Will Hypersonic Weapons Mean a New Arms Race?
Matthew Greenwood posted on June 14, 2019 |
China, the U.S. and Russia are all developing maneuverable missiles that can exceed Mach 5.

The U.S., China and Russia are in a race with each other to develop hypersonic weapons, causing concerns that the countries may be entering a new arms race.

Hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs) are a new generation of ballistic missile warheads that are more maneuverable than their Cold War predecessors.

Conventional ballistic missile warheads are attached to the top of a missile and are boosted into space, reentering the atmosphere thousands of miles away. But while hypersonic missiles are also launched atop missiles—or sometimes launched from high-flying aircraft—they stop short of leaving the atmosphere. Instead of powering to their targets, they glide at hypersonic speeds—that’s Mach 5 and above—before descending to their targets.

As a result, these weapons are harder to track and intercept than a conventional intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). They also travel beneath the typical scanning range of existing ballistic missile defense radars, which gives defense systems much less time to detect and intercept them.

Once HGVs begin their descent they move slower than an ICBM and are more easily visible—but they compensate for this by being more maneuverable and harder to intercept.

“We don’t currently have effective defenses against hypersonic weapons because of the way they fly, i.e., they’re maneuverable and fly at an altitude that our current defense systems are not designed to operate at,” said General John Hyten, chief of the U.S. Strategic Command.

A new variant of the HGV promises to be even faster: the waverider. Hypersonic weapons achieve their maximum speed partly by riding the shockwave created when they break the sound barrier. Waveriders create not one but two sonic booms thanks to their wedge shape—and they ride the dual shockwave to speeds that surpass Mach 8.

Dual-capable HGVs are a particular concern as these weapons can carry both conventional and nuclear payloads.

The technology behind HGVs is nothing new. But advances in materials, weapons development and rising global tensions have brought the technology to the forefront of missile systems among the world’s great powers.

Here is a breakdown of the state of hypersonic weapons development in China, Russia and the U.S.


Dong Feng-17 (“East Wind”)

The DF-17, which is expected to be operational in 2020, has an estimated range of up to 1,500 miles. The Chinese military claims the weapon could sink an American aircraft carrier—and that it could hit any target in the world within half an hour (despite the 1,500-mile limitation).

The DF-17 isn’t considered to be a game changer—at least not in the U.S. It would have a temporary advantage until U.S. defense systems such as THAAD are upgraded to counter it. But against a less technologically sophisticated opponent such as India it would be significantly more effective.

Xingkong-2 (“Starry Sky”)

The Starry Sky is a waverider that was first tested in 2018. China claims it reached speeds of over 7,300 kph. The aircraft flew at an altitude of 30 kilometers, performed some maneuvers, and tested several technologies, including a heat-balance thermal protection system. In addition, the flight vehicle was fully recovered.

“The trajectory of a waverider is relatively unpredictable in the glide, and it flies so fast that it poses an extreme challenge to current anti-missile defense systems,” military expert Song Zhongping told the state-controlled Global Times.

“The test showed that China is advancing shoulder to shoulder with the U.S. and Russia,” Song said.



The Avangard is a nuclear-capable HGV that was announced in a speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin in March 2018. Russia claims it will be deployed as early as this year.

The missile has a range of over 6,000km, weighs approximately 2,000kg, and can carry a nuclear or conventional payload. Putin claimed the HGV can maintain atmospheric speeds of up to Mach 20!

The Avangard will likely be launched atop Russia’s powerful Sarmat rocket, which is powerful enough to fly a South Pole route toward U.S. targets. It will apparently be equipped with a single massive thermonuclear warhead that has a yield exceeding two megatons—giving it considerably greater destructive power than a typical ICBM, which usually has a maximum 500 kilotons payload.

Russia claims it has a new “invincible” nuclear missile.

The Avangard is a culmination of Russian hypersonic weapons research that dates back to the mid-1980s.

Kinzal (“Dagger”)

Developed for use by Russian air forces, the Kinzhal is an air-launched nuclear-capable missile that can be launched from an aircraft at high altitude, and can travel at speeds of Mach 10 over a range of around 1,200 miles—and even up to Mach 12 over shorter distances.

United States

Unlike Russia and China, whose weapons are dual-capable systems, the United States is focusing on conventional-only systems for its Prompt Global Strike project.

The U.S. Army is working on a glide vehicle—the maneuverable part of the missile—while the Navy is building the weapon’s rocket booster. Once paired, the weapon would be used across the different branches of the military, though the Air Force will need its own booster to launch the weapon from aircraft. The Army is also working on a mobile artillery battery for the missiles that would fit on the back of a 40-ton trailer, while the Navy will need to develop a different launch system for its ships and submarines. The military expects the system to be deployable by 2023.

After leading hypersonic weapons development for decades, the U.S. is in danger of falling behind its competitors. But the Pentagon has declared hypersonics to be its number one research and development technical priority, and the president’s recent budget request proposes allocating almost $3 billion to develop hypersonic weapons and defense systems against potential adversaries’ hypersonic weapons.

Read more about hypersonic weapons at Is China’s Reusable Hypersonic Space Launcher Actually a Weapon?

leading a pack of 23 countries to date have shown some capacity for developing these weapons, but China, Russia and the U.S. are at the head of the pack. These three global superpowers are all pushing to develop the technology.

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