The big powers – the US, Russia and China – and the near-big powers such as India are all hard at work on developing hypersonic weapons. As these go from research, test and evaluation to actual fielding, the race is also on to find a way to counter the weapon systems.

At least one country, Russia, thinks it has an answer in its S-500 “Prometheus” anti-ballistic missile system. The Russians claim the S-500 is capable of destroying hypersonic cruise missiles at speeds higher than Mach 5.  

A hypersonic weapon is one that is defined as achieving speeds of Mach 5 or greater. So far at least, the Russians have conducted no tests against any hypersonic targets and the S-500 still is not deployed anywhere.

The US is going in a different direction, as are the Europeans, in at least setting up some sort of space-based defense system, on the theory that such a system will permit early detection and intercept of hypersonic weapons.  

A space-based defense system would identify a hypersonic weapon on launch, based primarily on the infrared (IR) signature of the booster rocket as it leaves the launch pad or silo.

The US has yet to define how it would respond to a hypersonic vehicle launch, particularly since current generation interceptors probably won’t work. Some in the Pentagon are thinking of space-based interceptors.  

There is also consideration being given to laser defense systems mounted on orbiting drones at 60,000 feet above the earth. In Europe, there is a different approach: a space-based detection system that is already partially funded and an advanced missile defense system that would be ground-based. 

That system is called TWISTER (Timely Warning and Interception with Space-based TheatER surveillance). Under TWISTER, an endo-atmospheric interceptor will be developed, led by MBDA, a consortium of Airbus, Leonardo and BAE Systems.   

According to MBDA: “This new endo-atmospheric interceptor will address a wide range of threats including, maneuvering ballistic missiles with intermediate ranges, hypersonic or high-supersonic cruise missiles, hypersonic gliders, anti-ship missiles and more conventional targets such as next-generation fighter aircraft. This Interceptor will integrate existing and future land and naval systems.”

A handout picture from the Israeli Ministry of Defence on July 28, 2019, shows the launch of the Arrow-3 hypersonic anti-ballistic missile at an undisclosed location in Alaska. Photo: AFP/Israeli Ministry of Defence

Both the US and the European systems are in the future and precise timetables are not available. With the new Biden administration and the new US Space Force under scrutiny, it is not certain where space-based missile defense will end up. The Union of Concerned Scientists says that “space-based missile defense is an ineffectual defense at best, and a very dangerous provocation at worst.”  

While the Trump administration would not find such arguments persuasive, that could well change with the new administration.

Hypersonic cruise missiles and glide vehicles

There are basically two basic types of hypersonic weapons. One category is cruise missiles, which can be launched from land, ship or aircraft. The Russian Zircon 3M22 can be launched from sea or air, or even from submarines. 

The weapon is short-range and will be used mainly in an anti-ship role. It is claimed it can reach a speed of Mach 8 or March 9. The Zircon 3M22 is powered by a scramjet engine but is rocket-launched – the scramjet takes over when there is sufficient airspeed and compression for it to function. 

Zircon has not fully entered service and testing continues – the latest sea trials were in October.

China claims it has a new hypersonic cruise missile that can be launched by its H-6N strategic bombers. There is no further information yet to confirm the claim.

India is building a new version of its BrahMos sea-skimming missile that will operate at Mach 7 or Mach 8. The project, dubbed BrahMos-II, like its predecessor missiles is a venture between the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) of India and the Federal State Unitary Enterprise NPO Mashinostroyenia (NPOM) of Russia.

Last April, the US Air Force began a process of asking US industry for information on developing a hypersonic cruise missile. While not specified as scramjet propulsion, the Air Force made clear it was looking for an air-breathing hypersonic cruise missile.  

In August, the Pentagon awarded Lockheed Martin its second multimillion-dollar contract to develop the AGM-183A Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon, or ARRW, hypersonic missile.

This is a so-called “boost-glide” vehicle that could be carried on US strategic bombers, most likely the B-52. This weapon, when developed, is projected to have a range of 1,000 miles. Exactly what kind of warhead and how large is not public information. The AGM-183A is projected to reach Mach 20.

A Russian Avangard hypersonic missile before being installed into a silo in Orenburg region, Russia. Photo: AFP/Russian Defence Ministry

The Russian Avanguard (rated at above Mach 20) and the Chinese  DF-ZF are examples of glide vehicles that are launched from rockets and re-enter the atmosphere at very high speed. Because they are designed to glide in the atmosphere they can ride in at a reduced glide angle and can be maneuverable. 

Both the Russian and Chinese glide vehicles are equipped with nuclear warheads. Russia claims it has already deployed Avanguard starting in November 2019 as part of its strategic nuclear forces.

As of today there are no known missile defenses that can defend against a high-speed hypersonic glide vehicle, and certainly, none that can respond quickly enough if the vehicle’s target is unpredictable until the last few seconds, a feature that is attributed to glide vehicles like the Avanguard.

Some existing shipboard and land-based missile defense systems may have a better chance against hypersonic cruise missiles, although this is primarily based on the lower speed of air-breathing hypersonic cruise missiles and that present-day hypersonic cruise missiles follow a fixed flight path. 

One of the reasons the US Navy is upgrading older SPY radars on its Flight IIA Arleigh Burke-class destroyers (using SPY-6 radars built by Raytheon) is to improve its AEGIS ballistic missile defense system so it can more easily detect and destroy Chinese and Russian hypersonic cruise missiles. The new Spy-6 radars use gallium nitride technology.

The Rand Corporation, a leading think tank that supports the Department of Defense in the US, thinks the only answer to hypersonic weapons are arms treaties. Rand is proposing the Missile Technology Control Regime as a way of containing the spread of hypersonic weapons. 

On October 10, 2020, new North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles were on display during a military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea, on Kim Il Sung square in Pyongyang. Photo: AFP/ KCNA

Unfortunately, the MTCR has failed to control missiles of all kinds since it went into force in 1987. Since then China has vastly expanded its missile forces, North Korea has developed its first ICBMs and Iran has become a missile threat in the Middle East.

Perhaps it could be possible to put a lid on the development and deployment of hypersonic systems through a type of arms limitation agreement. But there are two flies in the ointment: China and Russia think they are ahead of the United States and may be unwilling to even engage on the issue; China has steadfastly refused to take part in arms limitations agreements.

In fact, one of the primary reasons the US decided to end its participation in the Intermediate Nuclear Forces agreement with Russia was because it perceived it as limiting what it could do to balance China’s growing mid-range missile forces.

Meanwhile, the race to find solutions to hypersonic weapons will have increased emphasis. The US will spend $3.2 billion in the fiscal year 2021 on hypersonic systems, of which $206.8 million will go to hypersonic defense systems. Readers should expect that number to jump up if the US finally commits to space-based defenses.