What is a Hypersonic Missile and Who's Using Them?



Hypersonic missile systems are highly maneuverable, travel many times the speed of sound, and allow for the destruction of targets anywhere in the world in less than an hour. Hypersonic weapons are a growing and extremely complex threat to our national interests. Potential targets range from leaders of terrorist organizations to a nation’s critical command and control facilities. Currently, 23 nations have demonstrated varying degrees of expertise in hypersonic technology…a number that continues to grow daily. Hypersonic is really about industrialization, not about science…Are we technically prepared?

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What is a Hypersonic Missile?

A hypersonic missile travels at speeds of Mach 5 and higher - five times faster than the speed of sound (3836 mph), which is around 1 mile per second. Some missiles like Russia’s Kh-47M2 Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile, are allegedly capable of reaching Mach 10 speeds (7672 mph) and distances up to 1200 miles.

In comparison, the US Tomahawk cruise missile – the U.S. Navy and Royal Navy’s go-to long range missile-system – is subsonic, travelling around 550 mph and travelling a maximum distance around 1500 miles.

Hypersonic missiles come in two variants: Hypersonic cruise missiles & Hypersonic glide vehicles.

The hypersonic cruise missile reaches its target with the help of a high-speed jet engine that allows it to travel at extreme speeds, in excess of Mach-5. It is non-ballistic - the opposite of traditional Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) which utilizes gravitational forces to reach its target.

The latter type of hypersonic missile utilizes re-entry vehicles. Initially, the missile is launched into space on an arching trajectory, where the warheads are released and fall towards the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds. Rather than leaving the payload at the mercy of gravitational forces – as is the case for traditional ICBMs – the warheads are attached to a glide vehicle which re-enters the atmosphere, and through its aerodynamic shape it can ride the shockwaves generated by its own lift as it breaches the speed of sound, giving it enough speed to overcome existing missile defense systems. The glide vehicle surfs on the atmosphere between 40-100km in altitude and reaches its destination by leveraging aerodynamic forces.

When hypersonic missiles become operational, the gap between missile defense systems and missile offence will be huge. Simply put, there is no single operational missile defense system that is capable of intercepting a hypersonic missile.


Subsonic missiles are slower than the speed of sound. Most well-known missiles fall into this category, such as the US Tomahawk cruise missile, the French Exocet, and the Indian Nirbhay. Subsonic missiles travel at a speed around Mach-0.9 (705 mph). Nevertheless, they still play a huge role in modern battlefields. Not only are they substantially cheaper to produce, but subsonic missiles provide an additional layer of strategic value due to its low speed and small size.

Once a subsonic missile has been launched, it can loiter in proximity to its intended target, as a result of its fuel efficiency. This, combined with its comparatively low speed, gives senior military decision-makers ample time to decide if a strike should be continued or abandoned. Comparatively, a hypersonic or supersonic missile compresses the time afforded to senior decisions makers into a matter of minutes.

Supersonic missiles exceed the speed of sound (Mach 1) but not faster than Mach-3. Most supersonic missiles travel at a speed between Mach-2 and Mach-3, which is up to 2,300 mph. The most well-known supersonic missile is the Indian/Russian BrahMos, currently the fastest operational supersonic missile capable of speeds around 2,100–2,300 mph.

Hypersonic missiles exceed Mach-5 (3,800 mph) and are five times faster than the speed of sound. There are no current systems able to counter them.

Who's Developing Hypersonic Technology?


Since 2011, the Royal Navy and the French Navy have also been co-developing a hypersonic missile designed to replace the ageing Harpoon and Exocet, respectively. The missile, Perseus, is expected to feature an agile and stealthy airframe that is powered by a ramjet motor built around a high compact Continuous Detonation Wave Engine. It is expected to come into service around 2030.


China has a number of ongoing hypersonic projects. The nation is reportedly close to deploying a ballistic missile-launched hypersonic glide vehicle, the DF-17 and has publicly exhibited a scramjet-powered missile, the Ling Yun.

Chinese operational doctrine calls for a weapon that would ward of US carrier groups, keeping them out of their operational range. The DF-ZF is a short to mid-range hypersonic missile glide vehicle and – when operational – would be able to largely mitigate any potential threat stemming from US carrier groups, fulfilling a long-term strategic goal without having to compete through naval strength.

In addition, China has also allegedly performed successful tests of the Starry Sky-2 hypersonic vehicle. The Starry Sky-2 can achieve a top speed of Mach 6 (4603 mph), switch direction mid-flight and can carry a payload consisting of either conventional warheads or nuclear weapons. It will likely take China another five years to make the weapon operational.


Russian doctrine calls for short and long-range capability, as the Kremlin will have to contend with European NATO members as well as the US on the other side of the Atlantic. As such, Russia has an array of missiles that fit this purpose, such as the U-71, BrahMos II and the 3m22 Zircon.

Russia has deployed an operational hypersonic system, the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile, capable reportedly of attaining a speed of Mach 10 and a range of 1700 miles, and is believed to be close to deploying a hypersonic cruise missile, the 3K22 Tsirkon. The Tsirkon, a sea-and ground-launched missile are intended to attain high supersonic to hypersonic speeds, between Mach 4.5 and Mach 6, and have a range of 300-620 miles. Russia has also developed an intercontinental ballistic missile-launched hypersonic glide vehicle, Avangard, which may enter service in 2019.


The Pentagon's 2019 budget reflects the department's growing interest and concern, with approximately $2 billion expected to be allocated during the current fiscal year. In addition, the funding for key hypersonic programs has also increased from $201 million in 2018 to $278 million in 2019.

US Air Force

In April 2018, the Air Force awarded work on the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon under a contract valued at $928 million. This was followed by a successful bid to develop the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon.

The US Air Force is developing a range of advanced hypersonic systems and has recently awarded Lockheed Martin contracts for the development of two systems: the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon ($928 million) and AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon ($480m).

US Navy

The United States Navy is already close to outfitting its ships with a 150-kilowatt laser that will be able to target missiles, drones and other modern threats. It conducted its own hypersonic test during a summer 2018 wargame near Hawaii. In the test, a destroyer fired hypervelocity projectiles featuring fins and a radar guidance system to address targets traveling at hypersonic speeds. In theory, these hypervelocity projectiles could potentially target ships, ground targets, aircraft, and even incoming missiles.

US Army

Army efforts are focused on the Alternate Re-Entry System, which is essentially a maneuverable warhead that could be launched from Air Force bombers, Navy vessels, and Army launchers. In November 2011, the Army's Space and Missile Defense Command successfully launched an Advanced Hypersonic Weapon (AHW) from the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii to the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site at the Kwajalein Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands.

The Army’s path for fast-tracking both hypersonic and directed-energy systems began in late 2018, when it renamed and refocused the efforts of the Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office (RCCTO). As part of the overall Army modernization strategy, Army leaders asked RCCTO to lead the hypersonic and directed-energy efforts as they transition from the science and technology (S&T) community and into the hands of operational units. Immediately, RCCTO moved out with the two missions and in turn set a new course of delivering experimental prototypes with residual combat capability.


A key objective of hypersonic research at NASA is to develop methods and tools that adequately model fundamental physics and allow credible physics-based optimization for future operational hypersonic vehicle systems. Research focuses on solving some of the most difficult challenges in hypersonic flight, and Armstrong innovators are contributing to this research in several ways:

  • Exploring adaptive guidance systems that could detect conditions likely to result in dangerous situations and automate compensating maneuvers
  • Modeling high-altitude environments to improve flight planning designs for high-speed vehicles
  • Designing high-temperature insulative and advanced composite materials

Raytheon is pursuing several hypersonic weapon platforms with complementary, versatile capabilities. Deployable from land, sea and air, these weapons will be able to perform multiple missions. Raytheon is also developing counter-hypersonic solutions designed to stop enemy hypersonic weapons. The Tactical Boost Glide hypersonic weapons program $175 million contract by DARPA.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in conjunction with industry partners is working on a hypersonic tactical boost-glide weapon. The defense industry is also involved in DARPA's Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept competition and possibly developing a sea-launched boost-glide capability for the Navy.

The Hypersonic Threat

It is important to highlight the offensive and defensive aspects of hypersonic weapons. On the one hand, this technology provides a nation with the ability to quickly strike time-sensitive targets at great range. On the other hand, it presents many challenges defending critical assets from incoming hypersonic weapons. From a deterrence standpoint, hypersonic weapons have value when incorporating both offensive and defensive capabilities. Potential adversaries will likely think twice before employing hypersonic weapons against a nation that possesses both a credible defense and the ability to respond offensively.


The development and deployment of hypersonic weapon systems will provide states with significantly enhanced strike capabilities and potentially, the means to coerce. This will be the case where a major regional power, such as Russia or other foreign power may seek to coerce a neighbor, leveraging the threat of hypersonic strikes against critical targets. As such, the proliferation of hypersonic capabilities to regional states could also be destabilizing, upsetting local balances of power. However, it could also strengthen deterrence.

Consider the implications of Iran deploying hypersonic weapons versus an Israeli deployment. Hypersonic weapons may also be problematic in terms of escalation control in the context of a NATO-Russia or US-China confrontation. This concerns dual-capable systems, that is, systems with both conventional and nuclear capabilities.

The development of submarine-launched hypersonic missiles would raise the potential threat – real or perceived – of attempted decapitation strikes, utilizing the combination of the inherent stealth of a nuclear-powered submarine and the speed of a hypersonic missile.


Although there are no current countermeasures in place, technologies such as directed energy weapons, particle beams and other non-kinetic weapons will be likely candidates for an effective defense against hypersonic missiles. Hypersonic weapons reduce the time required to prosecute a target (especially compared to current subsonic cruise missiles), the warning time available to an adversary, and the time available for defensive systems to engage the incoming threat.

Although hypersonic threats would pose a significant challenge to current surface-to-air and air-to-air missile systems, such systems would, particularly in the conventional precision strike role, require a robust intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) network.

Targeting the supporting network kinetically and through means such as cyber and electronic attacks could significantly degrade the operational effectiveness of long-range hypersonic weapons. In addition, counterforce operations targeting the launch platforms ‘left-of-launch’ can be undertaken, although, this may not be possible in the case of long-range systems such as the Kinzhal and Avangard. In the mid-to-long term, directed energy weapons and electromagnetic rail guns, as well as enhanced performance missile interceptors, could provide defense against hypersonic threats.

Another countermeasure has been proposed by the Missile Defense Agency. A network of space-based satellites and sensors would theoretically be able to track hypersonic glide vehicles globally. This would be a huge first step in hypersonic missile defense. In addition, Lockheed Martin was awarded a $2.9 billion contract to develop Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared Satellites. There is a high chance that these satellites will aim to fill the hole that exists for early supersonic/hypersonic detection. Looking towards 2020, where new capabilities will be fielded, it is uncertain as to what new deterrence frameworks will be implemented.

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Jan 2020

By: William Jordan