Hypersonic Hype

It is the combined characteristics of high speed (reaching five times the speed of sound) and low altitude flight (below an altitude of 100km) that make hypersonic vehicles and weapons particularly formidable. While other missiles may travel faster than hypersonics, they follow a predictable, arched trajectory. Hypersonics, on the other hand, can sustain their high speeds while conducting unpredictable maneuvers at low altitudes (Figure 1). Consequently, hypersonics can defeat traditional missile defences, evading missile shields and early warning systems. Some argue that hypersonics are so effective, the best way to defeat them may be to target their launch sites – by the time they are airborne, it may be too little too late.

 Image Credit: Complex Air Defense, Tom Karako and Masao Dahlgren, page 14

The development of hypersonics is not new. The US began developing these weapons in the 1950s. However, since then, the US has arguably lost its hypersonic edge to Beijing. In 2021, China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic weapon. The weapon was launched into space and orbited the Earth before re-entering the atmosphere and gliding toward its target. The test was described by the US as ‘very concerning’ and the development referred to as ‘close to [a] Sputnik moment’ for Beijing. Russia has also developed hypersonic weapons, and has used its hypersonic Kinzhal missiles in Ukraine. Additionally, earlier this year, North Korean state media claimed that it had successfully tested a solid-fuel engine for its new intermediate-range hypersonic missile. If these media reports are to be believed, Pyongyang could hit targets more than 3,000km away from its shores. 

Recognising this ‘hypersonics gap’, the US has budgeted more than $15b for development and requisition for the years 2023 to 2027. In March, the US tested a hypersonic cruise missile in the Pacific; demonstrating it’s resolve to Beijing to remain competitive in this arena. Australia, South Korea, Germany, Israel, and Japan too are developing hypersonic programs. 

As part of AUKUS, the US, Australia and the UK are working together to develop hypersonic weapons and counter measures. Indeed, Australia’s AUKUS-class nuclear submarines will be capable of firing next-generation hypersonics. When asked how many missiles, Australian Submarine Agency director-general Jonathan Mead stated “many”. Launching these missiles from submarines would be a formidable combination. Due to China’s impressive air defences, effective underwater capabilities are essential to providing ‘access’ that would otherwise be impossible. The submarines could maneuver undetected, approaching enemy assets. The missile would eject from a launch tube by high-pressure gas and then only ignite once it was out of the water. The effect would be an intimidating combination of submarine stealth and hypersonic lethality. Notably, this will be a unique capability, as China does not have a submarine variant of their hypersonic weapons. 

1 June 2024 | Authored by Connor Andreatidis, Consultant, Precision Public Affairs

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