26 March 2020

The hypersonic missiles race continues

Cristian Eremia

The 2020-2022 period should be the one to clarify who won the global strategic competition for hypersonic missiles – the US, or China and Russia. These three major actors are investing a lot in their hypersonic missiles technologies, each of them having their own political estimations on whether these missiles will truly be a “game changer” in the military businesses or will help the possessor to impose himself as leader in the further international order system.

Image source: ProfiMedia

The fight for global military supremacy has earned notoriety. During these days of serious and tragic pandemic, the international analytical circles are highlighting the intensification of the more or less “discrete” Chinese propaganda, which will led, after the pandemic, to the opportunity for China to become the central actor in the new world order. Only a few months ago, the same Chinese “multi-dimensional” propaganda was underscoring the most modern and dangerous military technologies this country has – the hypersonic weapons. In line with the already known Russian propaganda, the Russian president was calling himself, a few weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic to take the West, the possessor of world’s invincible hypersonic weapons. Given this background, the Pentagon seems to be the slowest in developing hypersonic missiles, hereof the warnings of some American military leaders that US could be left behind and threatened by China and Russia, particularly when using hypersonic missiles with nuclear explosive charge.

Technological approaches

The existent hypersonic missiles technologies and studies are focused on the missile production which has an at least five times greater speed than the speed of sound – bigger than 5 Mach, meaning  4, 000 km/h, while keeping an acceptable manoeuvrability during its trajectory to the target. In the literature, experts describe two types of main technologies for the hypersonic missiles. The first technology (with a charger that’s similar to the intercontinental missiles – ICBM, or the ballistic missiles launched from submarines – SLBM) creates a hypersonic vehicle transported on trajectory’s initial side by a conventional carrier ballistic missile. When opportune, the hypersonic vehicles decouples the carrier and goes towards the target with hypersonic speed, sometimes with a speed that crosses the 15 Mach, being extremely hard to intercept. The second technology mainly involves the creation of hypersonic cruise missiles. These missiles can be launched from surface maritime ships and aircrafts, as they have missile engines able to give them hypersonic speeds during the whole flight.

Producers’ efforts are mainly focused on developing systems to offer them maximum manoeuvrability, as well as the ability to direct of self-direct towards the target, in other words, technical-tactical characteristics that are enough advanced to get the maximum  results while being used in the fight. Given that the hypersonic missile speed is extremely big, one of the things the producers are facing is providing the trajectory manoeuvrability, which can hardly be achieved technically, comparing to classical missiles. The “hypersonic speed – enough manoeuvrability” combination allows the hypersonic missiles to have untraceable developments and, therefore, to avoid or to be difficult to track and intercept by modern anti-missile defence systems.

The hypersonic missiles may have conventional or nuclear warheads. Another problem faced by developers of hypersonic weapons is the accuracy of targets’ strike. According to experts, the accuracy of targets’ hits would be lower than in the "Nuclear Triad" missiles, at least in the US and Russia. This would be the reason why US builders are focusing on the "conventional" approach to developing missile technologies, precisely because the exacting requirements for targets’ strike by hypersonic missiles are not met. This could justify some of the delays in the US dedication of hypersonic missile technologies - at least compared to Russia.

Will the hypersonic missiles be a “game-changer” in the military businesses?

The military impact of hypersonic weapons is somehow differently evaluated and interpreted by the military strategists of states which are concerned with the hypersonic missiles production. There are military expertise centers which are including the hypersonic missiles and, basically, the new missiles technologies, in the category of strategic game changer weapons.

There are also Western expertises which think the new missiles technologies’ impact would not be that spectacular as they call it. However, the Russian military experts and political leaders think that such missiles are “invincible”, able to get the American anti-missile shields out of the fight or the strategic stability equation. According to them, the hypersonic weapons development is the most effective way to combat the current and future American anti-missile defence technologies’ progresses. Although the official transparency rate on efforts on the armament with new technologies is extremely low in China’s case, one can only consider that the Chinese military strategists have similar visions to Russians’ ones. Furthermore, Russia and China will have new weapons to combat the American military systems and, if possible, to win the strategic military superiority.  If so, in developed army states, the political-military officials think the hypersonic missiles are able to offer the possessor the deterrence capacity, but also the one to strategically surprise or militarily intimidate the strategic enemies.

However, we can hardly talk about the real impact and strategic effects of hypersonic weapons, without considering the American capabilities of improving missile defence systems. Especially since there are some aspects of missile defence that can no longer be ignored. First, missile defence technologies, as well as the production technologies of hypersonic missiles, are still in their initial technological developments phase. The US is virtually the only player in the world to have the most important number of effective high-performance missile defence systems. The consolidation potential of these systems is also wide and far from having reached the technical limits. And this despite political buts expressed at the highest political level, by Russia and China, according to which the American anti-missile shield elements deployed in Europe and East Asia would induce a strong strategic destabilization. US capabilities are explicitly deployed and politically declared to counter Iran and North Korea, and not states in the "strategic competitor" category, such as Russia, which owns a large number of nuclear weapons.    

On the other hand, there is a series of debates on some difficulties that the US would face in producing hypersonic missiles and even on the possibilities of adapting the missile shield to the hypersonic missiles. American producers have set 2022 as the deadline for their own hypersonic missiles. Therefore, US circles claim that the US vulnerability to a nuclear missile attack by Russia "is the same in January 2020 as in November 2019", that is, before Russia declares its endowment with the first hypersonic missiles. The idea is that Washington and Moscow would continue to rely on their "mutual vulnerabilities" to deter a nuclear war, and not on missile defence technologies that would bring "strategic destabilization".

Here also there are questions on whether a "hypersonic missile weapons race" will be declared. The answer would, most likely, be that in the short term such a thing will not be assumed and declared politically, as is the case with the new generation war. This happens because, at least apparently, Russia and China already have a small advantage in developing hypersonic weapons. According to some experts in the field, but harder to evaluate due to the lack of any Chinese transparency, China would be before Russia, France and India also being remarked for these technologies’ research and development, but not as advanced.

States that are developing hypersonic missiles

Russia, China and the US are the states to have the highest concerns regarding the construction, experimentation and operation of hypersonic missiles. As for the non-proliferation of mass destruction weapons, the US has announced that their hypersonic missiles will only be equipped with conventional combat warheads. By contrast, China and Russia are planning to equip hypersonic missiles with conventional, but also nuclear, warheads.

The Russian Federation

Russia has created and experienced several types of hypersonic missiles, following both types of construction. The Avangard missiles (Project 4202) has been tested for several years and would have entered the series production and combat service this year, according to the Russian president. It is launched to the target from an UR-100N intercontinental ballistic missile, and from a close perspective on the Sarmat missile (RS-28). It can reach speeds of 20 Mach, has considerable manoeuvrability with the possibility of controlling the trajectory and speed of movement to the target and is dedicated to the enemy’s missile defence.

The Russian defence industry has developed the Kinzhal hypersonic cruise missile (KH-47M2), which is actually a modernization of the popular Iskander missile. This can reach a speed of about 10 Mach in optimum manoeuvrability conditions throughout the flight path, with an operating range between 2000-3000 km, depending on the launch platform. The current launch platforms are MiG-31K (1 missile) fighter aircraft, or Tu-22M3M strategic bombers (with 4 missiles). Currently, according to Moscow, the Kinzhal missile is operational, being particularly designed to counter modern American missile defence systems and for strategic deterrence in the Black Sea and Caspian.

Russia also built the Zircon missile (3M22), which is a hypersonic anti-ship cruise missile. It can reach a speed of 9 Mach, has a range of over 1000 km and can destroy land targets and surface ships. The launch platform is navalized from different surface vessels and the series production and the endowment were already announced by Moscow.

Within a joint venture funded by India, Russian experts have been engaged for about ten years to support India in building a class of "air-to-air" hypersonic missiles, BrahMos-II. The works are quite advanced, the first tests to take place only this year, the entry into the combat service being somewhere around 2025. Anyway, BrahMos-II should be one of the fastest missiles in its class, with a speed around 2.5 Mach and with a range of about 500 km. The launch platform will be a Russian-made fighter aircraft, which looks like the Su-30MKI. The success of this project will be a real military challenge for Pakistan's eternal rival, while for the Philippines it will be a military business opportunity, given the announced intention to enter in contract with India for such missiles this year.


China has been developing hypersonic missiles for about 6 years, according to official reports. These missiles are developed in both ballistic and hypersonic cruise missiles. DF-ZF (known in the West as WU-14) is a first-class hypersonic missile that uses a ballistic missile as a launch pad. The Chinese statement shows that the missile can reach a 10 Mach speed and has the necessary manoeuvrability to avoid interception by modern missile defence systems. It is also shown that the missile can have conventional or nuclear warheads, as well as the accuracy of hitting large surface ships over long distances. According to plans, this missile should become operational this year.

Also this year, the DF-17 missile (according to the Pentagon classification WU-17), which will have a range of 1800 to 2500 km, would become operational. Some people say that as soon as this weapon becomes available, China will gain significant potential for attack and military threat in East Asia. The Chinese are testing this missile from 2017, the peculiarity of the DF-17 hypersonic missile being that it will constructively combine the two basic types of construction. However, the missile has an estimated range of only 1500 miles and can reach 10 Mach in optimum manoeuvrability to the target.


The US has invested in the research and development of a hypersonic missile called Advanced Hypersonic Weapon (AHW). Tests from 2011 have shown that AHW can hit high targets at a distance of up to 3700 km with high precision. Lockheed Martin is developing a manoeuvrable hypersonic aircraft launched with a missile (Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 - HTV2), which develops speeds up to 20 Mach. The studies are directed towards the development of devices that evolve at long-term hypersonic speeds.

There is already information in the media about an American hypersonic missile named AGM-183A. This is an "advanced fast response weapon", which will be launched from bombing-type aerial platforms and which, according to reports, can reach speeds up to 20 Mach. That would mean missiles almost four times faster than Russian and Chinese missiles in the same category.

Experiments with different prototypes of hypersonic missiles are also being conducted these days. The Pentagon is under time’s pressure to catch up with the eternal Russian and Chinese rivals. The US company, Lockheed Martin, recently announced a new successful test of the high precision tactical hypersonic missile PrSM (Precision Strike Missile). According to the company, they have not only focused on the speed of movement (about 3-5 Mach), but also the functioning of the on-board systems, the reliability and firepower of the new type of ammunition, because this missile is intended to replace the "outdated" ammunition of the complexes operational-tactical ATACMS. The missile uses a surface launching platform and, in the tested version, has a range of 500 km.

The US intends to use HTV-2 and AHW for the "Prompt Global Strike", which would allow them to perform a conventional "global hit", in less than an hour, against any target in the world.

At the same time, in the 2021budget, the US Department of Defence requested $ 3.2 billion for hypersonic missile programs, an increased amount comparing to the $ 2.6 billion allocated this year, precisely to reach thei goal.

Translated by Andreea Soare