They travel many times faster than sound, and defending against them won’t be easy. Oh, and by the way, the United States, Russia, China and India all want them.

Here’s how you face the global threats of the future: with a new type of missile so fast it could travel from New York to Los Angeles in 39 minutes flat.

According to some analysts, the development of hypersonic weapons creates the conditions for a new arms race, and could risk nuclear escalation. Given that the course of hypersonic research has acknowledged both of these concerns, why have several countries started testing the weapons?

A hypersonic missile heats up as it accelerates through the atmosphere. Its sensitive inner electronics must be protected from blazing temperatures without adding extra weight, which can affect speed and guidance. Raytheon is using advanced materials to build heat shields that cocoon and shield the electronics inside the missile.

It’s also challenging to control the missile’s guidance systems at high speeds. With decades of expertise in advanced guided weapon systems,

The United States is building hypersonics for two reasons. First, we want to kill people fast, without the messy danger of a global thermonuclear war. Second, we want to be able to punch through the defensive systems of peer competitors.

Unfortunately, these two justifications contradict one another. Given that China, Russia and even India appear on their way to similar systems, we should take care before letting the technology outpace the politics.

What Are Hypersonic Weapons?

The term “hypersonic” generally refers to a class of long-range precision strike weapons that travel at Mach 5 or better. This definition generally excludes such munitions as the LRLAP (long-range land attack projectile), fired by the Advanced Gun System, which can only travel sixty miles, as well as traditional cruise missiles such as the Tomahawk, which travel under the speed of sound.

Medium-range, conventionally armed ballistic missiles with precision-guidance (such as those operated by China and Russia) are arguably hypersonic weapons. The United States doesn’t operate any of this type, but it provides effectively the same capability as that offered by new hypersonic systems.

Indeed, initial U.S. plans for hypersonic-capable systems concentrated on conventionally armed ballistic missiles, but concerns over attribution and identification (conventional missiles look a lot like nuclear missiles to Russia and China) have shifted attention in the direction of suborbital platforms, including cruise missiles.

The United States is working on the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon, a long-range, land-based glide vehicle that operates within the atmosphere in order to avoid the appearance of a ballistic missile. The United States has also done work on the X-51 “Waverider,” an air-launched, scramjet-powered vehicle capable of Mach 6.

China’s hypersonic vehicle, the WU-14, appears geared toward defeating U.S. ballistic-missile defense systems. Approaching at high speed through a depressed trajectory, it would attempt to exploit a seam between ballistic missile and traditional air-defense capabilities. Russia is apparently working on an array of hypersonic systems, which would include air- and sea-launched missiles that could target land and naval targets.

Why Have Them?

For the United States, hypersonic vehicles promise the ability to kill anyone, anywhere, on short notice. This capability become a key goal of U.S. security policy with the rise of Al Qaeda in the late 1990s, and the failure of traditional weapons to decapitate the organization before it could launch the September 11 attacks. More recently, the United States has begun to explore how hypersonics could help break apart an A2/AD system, or destroy nuclear or chemical munitions in preemptive anticipation of a launch.

Russia and China face different incentives. The Russians surely understand the appeal of decapitation, but they rarely have the same need to strike across the globe at a moment’s notice. Similarly, the Chinese tend to have more local concerns. The logic behind Chinese and Russian developments lies in the pursuit of anti-access capabilities, as well as the need to keep up with the Americans. Hypersonic strike vehicles could provide a potentially indefensible means of attacking American and allied military installations, as well as U.S. Navy ships at sea.

Is there a hypersonic arms race? Simply because three powers appear to be working along similar lines does not necessarily mean that they’re working against one another; technological imperatives can push everyone in the same direction. We should expect that their strategic interests will push development in different directions, even if the three countries watch each other warily.

An artistic rendering of a hypersonic aircraft / AP
An artist’s rendering illustrates what a hypersonic missile could look like as it travels along the edge of Earth’s atmosphere.

China successfully flight tested its new high-speed maneuvering warhead last week, days after Russia carried out its own hypersonic glider test, according to Pentagon officials.

The test of the developmental DF-ZF hypersonic glide vehicle was monitored after launch Friday atop a ballistic missile fired from the Wuzhai missile launch center in central China, said officials familiar with reports of the test.

The maneuvering glider, traveling at several thousand miles per hour, was tracked by satellites as it flew west along the edge of the atmosphere to an impact area in the western part of the country.

It was the seventh successful flight test of the revolutionary glider, which travels at speeds between 4,000 and 7,000 miles per hour.

U.S. intelligence officials have assessed that China plans to use the glider to deliver nuclear weapons through increasingly sophisticated missile defenses. The DF-ZF also could be used as part of a conventional strategic strike weapon capable of hitting targets around the world within an hour.

Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Bill Urban declined to comment on the latest DF-ZF flight test. “But we do monitor Chinese military modernization carefully,” Urban said.

Rep. Randy Forbes (R., Va.), chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on seapower, said China’s hypersonic missile tests are a concern.

“China’s repeated test of a hypersonic glide vehicle demonstrates Beijing is committed to upending both the conventional military and nuclear balance, with grave implications for the stability of Asia,” Forbes told theWashington Free Beacon.

Adm. Cecil Haney, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, said Jan. 22 that the new hypersonic glide vehicle is among an array of high-technology missiles and weapons, both nuclear and conventional, being developed and deployed by Beijing.

China “recently conducted its sixth successful test of a hypersonic glide vehicle, and as we saw in September last year, is parading missiles clearly displaying their modernization and capability advancements,” Haney said.

China has kept details about the DF-ZF program secret. In March 2015, a Defense Ministry spokesman confirmed one of the hypersonic missile tests after the test was reported in the Free Beacon. The spokesman said the missile test was not aimed at any country and was done for scientific research.

Earlier DF-ZF tests were carried out Nov. 23, Aug. 19, June 7, and on Jan. 9, 2014, Aug. 7, 2014, and Dec. 2, 2014. During at least one test, the maneuvering glider conducted what a defense official said were “extreme maneuvers” at speeds between Mach 5 and Mach 10.

All the tests were first disclosed by the Free Beacon.

Extensive testing and reported successes are indications the new weapon is nearing initial operating capability, although deployment may be years away.

The congressional U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission stated in its most recent annual report that the hypersonic glide vehicle program was “progressing rapidly” and that the new strike weapon could be deployed by 2020.

A powered version also is in development and could be fielded by 2025.

“The very high speeds of these weapons, combined with their maneuverability and ability to travel at lower, radar-evading altitudes, would make them far less vulnerable than existing missiles to current missile defenses,” the commission report said.

Li Bingyan, a researcher at China’s National Security Policy Committee, stated in a defense industry journal article published Jan. 27 that hypersonic weapons offer increased speed of attack. “Only by matching the real-time information with the zero-time firepower can one achieve the operational result of destruction upon detection,” Li stated.

China also is taking steps to strengthen its underground missile silos and facilities to withstand precision strikes by hypersonic missiles, such as those planned under the Pentagon’s Prompt Global Strike program.

The latest Chinese hypersonic glide vehicle test was conducted three days after Russia carried out a flight test of its experimental hypersonic glide vehicle. That glider test involved the launch of an SS-19 ballistic missile fired from a missile base in eastern Russia.

The two tests highlight what many analysts have called a new hypersonic arms race among China, Russia, and the United States. India also is working on hypersonic arms.

As radar, sensors, and missile interceptors used to counter missile threats increase in capability, hypersonic maneuvering missiles are viewed as a technological leap in strike capabilities to overcome them, analysts say.

Mark Schneider, a former Pentagon strategic forces specialist, said the new Chinese hypersonic glider is a serious threat.

“In testimony before the congressional China commission, an Air Force intelligence analyst revealed that it is nuclear armed although there could also be a conventional version,” Schneider said.

“The Chinese probably see this as one of their ‘assassin’s mace’ weapons which are designed to defeat the U.S.”

According to Schneider, a National Academy of Science study concluded that hypersonic speed was the equivalent very high levels of radar-evading stealth features against air and missile defenses.

“Hypersonic speed also gets you to the target very fast which may be decisive in dealing with mobile targets,” he said.

Retired Navy Capt. Jim Fanell, a former Pacific Fleet intelligence director, said the latest flight test of the DF-ZF represents another demonstration of China’s commitment to aggressively develop asymmetric power projection capabilities and a weapon that could undermine U.S. missile defenses.

“The threat of hypersonic missile attack not only impacts conventional warfare scenarios like we are seeing develop in the South and East China Sea, but it also puts U.S. nuclear defense strategies at risk as well,” Fanell said.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin told the newspaper Kommersant in October 2012 that the nation that masters hypersonic weapons first would revolutionize warfare. He compared the strategic significance of the high-speed weapons to development of the first atomic bombs.

By contrast, the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency is doing little to deal with the emerging hypersonic missile threat. America Should Fear China’s Hypersonic Nuclear Missile



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