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Hypersonic Weapons: Who Has Them and Why It Matters

They’re so fast, their speed can change the surrounding air molecules. They can carry a nuclear warhead, fly low and be hard to detect. Such weapons are also at the center of escalating competition between the U.S. and Russia and China. Russia claims that it used hypersonic weapons, Kinzhal missiles, for the first time in combat in Ukraine. Though the Kinzhal travels at hypersonic speeds, it doesn’t fall into the category that arms experts mean when they talk about hypersonic weapons. 

1. What are hypersonic weapons?

They are normally defined as fast, low-flying, and highly maneuverable weapons designed to be too quick and agile for traditional missile defense systems to detect in time. Unlike ballistic missiles, hypersonic weapons don’t follow a predetermined, arched trajectory and can maneuver on the way to their destination, according to the Congressional Research Service. The term “hypersonic” describes any speed faster than five times that of sound, which is roughly 760 miles (1,220 kilometers) per hour at sea level, meaning these weapons can travel at least 3,800 miles per hour. At hypersonic speeds, the air molecules around the flight vehicle start to change, breaking apart or gaining a charge in a process called ionization. This subjects the hypersonic vehicle to “tremendous” stresses as it pushes through the atmosphere, according to a 2018 U.S. Army paper.

2. What are the different kinds of hypersonic weapons? 

There are two main types--glide vehicles and cruise missiles. Most of the attention is focused on the former, which are launched from a rocket before gliding to their target, because of the challenges of achieving hypersonic propulsion of missiles. The missiles have engines called scramjets that use the air’s oxygen and produce thrust during their flight, allowing them to cruise at a steady speed and altitude.  

3. How is Russia’s Kinzhal missile different?

It’s a ballistic missile. And although it reaches hypersonic speeds, that’s true of nearly all ballistic missiles at some point during their path. Rather than a new system, the Kinzhal is thought to be derived from Russia’s ground-launched 9K720 Iskander-M, a short-range ballistic missile. Russia’s Ministry of Defense said it used Kinzhal, or Dagger, missiles in Ukraine to destroy a weapons cache and fuel depot on March 18 and 20. The missiles, which were fired from a plane, can carry conventional or nuclear warheads.

4. Who has hypersonic weapons? 

China, the U.S., and Russia have the most advanced capabilities, and several other countries are investigating the technology, including India, Japan, Australia, France, Germany and North Korea, which claims to have tested a hypersonic missile.

• Russia: Russia’s Avangard is a glide vehicle launched from an intercontinental ballistic missile and will reportedly carry a nuclear warhead. Russian news sources claim it entered combat duty in December 2019. Tsirkon is a ship-launched cruise missile said to be capable of striking both ground and naval targets.

• China: Its military conducted possibly two hypersonic weapons tests over last summer, including the launch into space of an orbiting hypersonic weapon capable of carrying a nuclear payload. The Financial Times first reported the tests. China has disputed reports of the tests, saying it simply launched a reusable space vehicle. Previously, China conducted a number of successful tests of the DF-17, a medium-range ballistic missile designed to launch hypersonic glide vehicles. U.S. intelligence analysts assess that it may now be deployed. China has also tested the DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile, which could be modified to carry a conventional or nuclear glide vehicle.

• The U.S.: Gregory Hayes, chief executive officer of U.S. defense contractor Raytheon Technologies Corp., told Bloomberg TV Oct. 26 that the U.S. is “at least several years behind” China in hypersonic technology despite significant investment. Development funding increased approximately 740% in the five years before 2020 and is expected to total almost $15 billion between 2015 and 2024, not including production costs. The U.S. Navy leads the development of a glide vehicle for use across the military branches, while the Air Force is working on an air-launched glider. The government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, with Air Force support, is developing an air-launched hypersonic cruise missile, according to CRS.

5. What’s the significance of hypersonic weapons?

In an appearance on Bloomberg TV, General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, likened China’s suspected tests of a hypersonic weapons system last year to a “Sputnik moment,” a reference to the Soviet Union’s pioneering launch of a satellite in 1957, giving it an early lead in the space race and shocking the U.S. Hypersonic weapons are very difficult to counter using existing defenses. U.S. officials say that American hypersonic weapons, unlike those being developed in China and Russia, are being designed to carry conventional rather than nuclear weapons. But this provides scant reassurance to potential U.S. adversaries, who would have no way of knowing whether such a weapon in fact carried a nuclear warhead while it was in flight. The pursuit of these systems by China and Russia reflects a concern that U.S. hypersonic weapons could enable America to conduct a preemptive, decapitating strike on their nuclear arsenals and supporting infrastructure. U.S. missile defense deployments could then limit their ability to conduct a retaliatory strike against the U.S.

(Updates with Russian claim to have used Kinzhal missiles in Ukraine)

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