Hear the Hypersound

By Leonid Nersisyan, military analyst.  

The media are increasingly reporting about the development of prospective weapons capable of changing the realities of war – the hypersonic weapons. In contrast to lasers and rail guns that usually steal the show, these weapons actually have a real chance to move from prototypes to actual combat systems that can change the world.


To be on the same page – hypersonic speed is the speed exceeding 5 Mach (5 times faster than the speed of sound). The development of hypersonic technologies has had the most success in Russia and in the USA. Let us see how close each country has come to building the first production model of the super-fast weapon. Also, it is quite intriguing what material resources each state spends to win the “hypersonic race”.

Hypersonic Glider-Warheads: Russia Is Leading, the United States Are Lagging Behind

One of the main areas of focus in hypersonic weapons is the gliders (hypersonic frames), which should replace conventional warhead intercontinental ballistic missiles (IBM) in the future. Unlike a warhead, which can also fly at hypersonic speed (about 7 km/s), the glider enters the atmosphere much earlier where it makes maneuvering and fine homing on target. Both of these facts greatly complicate the interception of a warhead by means of a missile defense system (MDS). Early entry into atmosphere does not provide time to implement the trans-atmospheric kinetic interception with MDS systems of the US GMD (Ground-Based Midcourse Defense), Aegis or THAAD type, and maneuvering in the atmosphere, combined with plasma clouds, formed around the glider because of its high speed, do not allow its interception there as well. Controllability of the glider, unlike conventional warheads, can achieve such precision of a strike that it becomes possible to use the non-nuclear warheads. Accordingly, the country possessing this technology is able to apply high-precision non-nuclear attack on any target on the Earth within 30–40 minutes (this is how long the IBM flight lasts).

In this area Russia is likely to be in the lead. Recently, on October 25, 2016, the first fully successful testing of “Article 4202” (or Yu-71) was held. This is a promising hypersonic glider, the development of which had been going on for many years. Test launches were carried out from the launching area “Dombarovsky” via legacy silo-based heavy IBM UR-100N UTTKh (according to NATO classification SS-19 mod. 2 Stiletto). At the moment, the number of carried out launches is around 10, while their results are getting better and better. This can be explained both by a great scientific advance in the field of hyper-sound remaining since the USSR times, and the fact that Russia has chosen the path of an asymmetric response to an attempt to develop a global MDS by the USA. Accordingly, Moscow focuses on the development of attack systems, not MDS, as opposed to Washington.

The main platform for the “Article 4202” will be a promising heavy liquid IBM RS-28 “Sarmat”. Probably, the missile will be able to carry up to 3–4 gliders in the nuclear or the conventional equipment.

Among other things, the development of Russian hypersonic gliders is a symmetrical response to the American initiative “Prompt Global Strike” that stipulated the development of similar gliders. Projects Advanced Hypersonic Weapon (AHW) and Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2) are largely similar to the “Article 4202”. However, a series of unsuccessful tests (communication with the aircraft was lost after some flight time) led to the fact that the new launches are not conducted, and the prospects for the development of production gliders remain vague.

Since 2006, around $100 million of budget funds have been spent at works on the AHW; and HTV-2 cost American taxpayers about $325 million (since 2008). In total, the creation of flying laboratories, one partially successful and three unsuccessful tests cost $425 million. An impressive amount, considering that virtually “cost-free” carrier rockets and Minotaur IV and STARS IV (special modifications of IBM LGM-118A “Peacekeeper” and UGM-27 “Polaris”, subject to decommissioning, respectively) have been used for launching. These works have originally been more exploratory in nature.

As for the Russian hypersonic glider, it is hard to estimate the cost of the project to develop “Article 4202” – we only know that the work is carried out by the NPO Mashinostroyeniya, which makes a part of the Tactical Missiles Corporation (TMC) – the rest of the information is classified. One can only assume that the development of production sample will probably cost much less than that in the USA. For example, a program to develop the fifth-generation fighter F-35 is estimated at $55 billion, while the Russian T-50 PAK FA will cost only $3 billion. Of course, this is an example of a completely different project, but on the whole this trend is relevant for most of the products of the Russian military-industrial complex – for creation of new weapons much less funds are allocated than in the USA, but the development agencies have to “stay within” the funds available. However, it is obvious that the glider will cost much more than a conventional warhead.

 Hypersonic Cruise Missiles: Russia Close to Success, USA Data Unavailable

Another important direction of hypersonic weapons is cruise missiles. They can be of different types: anti-ship, aircraft, etc.

As for the USA, they do have some developments in this area. Two projects are worth mentioning. The first one is the X-43A. This experimental cruise missile developed a tremendous speed of 9.65 Mach (1 Mach = 1 sound speed) at an altitude of about 30 kilometers. However, the missile engine worked for only about 10 seconds, so the article was nothing but a test bench. About $230 million have been allocated for the works. The second project is X-51 WaveRider, a prototype of hypersonic cruise missile, closer to the actual combat model. A total of four test missile launches were carried out, the video from the last one was published (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3_RrFXQViyo&feature=youtu.be). At the last test in 2013 the X-51 flew 426 kilometers, developed a top speed of 5.1 M (6,100 km/h) at an altitude of about 18 kilometers. The development of this prototype cruise missile demonstrated that the USA has the technology to provide a stable hypersonic flight at a sufficiently long distance. However, X-51 did not have any guidance system and was not designed for performing strikes – the missile was a “flying laboratory” for technologies adjustment. Over the eight years $300 million have been allocated for WaveRider from the military budget. Thus, $520 million were invested in these two research projects.

No other information on US missile projects is available, so it is impossible to judge how close the USA has come to the creation of a real combat hypersonic cruise missile. It should be noted that the most difficult technical challenge is the homing at such high speeds – the plasma cloud disrupts the work of the devices and shields signals of the GPS navigation satellites. Americans have not even tried to solve this problem on their prototypes.

In Russia, works on hypersonic cruise missiles are in full swing. Apparently, the closest to the production sample is the anti-ship missile (ASM) “Zircon”. According to various estimations, it will reach speed up to 5–6 M (6–7 thousands km/h), hitting targets at ranges up to 400 kilometers. Not so long ago it was announced that Russian heavy cruisers of Project 1144 “Orlan” may obtain these weapons by 2020. This is consistent with the dates announced by Boris Obnosov, Director General of TMC (the company is engaged in all hypersonic missile projects in Russia) – according to his words, we may expect hypersonic weapons in the Russian army by early 2020s. Of course, given the complexity of the task, the timing can be somehow shifted, but the mid-2020s will almost certainly be “hypersonic”. How much this ASM will cost is very difficult to evaluate. For example, the Russian export supersonic ASM P-800 “Yakhont” (its Indian modification is called BrahMos) costs approximately $5–6 million. It is logical to assume that the “Zircon”, even given its superiority over predecessors, is unlikely to be purchased if its price will exceed $10 million per missile (and even this is too high). By the way, it is likely that “Zircon” is developed in an export modification as well – it has been rumored for a long time that Russia and India have plans to create a BrahMos-2 missile, and its anticipated performance characteristics are consistent with ASM “Zircon”.

Another project at the final stage of testing is the aircraft cruise missile Kh-32. It will be able to develop a speed of 4–5 M – and that can be considered as threshold for hyper-sound. Most of the missile flight takes place at an altitude of 40 kilometers (there is less air resistance and hence less heat), after which it dives on its target. The maximum launch range is estimated at 1,000 kilometers. Passing of the Kh-32 into service will greatly increase the possibilities of long-range bombers Tu-22M3M (they are the main carriers of this missile). The economic component of the project corresponds approximately to that of “Zircon”. It is possible that work is being done on other projects too, but so far there is no information on them.

Hypersonic Aircraft: American Reconnaissance Aircraft SR-72 Will Not Appear Until 2030

Another category of long-term hypersonic weapon is the aviation. It can be both manned and unmanned. Given that the presence of a pilot increases the weight and impairs the aerodynamics of the aircraft a priori, and the aircraft operation at hypersonic speeds will be extremely challenging, the only project in this category is being developed in an unmanned configuration. We are talking about the US unmanned reconnaissance aircraft SR-72, the work on which have been reported this year by an industrial giant Lockheed Martin. The task is very difficult – the aircraft will have to carry out flight at speed up to 6 M with the first prototype, being a technology demonstrator, is to take off in 2023 (up to this point it is planned to spend about $1 billion), and the finished product is expected to be adopted into service by the USA in 2030. Of course, it is very difficult to talk about the deadlines and accurate estimations when it comes to such projects – a lot will depend on the success of tests and funding (a completely disastrous scenario is also a possibility). Currently, SR-72 is the only hypersonic aircraft with at least some development information available. As for hypersonic attack aircraft, their creation is an even more complex task, as there are such difficulties as the separation of weapons from the carrier at blazing speeds, the increased weight of an aircraft, etc. A simpler and more elegant solution at the present technological level is to equip the traditional subsonic or supersonic bombers with long-range hypersonic cruise missiles.


From the above we can conclude that Russia is at the forefront of the “hypersonic race”, as judged by the information available to the public. The reason for this is a great scientific potential, inherited from the USSR. However, the USA also has some success in the field of hyper-sound, and the lack of information about new projects implies that works are carried out in secrecy. In any case, the world came close to the new speeds that will make the balance of forces on the planet even more precarious. As for hypersonic aircraft, including civil aviation, then we should not expect its appearance in the next 15–20 years.

The “hypersonic race” does not provide any economic risks for the participants, because it has not yet reached the mass-produced samples and attempts to overtake an opponent in production volumes. And the sums that the USA and Russia allocate fit well into the existing defense budgets. For the USA the amount of $2 billion spent over the years for “hyper-sound” is a meager sum (at an annual military budget of about $600 billion). For example, an obviously hopeless Boeing YAL-1 MDS aircraft laser project cost $5 billion, after which the project was closed. For Russia, such amounts are also quite manageable, especially given the country's reliance on the development of strike systems to counter the global MDS deployed by the USA.

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