to China, Russia is not hiding its achievements—instead, they are capitalizing on them. “Russia, even relying on the scientific and technical groundwork created in Soviet times, has already solved these problems… This is the level of science, technology, materials science, and control systems that no one in the world has ever reached, do you understand?”, stated Viktor Murakhovsky, editor-in-chief of the magazine Arsenal of the Fatherland (Арсенал отечества)”.

And then there is the 3m22 Zircon (Tsirkon in Russian), a maneuvering hypersonic cruise missile powered by a Scramjet propulsion system. In 2019, Vladimir Putin claimed that Zircon had reached Mach 9 speed (3062 m/2) and had hit the target within 1,000 km. In October 2021, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that the nuclear submarine Severodvinsk had launched the Zircon missile in the Barents Sea hitting the target successfully. 

China, U.S.A, France, and North Korea still far behind

China has allegedly performed  “successful” tests of the Starry Sky-2 hypersonic vehicle.  Apparently, the maneuverable Starry Sky-2 can hit the Mach 6 mark (2041 m/s) and can carry conventional as well as nuclear weapons—but they are still far away from the Russians.

The United States is also working hard on its own hypersonic missile system. The main developer is Lockheed Martin, which has been awarded contracts to build the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon and the AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon; $928 million and $480m, respectively. 

In 2019,  Donald Trump authorized a National Defense budget of $717 billion. Part of this budget is aimed at reducing the hypersonic missile gap. But there is much more than that.

The US has not prioritized hypersonic systems to the same extent as Russia and China. Instead they are focusing on more advanced systems capable of long-range conventional precision strike, as opposed to nuclear-armed weapons where accuracy is not so important. Of course, with the new advances in technology, this can be questioned.

France has also been working on its prototype. The Perseus will be powered by a ramjet coupled around a compact Continuous Detonation Wave Engine, which uses spinning explosions inside a ring channel to create super-efficient thrust. But France’s hypersonic missile is still years away from realization. It’s estimated that it will be completed in 2030. 

On September 29, just one month after China’s hypersonic missile launch and one month before Russia’s 3m22 Zircon test, North Korea announced the Hwasong-8 hypersonic vehicle. According to some sources, the missile was carried by a liquid-propellant rocket resembling the Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM).

Can hypersonic missiles be stopped?

At the moment there’s no mechanism or technology capable of safely stopping a hypersonic missile and “even if the missile is destroyed or detonated by a close-range weapon, the fragments will have so much kinetic energy that the ship will still be severely damaged.” 

However, there are some ways that could “significantly degrade the operational effectiveness of long-range hypersonic weapons. One of these is through cyberattacks, which could abort the whole operation. Another way would be through electromagnetic rail guns (which can surpass 10 Mach speed), and energy weapons. The U.S.Navy has successfully outfitted its ships with a 150-kilowatt laser that can target missiles, drones, and other modern threats.

Another measure that has been proposed by the Missile Defense Agency is a network of satellites and sensors that could track hypersonic glide vehicles. In 2014, “Lockheed Martin was contracted by the USAF to build Space-Based Infrared System GEO-5 and GEO-6, at a cost of US$1.86 billion”, and in 2021 the U.S.Space Force allocated $2.5 billion to SBIRS, successfully launching the SBIRS GEO-5 on 18 May 2021.

North Korea, as well as France, China, and the United States are still far behind Russia. But one thing is clear: they are pushing hard and not stopping.


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