The Opaque Hypersonics Arms Race

By Stew Magnuson
Russia's Kinzhal hypersonic weapon on a Mikoyan MiG-31

Photo: kremlin.ru via wiki

For decades, the United States didn’t show a sense of urgency for developing missiles and aircraft that could reach hypersonic speeds — defined as Mach 5 and higher.

But no longer. The U.S. military’s research-and-development community is going full bore on hypersonics, it’s considered a top R&D priority and contracts to the defense industry are flowing.

Thanks for the kick in the pants, Vladimir Putin!

In March, the Russian president claimed to have developed a weapon that could reach Mach 10 and fly 2,000 miles.

There are two methods of reaching hypersonic speeds and Putin said during his annual televised call-in show June 8 that Russia had mastered them both. A hypersonic boost-glide vehicle called the Avangard — which he said was “absolutely invulnerable for any missile defense system” — is in the process of industrial production with plans to deliver it to the military in 2019.

Boost-glide employs a rocket to lift a hypersonic vehicle and releases it once it reaches a certain altitude. Hypersonic speed is achieved via gravity as the vehicle descends. The ability to maneuver makes it more survivable.



The second method is basically an air-launched missile that can use various approaches to achieve hypersonic speeds on its own. The United States has tested both approaches, but doesn’t have a working system.

Putin said the Kinzhal hypersonic missile system was already deployed to Russian armed forces.

Putin’s comments caught the public’s attention both here and in Russia and presumably China, the other main competitor in the hypersonics arms race. For those who doubt him, watch the videos, he said on the June 8 broadcast.

Reporters traveling with Defense Secretary James Mattis shortly after the March announcement asked him whether Russia had truly developed such a weapon. Russia may or may not be ahead of the United States in hypersonics, but they are ahead in one field: disinformation campaigns. They are currently hands down, best-in-class — no one is even a close second — in information warfare.

Putin could be fibbing, of course. Videos can be faked.

Mattis cast doubt, but didn’t come right out and say that the Russians didn’t truly have a hypersonic weapon capable of reaching U.S. soil.

But it was a legitimate question worth further examination. For those in the public and media who don’t possess top secret security clearances, the answers are opaque.

National Defense put the question to Gen. John Hyten, Strategic Command commander, in April at the Space Symposium. 

Q. “Have you, with your national technical means, observed Russia launching a hypersonic missile that traveled 2,000 kilometers at Mach 10?”


A. “We have observed Russia and China operating hypersonic missiles. I won’t give you any specifics about the means we used to watch that. I won’t give you any of the technical specifics about the capabilities of those missiles. But I can tell you that we have observed both Russia and China testing hypersonic capability.”

Q. “Should I believe Vladimir Putin when he says he has that?”

A. You should believe Vladimir Putin, that everything he said, he’s working on. ... Now the operational status of a lot of those capabilities we can have a discussion in a different forum. Actually, not you and I — but that’s a different issue.

“But everything that he said, I know that Russia’s working on. We watch them very closely. We also listen to what they say very closely. And none of what he said surprised me.”
Was that a “yes?”

While Hyten may not want to publicly discuss the capabilities of U.S. spy satellites, the Air Force at past Space Symposiums was not shy talking about how good its space-based infrared system would be at spotting heat signatures.

A hypersonic missile streaking across the sky should light up like a roman candle to infrared sensors. As for boost-glide, that might be harder after the glide vehicle is released as it carries no fuel.

 But keep in mind that one of the difficult aspects of hypersonic technology is making sure the components don’t melt. The friction with the air creates a massive amount of heat, so even though it is a glider it doesn’t mean it doesn’t give off a signature.

And there are other ways to track objects deep inside hostile territories: electro-optical, radio frequency — a whole bunch of top secret National Reconnaissance Office technologies — and there is always good old-fashioned human intelligence and eavesdropping.

The other telling statement from Hyten was that he could say more in a classified setting, but not to reporters.

So has Russia mastered two different hypersonic technologies and reached speeds of Mach 10? If not, what was Putin’s motivation for lying? If so, what is our government’s motivation for withholding what it knows? Readers can draw their own conclusions.

"A hypersonic missile streaking across the sky should light up like a roman candle to infrared sensors." 

One thing is certain: there is a six-way hypersonics race. It’s between the United States, China and Russia, and two competing technologies: boost-glide and air launch.

Taking the metaphor further, it’s a derby, but where some of the six horses are invisible to those of us in the stands. Some of them might not even be there.

Topics: International, Global Defense Market, Emerging Technologies

Comments (2)

Re: Editor’s Notes: The Opaque Hypersonics Arms Race

At Mach 27, I believe that friction with the earth's atmosphere would create a boundary layer temperature close to 58,000 degrees Fahrenheit. What material(s) can withstand that temperature? Also, maneuvering at such a velocity would create absolutely horrendous "g" forces. Any thoughts on how the Russians overcame these apparently insurmountable obstacles?

John Soderberg at 5:03 PM
Re: Editor’s Notes: The Opaque Hypersonics Arms Race

It would be a serious issue if the Russian military has indeed created an operational hypersonic missile capable of military integration in 2019. Regardless of whether they are the only ones or whether everyone has this capability, one of the main advantages of the US is the navy. If the Russians have developed a weapon capable of avoiding defences, that would pose a serious threat to naval assets and the entire US dominance. Assuming these can be tracked, maybe laser based weapons can intercept them but by the sound of it they would need to have considerable power and range in order to be effective within the short timeframe during which the hypersonic missile can be engaged before it reaches it's target.

David Jones at 1:04 AM
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