Hypersonic Weapons are the ultimate fantasy of a Defence Weapons enthusiast. No known anti-missile system including S-400 can stop them. That is because hypersonic vehicles are hard to detect, hard to track and hard to kill. Hypersonic vehicles also can operate autonomously over targets. They don’t need to rely on GPS systems for guidance and probably cannot be electronically jammed. Here we discuss the Hypersonic weapons programmes of 3 major military powers.
The United States has three major programmes:
1. A new Advanced Hypersonic Weapon (AHW) first tested in 2011. The US Army Space and Missile Defense Command working with Sandia National Laboratory is in charge of AHW development.
2. A Tactical Boost Glide Weapon (TBG) which is a rocket glider that can reach speeds of 20,921 kilometers per hour, or MACH 20, and uses a scramjet/ramjet engine ( based on the hypersonic test vehicle HTV-2). The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the US Air Force are working on the Tactical Boost Glide programme.
3. An Advanced Full Range Hypersonic Engine Programme (AFRE) which is intended as a reusable hypersonic engine that combines an off the shelf jet turbine engine with a dual mode ramjet engine.
Recently the US Air Force awarded Lockheed Martin a $1 billion contract for a hypersonic conventionally armed cruise missile that can be launched from bomber and fighter aircraft. The US has a Conventional Prompt Global Strike Programme that will use hypersonic cruise missiles capable of striking any target in the world within an hour.
There are three known Russian Hypersonic systems so far :
1. 3M22 Zircon (or Tsirkon), which is intended either for ship or submarine launch and is a relatively short range. On this Brahmos II Hypersonic is based.
The 3M22 Zircon, which is said to have a speed of Mach 7, has a range of 241km to 434km. It is essentially an anti-ship weapon, although it can be used against land targets. It was successfully tested in 2017 and two Kirov class battlecruisers, the Admiral Nakhimov (2018) and the Pyotr Veliky (2022), are being fitted to accommodate the Zircon in the same launchers that can also be used for Kalibr cruise missiles.
The Zircon uses a scramjet engine after it is launched with a rocket boost. The Zircon warhead may be nuclear or conventional.
2. YU-71 and YU-74 for launch on ballistic missiles. The Yu-71 is a hypersonic attack aircraft and missile glide vehicle either for missiles or for Russia’s bombers including Russia’s proposed stealth bomber, the Tupolev PAK-DA. The Yu-71 has a claimed speed of 11,200km/h and may be launched from the new Russian super-heavy MIRVed ICBM known as Sarmat (Samaritan). The Yu-74 is a hypersonic glide vehicle also launchable from the Sarmat, with a 10,000km range. Some leaked reports though have suggested that tests of YU-71 and YU-74 have not been successful so far.
3. the air-launched KH-47M2 Kinzhal (“Dagger”), a high precision air to surface missile carried on an aircraft with a range of 2,000km and a claimed speed of Mach 10.
China is developing DH-17, previously called the WU-14, hypersonic glide vehicle which has a speed of somewhere between Mach 5 and Mach 10 and features a combined cycle engine and glides atop the earth’s atmosphere.
It has been tested a number of times and China claims it hit its targets. Once the DH-17 is ready for deployment it may become an add-on to the DF-21D missile, already portrayed as a ‘carrier killer’. Adding on the DH-17 would significantly extend the range of the anti-ship DH-21D missile and create serious problems for the West.