Hypersonic missiles are being developed and deployed by several countries, including China, Russia, and the US. They combine speeds of over five times the speed of sound (Mach 5) with significant manoeuvrability during flight, making them a cutting-edge advancement in military technology. These missiles are expensive and technically demanding to develop, and their uses and effectiveness are still being assessed. They present potential challenges for existing missile defence systems due to their speed, manoeuvrability, and altitude, which could decrease the time available for interception.

Types of Hypersonic Missiles

There are two main types of hypersonic missiles:

Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGVs)

  • Mounted on rocket boosters similar to intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
  • Accelerated to speeds of Mach 20 or more.
  • Glide unpowered in the upper atmosphere (30-80 km altitude) before diving towards the target.
  • Highly manoeuvrable, making them difficult to intercept.

Hypersonic Cruise Missiles (HCMs)

  • Fly at lower altitudes (20-40 km) and are powered throughout their flight.
  • Typically use ramjet or scramjet engines to achieve hypersonic speeds.
  • Require initial acceleration from a rocket booster or jet engine to reach operational speeds (around Mach 3 or above).
  • Can reach speeds up to Mach 10 or more.

Current Development and Deployment

  • China and Russia: Both have reportedly deployed hypersonic missiles capable of delivering conventional or nuclear warheads. China’s DF-17 and Russia’s Avangard are notable examples.
  • United States: The US is actively testing and developing multiple hypersonic technologies, including the Common Hypersonic Glide Body and the Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile.
  • AUKUS Agreement: The UK, US, and Australia are collaborating on developing hypersonic and counter-hypersonic technologies under this security partnership.

Technical Challenges

Developing hypersonic missiles involves overcoming significant research and development hurdles:

  • Heat-Resistant Materials: Hypersonic speeds generate extreme temperatures, necessitating advanced materials like ceramics to withstand the heat.
  • Aerodynamic Design: Optimising the missile’s shape to minimise air resistance and manage heat.
  • Scramjet Engines: Ensuring efficient air and fuel mixing in a highly turbulent environment, akin to “keeping a match lit in a hurricane.”
  • Plasma Formation: High-speed travel can create a plasma cloud around the missile, interfering with communication and guidance systems.
  • Testing: Real-world flight tests are expensive and require extensive infrastructure.

Implications for Military Operations

Hypersonic missiles could be used for:

  • Rapid Strikes: Targeting high-value, time-sensitive assets with minimal warning.
  • Long-Range Precision Strikes: Attacking well-defended targets from a safe distance.
  • Enhancing Nuclear Deterrents: Strengthening the ability to bypass missile defences, though this remains a subject of debate.

Challenges for Missile Defence

Hypersonic missiles pose significant challenges for current missile defence systems:

  • Late Detection: Their low-altitude flight and high speed reduce detection times.
  • Manoeuvrability: Makes interception difficult, requiring more agile and advanced interceptors.
  • Reduced Engagement Time: Less time for defence systems to respond due to their high speeds and unpredictable trajectories.

Global Stability and Arms Control

The development and deployment of hypersonic missiles could have implications for global stability:

  • Increased Risk of Conflict: Difficulty in predicting targets and distinguishing between conventional and nuclear warheads could lead to escalation.
  • Strategic Balance: Some analysts believe hypersonic missiles may not significantly alter the strategic balance between nuclear powers.

Measures to Mitigate Risks

Potential measures to address the challenges posed by hypersonic missiles include:

  • Arms Control Treaties: Amendments or new treaties to limit deployment.
  • Export Controls: Restricting the transfer of hypersonic technology.
  • Non-Treaty Mechanisms: Information exchanges and dialogues to minimise ambiguity and enhance stability.
Avatar photo
Lisa has a degree in Media & Communication from Glasgow Caledonian University and works with industry news, sifting through press releases in addition to moderating website comments.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

22 Comments
oldest
newest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Hodgson
Hodgson (@guest_823714)
1 month ago

My comment is….they are a long way from bows and arrows and may God help us all..Mach 20!!

Hermes
Hermes (@guest_823716)
1 month ago

Classic, but you forgot the French hypersonic glider project…

Technically 2 projects, but only one in active development as far as we know with the V-MAX demonstrator for the nuclear forces.

The second is probably linked to the UK with the FC/ASW, so you’ve also forgotten the UK, but I agree that this project is not very clear.

The real challenge is guidance especially for “low altitude” ones.

Supportive Bloke
Supportive Bloke (@guest_823986)
1 month ago
Reply to  Hermes

Hmmme, well maybe…..for static targets…..quantum inertial navigation?

DaveyB
DaveyB (@guest_823756)
1 month ago

Adding to Hermes’s comment. The UK’s MoD (DE&S) have signed a £1B contract (May 2024) to develop a sovereign capability for a hypersonic missile. There are 90 companies that are now “on-contract”. This is a separate program to FCASW, but may be linked to AUKUS. There is next to no information on what type of weapon this will be. Though I would guess it’s a surface launched weapon rather than air launched, as you are less restricted by size. Where you can use a much bigger 1st stage booster to not only get it up to speed. But also to… Read more »

Jon
Jon (@guest_823883)
1 month ago
Reply to  DaveyB

If you expect to wait in the queue for a decade to get LM to integrate your preferred missile to the F-35s, watching videos of a new missile made by LM being launched from the F-35 isn’t going to make you feel warm and fuzzy.

FormerUSAF
FormerUSAF (@guest_823978)
1 month ago
Reply to  DaveyB

Davey, Have no verified knowledge, but believe your supposition that the UK contract represents a negotiated UK contribution in support of the AUKUS Pillar Ii hypersonic/counter-hypersonic initiative, is essentially correct. 👍 £1Bn, spread across up to 90 separate organizations (commercial and academic), over a 7 year period, probably indicates a basic and applied research program supporting the collective initiative, as opposed to a development effort. UK would benefit from collective advancements in hypersonics, including the ability for UK industry to compete for industrial workshare of fielded systems. Reluctantly mention loaded reference, but UK similarly invested as a Tier 1 participant… Read more »

Coll
Coll (@guest_823811)
1 month ago

Might as well look in to the Lockheed Mako missile project

Nick
Nick (@guest_823931)
1 month ago

No mention of cost, if the US Army and Navy Dark Eagle, LRHW/CPS HGV is an example totally unaffordable, to FY 24 they have funded $8.3 billion on R&D alone and as of yet to successfully flown one, the USAF ARRW AGM-183 HGV was cancelled, what is the operational justification to fund a few dozen of these of these horrendously expensive missiles. 

e

Spyinthesky
Spyinthesky (@guest_823967)
1 month ago
Reply to  Nick

Last I heard ARRW might not have been as cancelled as previously thought. Seems to be some confusion around its exact status having completed its trial fires with a stated successful test. Indeed though it came in for some criticism over ‘failures’ only one I believe was with the final stage of the missile itself.

John Hartley
John Hartley (@guest_824195)
1 month ago
Reply to  Nick

One of the US hypersonic missiles I have read of is $15 million a shot. Another is $40 million a shot. Others are even more expensive. Perhaps vast numbers of cheap non hypersonic missiles to overwhelm defences, are a more cost effective solution?

Nick
Nick (@guest_824327)
1 month ago
Reply to  John Hartley

The USAF –   “‘Cheap’ Long-Range Cruise Missile Designs To Be Tested By Air Force  $150K cruise missiles are a priority for the USAF, which could have many thousands of long-range targets to hit in a major conflict.”  June 3 write up on Warzone     The old maxim “Quantity Has A Quality All Of Its Own” has once again come to the fore in the Ukraine with the tens of thousands of 155mm shells used. Hypersonics are a Gucci weapon system and can argue with UK very limited defence funding unaffordable.    PS The Pentagon in 2025 zeroed out procurement funding for the HGV AGM-183 ARRW,… Read more »

Peter S
Peter S (@guest_823948)
1 month ago

Since all new combat aircraft will rely on stealth to evade defences, logically a stealth missile should be expected to achieve at least the same. In fact, a missile should be even less detectable than an aircraft.
Ballistic missiles are incredibly difficult to intercept, certainly if launched in numbers. So a hypersonic glide weapon seems to offer little additional benefit but real difficulties in guidance systems that will have to deal with the plasma interference.
With so many shortfalls in our equipment, I don’t understand why the UK should devote large sums to a weapon we don’t need.

Spyinthesky
Spyinthesky (@guest_823969)
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter S

Risky to come to that conclusion at this stage. As I have stated before the U# are testing whether the plasma stream itself can be used as a stealth element while quantum guidance systems may be able to solve the guidance complexities. We can’t just presume that this technology is not required in my view, research will go a long way to determining it of course. It’s arguable that stealth in itself may not be so effective as time passes so a combination of stealth and speed may be vital come the thirties.

DaveyB.
DaveyB. (@guest_823972)
1 month ago
Reply to  Peter S

Part of the reason why China and Russia to a degree developed hypersonic glide vehicles, was that there was an exploitable gap in the US surface to air defences. Ostensibly the SM-3 and Ground Based Mid-course Defences (GMD) is designed to intercept an low earth orbiting missile and the re-entry vehicles. Then come the SM-6 and THAAD, these are designed to intercept t

DaveyB.
DaveyB. (@guest_823985)
1 month ago

A reason why China and Russia developed hypersonic glide vehicles, was that there was an exploitable gap in the US surface to air defences. Ostensibly the SM-3 and Ground Based Mid-course Defences (GMD) is designed to intercept a low earth orbiting missile and the re-entry vehicles. Then come the SM-6 and THAAD, these are designed to intercept the missile/re-entry vehicle as it re-enters the atmosphere. However, they had a ceiling limit of around 125,000ft. This meant there was a window between what the exoatmospheric weapons and endoatmospheric weapons can intercept. China developed a weapon to exploit this. This was the… Read more »

Supportive Bloke
Supportive Bloke (@guest_823989)
1 month ago
Reply to  DaveyB.

But at the risk of having to have RAF in theatre as opposed to a long range ground or sea launch?

Whilst I can see why RAF might want the gig there are a lot of calls on a very few frames.

CBE

DaveyB.
DaveyB. (@guest_824218)
1 month ago

Its why I originally considered a two weapons options, a surface and an air launched variant. The surface launched variant would be a direct replacement for TLAM to complement the surface launched FCASW. Whilst the air launched is for more tactical targets, due to the need to carry it internally.

Quentin D63
Quentin D63 (@guest_824001)
1 month ago
Reply to  DaveyB.

Do you think it might be an evolution of the Meteor which is only a tad slower at mach 4.5? With all these missiles, drones and precision munitions flying around, it’s making the battlefield a very brutal place. Hope the UK GBAD if and when it eventuates can handle these threats and isn’t mobile SHORAD/ VSHORAD needed more than ever now!?

DaveyB.
DaveyB. (@guest_824290)
1 month ago
Reply to  Quentin D63

In part you could very easily develop Meteor to be an air to surface weapon, much like HARM’s Stand-in Attack Weapon (SIAW). Where it could be used on targets of opportunity such a SRBM TELs. It would also make a cracking anti-radiation missile. As it has the speed to react and take out a painting radar, compared to the subsonic Spear-3. Which is better suited for planned targets. Could you make Meteor hypersonic (Mach 5+)? A very good question, in part the answer is yes. However, it would need a few tweeks to make sure it can sustain these speeds.… Read more »

Quentin D63
Quentin D63 (@guest_824326)
1 month ago
Reply to  DaveyB.

Thanks again Davey. Absolutely awesome knowledge on tap. Brilliant stuff. A really good read as always. 🚀

DaveyB.
DaveyB. (@guest_824355)
1 month ago
Reply to  Quentin D63

HI Quentin, no problem. Though noticed I didn’t give a view on the UK’s ability to counter hypersonic weapons or the VSHORAD question. So get a brew ready! In terms of VSHORAD/SHORAD, Starstreak has clearly demonstrated operationally its capability in Ukraine against, fixed wing aircraft, helicopters and drones. Also Martlet has shown it does very well when used against helicopters and drones. The SACLOS type target tracking won’t be able to cope with a ballistic threat with any degree of confidence. How does it detect the missile for starters? Plus Starstreak can only engage multiple targets in sequence. Though there… Read more »

Quentin D63
Quentin D63 (@guest_827767)
1 month ago
Reply to  DaveyB.

Evening Davey, it’s getting late here but I just read your post. Brilliant stuff. Thank you for a good read and on all the possible developments. I’m off to bed now, hope I’m not dreaming hypersonics missiles.. .lol 😁