Overview of hypersonic weapons, autumn 2021

29.10.2021
The world is in the middle of a hypersonic weapons arms race. Here is where the race stands now.

All the present great powers – the US, China and Russia – are developing hypersonic weapons, which fly at speeds of at least Mach 5 or more (five times the speed of sound) but it is not only about speed. More important is the ability to maneuver at those high speeds, in order to avoid being shot down by the opponent’s air defenses.

There are two primary categories of hypersonic weapons:

  • Hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV) are launched from a rocket (e.g. ICBM) before gliding to a
    target.
  • Hypersonic cruise missiles are powered by high-speed, air-breathing engines, after acquiring their target.

Unlike ballistic missiles, hypersonic weapons do not follow a ballistic trajectory and can
maneuver en route to their destination. Conventional hypersonic weapons use only kinetic energy, that is energy derived from motion, to destroy targets or underground facilities.

Hypersonic weapons could challenge detection and air defense due to their speed, maneuverability and low altitude of flight, for example terrestrial-based radar cannot detect hypersonic weapons until late in the weapon’s flight. This delayed detection compresses the timeline for decisionmakers assessing their response options and for a defensive system to intercept the attacking weapon, potentially permitting only a single intercept attempt. Furthermore, both terrestrial- and current space-based sensor architectures are insufficient to detect and track hypersonic weapons.

Development and deployment of hypersonic weapons systems may dramatically alter the existing balance of conventional military power between the United States and its major competitors, China and Russia.

Why hypersonic missiles are real game changers?

The word hypersonic itself means a flight regime above the speed of Mach 5 but more important is the ability to maneuver at those high speeds, in order to avoid being shot down by the opponent’s air defenses. Between these two features, speed and maneuvering, the latter is much more effective in evading defensive interception.

A ballistic missile flies on a straightforward trajectory, just like a bullet fired from a gun—it cannot change direction at all, hence the word ballistic. This means that ballistic missiles can, in theory, be tracked by radar and shot down with an interceptor missile. However, even this has proved to be a very tough task in actual battle field practice, despite the straight-line ballistic trajectory.

When taking a closer look at a hypersonic missile, one can see that it is propelled nearly throughout its entire flight. This is the key. The warhead only separates from the missile body a few kilometers (mere seconds), before reaching its target. That missile body contains a means for maneuvering the missile, by means of thrust vector—using graphite paddles that move into and out of the rocket engine exhaust stream. So, it will be jinking as it enters the terminal phase of flight—making it a very hard target to radar track and shoot down.

Taking some Russian primary types of hypersonic missiles as examples (they have been deployed in the service already), one can say that they all fly very fast but they use different propulsion systems and different means of maneuvering.

In the case of Kinzhal (based on Iskander), it is launched from a very high speed and height by a MiG-31K interceptor aircraft, which is designed to fly up to 1.500 km at a cruising speed of M 2.4, at a height of about 20 km. The range given for Kinzhal is 2.000 km, but it is not clearly stated, if that includes the flight range of the MiG-31K carrier aircraft. The MiG has a combat radius of over 700 km at its M 2.4 cruise speed. That means that after release, the Kinzhal would need to fly for about 1.300 km before hitting its target—for an overall system range of 2.000 km. Highly likely can be stated that the overall range to a target, from the takeoff point of the MiG, is realistically going to be no less than the stated 2.000 km, if not more.

This is certainly a game-changer for US naval dominance. Carrier-based aircraft would have no chance to fly far enough from their floating airfield to intercept a MiG-31 launching a Kinzhal at 1.000 km or more distance from the ship. The F/A-18 has a combat radius for air-to-air missions of only 740 km. Obviously, it is not going to be able to reach the MiG launching from outside of 1.000 km.

Another example is the Zircon hypersonic missile that has been successfully test-flown at target distances of up to about 450 km but its range is actually in excess of 1.000 km, according to latest tests. This too is a game-changer.

But Zircon is also a technological tour de force. The unique feature of the Zircon is its scramjet engine, which is the first time as a production engine of this type in the world (it has long been a goal for both the US and Russia).

In order to fully understand the idea, importance and value of this break-through innovation – scramjet engine – one shall study the jet engine technology: turbojet, ramjet, scramjet. Each type of airbreathing engine, turbojet, ramjet and scramjet, has its own speed limit but then it comes with other challenges. The main challenge with scramjet is the flame front speed of combustion. This is strictly a limit of the chemical physics of fuel combustion. Hydrogen burns ten times as fast as kerosene but is not a practical fuel. All of the previous scramjet experimental prototypes, both US and Russian, used cryogenic liquid hydrogen fuel.

But the Zircon uses a kerosene-based fuel innovation that the Russians reportedly call Detsilin-M. The exact means by which the Russians have achieved this fuel chemistry is of course a tightly held secret, but it is clearly a remarkable breakthrough in chemical engineering.

China reportedly carried out its first successful test launch of an intercontinental range hypersonic glide vehicle DF-17 in August 2021, with the Financial Times reporting that the previously unknown test “caught the US government by surprise” as the Pentagon refused to make any specific comment on the incident. Russia was previously the only country to field such assets after deploying Avangard hypersonic glide vehicles from December 2019, which fact the Western experts seemed to have totally forgot in August “Chinese panic”.

Hypersonic glide vehicles rely on rocket boosters to gain high speeds and altitudes, before detaching and following an atmospheric flight trajectory with high maneuverability. This optimizes such missiles for evading air defenses. Experts’ understanding is that no known air defense system is able to intercept such missiles. While hypersonic cruise missiles fly at lower altitudes throughout their trajectories and have lower maneuverability, glide vehicles fly considerably higher. Their sheer speed, however, makes them very difficult to track for modern missile defense systems. 

Hypersonic missiles can seriously influence the global maritime balance of power and even could revolutionize warfare because of their high speeds, flat trajectory and ability to maneuver in flight, all of which will make it difficult for existing air-defense systems to intercept them.

The US

Since the 2000s, the United States has been developing hypersonic weapons as part of their Conventional Prompt Global Strike (CPGS) program, though American hypersonic progress has accelerated in recent years. The American pace of research and development is directly related to similar initiatives overseas, primarily from Russia and China.

The United States has multiple hypersonic weapons programs currently in development, as per a recent congressional report (Congressional Research Service, Hypersonic Weapons: Background and Issues for Congress, Updated August 25, 2021). The present weapons programs:

  • The U.S. Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS)
  • The U.S. Army’s Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW)
  • The U.S. Air Force’s AGM-183 Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) and Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile (HACM)
  • DARPA’s Tactical Boost Glide (TBG), Operational Fires (OpFires), and Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC)

The Navy’s CPS project would lead the development of a common glide vehicle for use across the services, booster systems are being developed separately. The Army’s Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon program is expected to pair the common glide vehicle with the Navy’s booster system.

The AGM-183 Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon is expected to leverage DARPA’s Tactical
Boost Glide technology to develop an air-launched hypersonic glide vehicle prototype capable of
travelling at average speeds of between Mach 6.5 and Mach 8 at a range of approximately 1,000
miles.

DARPA, in partnership with the Air Force, continues to test Tactical Boost Glide, a wedge-shaped
hypersonic glide vehicle capable of Mach 7+ flight. DARPA’s Operational Fires reportedly seeks to leverage TBG technologies to develop a ground-launched system that will enable “advanced tactical weapons to penetrate modern enemy air defenses. In the longer term, DARPA, with Air Force support, is continuing work on the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept, which “seeks to develop and demonstrate critical technologies to enable an effective and affordable air-launched hypersonic cruise missile.

The report by the US Congressional Research Service focusing on hypersonic weapons development has highlighted a highly concerning state of affairs, as the country continues to lag several years behind China and Russia which have fielded a range of hypersonic missiles from 2019 and 2017 respectively.

The US is working on at least eight separate hypersonic missile programs but has yet to produce a single operational weapon, with the report stressing that US decision makers should be concerned by the pace at which Russia’s and China’s hypersonic capabilities have advanced as well as the Pentagon’s own serious difficulties in catching up.

Most of these programs, besides some recent success (like in CPS&LRHW in October 2021), have suffered various setbacks, test failures (like ARRW project in April or CPS in October 2021) and decelerations and are expected to reach operational deployment later within 2020s, if finally overcome technical problems and proved feasible and executable. Another challenging sector is to create and establish a necessary industrial base and procurement procedures between the purchasers (Army, Navy, Air Forces) and the military industry.

Committees of the US Congress and Capitol lawmakers have expressed their growing worries about the enlarging gap between the US and on the other hand China’s and Russia’s achievements in the development of hypersonic weapons and radar systems capable to detect and intercept hypersonic missiles. In September 2021, even USAF leaders were signaling their hypersonic weapon program was turning into limbo.

The problem is that for decades the US has been years ahead of other countries in developing and fielding anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles but now, for some reason, is having great difficulties fielding hypersonic weapons. 

Hypersonic weapons are extremely difficult to track with existing air and missile defense sensors and virtually impossible to intercept. General John Hyten, commander of US Strategic Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the US is vulnerable to future attack via hypersonic missiles. General Hyten cautioned: “we (US) don’t have any defense that could deny the employment of such a weapon (hypersonic missiles) against us.” The US has to rely on nuclear deterrence. Hyten added, “so our response would be our deterrent force, which would be the triad and the nuclear capabilities that we have to respond to such a threat.” Senior US defense officials have made it clear that Russia and China currently have the lead in the race to develop and deploy hypersonic missiles.

Russia

Russia has researched hypersonic weapons for the past forty years but the development of its hypersonic weapons projects has speeded up significantly following the United States’ withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001 under George W. Bush’s administration.

Russia has today three projects in the final test phase/early deployment:

  • air-launched Kinzal hypersonic missile,
  • Avangard hypersonic glider attached to ICBMs and
  • Zircon hypersonic missile for naval targets

Besides these three well-known projects, there are several other more or less classified projects going in hypersonic development pipeline.

From what the Russian military has already fielded, we can see that hypersonic missiles come in many shapes and sizes. The Kinzhals, which appears to be an evolution of the Iskander, are powered by relatively small rockets and are designed to maneuver gas-dynamically (thrust vectoring), during all phases of flight, right up to the target. The Avangards are launched by powerful ICBM rockets and have ICBM-like striking range. The Zircons are more like a Tomahawk or Kalibr cruise missile, powered by an air-breathing engine and able to aerodynamically maneuver throughout their flight to the target but flying about ten times faster.

Kinzahl Kh-47M2

Kinzhal (Kh-47M2) hypersonic air-launched missile system, is based on the Iskander ballistic missile and represents the first successful adaptation of a ballistic missile for airborne carry. Its top speed is of Mach 10, or over 12,000 km/h, its combat range is about 2000 km, while flight trajectory carries it to altitudes of 50-80km above the Earth’s surface.

At the moment Kinzhal’s carrier is the MiG-31K all-weather interceptor fighter, in the future that role could also be undertaken by the Su-57 fifth-generation fighter as well as the strategic bomber TU-22M3 as a carrier.  The first Kinzhals entered limited-scale service in December 2017 and they are already available to combat units in the Southern Military District since the end of 2019. The serial production of Kinzhal missiles have been obviously going since 2020.

In January 2020, MiG-31K jets successfully test-fired the hypersonic missiles in the Black Sea, near Crimea. Recently, two MiG-31K fighter jets capable of carrying Kinzhals were deployed at the Khmeimim air base in Syria for the first time as part of preparations for joint military exercises, according to a 25 June statement by the Russian Ministry of Defence.

Avangard HG gliding vehicle

Avangard gliding vehicle. The development of a future ICBM with a brand-new payload type in the form of a gliding vehicle is the real technological breakthrough. The testing of Avangard has been successfully concluded. According to available information, Avangard can reach the top speed of Mach 27 carrying a nuclear payload of up to two megatons and is one of the possible payload options for the next generation ICBM Sarmat R-28.

The warhead can fly in dense layers of the atmosphere over intercontinental distances, while performing evasive maneuvers both horizontally (up to several thousand kilometers) and vertically. Specialists assess that Avangard has not only an aerodynamic control system but also a propulsion system to be able to perform such maneuvers.

In spite of flying in a plasma cloud, the warhead can receive signals from its command center. It used to be an impossible task, since plasma blocks radio waves. Another challenge that was successfully overcome was the problem of heat insulation. Obviously, the Avangard uses new generation high-temperature ceramic composites of silicon carbide, capable of withstanding temperatures of up to 2.000 C.

By mid-March 2019 it was announced that the first Avangard carriers would become the UR-100N UTTKh (NATO code SS-19 Stiletto) ICBMs that will most likely become part of the RS-24 Yars strategic missile system. Once new Sarmat is adopted, it will carry Avangard warheads too. First Avangard hypersonic missile systems (with Avangard-tipped Yars missiles) entered combat duty in late 2019 at the Dombarovsky missile division based in the Orenburg Region in the south Urals. Today, with up to ten Avangard-equipped missile systems are estimated currently serving in Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces.

Zircon 3M22

The secrecy surrounding Zircon 3M22 anti-ship missile reminds the former case of the P-700 Granit heavy anti-ship missile, specifically its exceptional ramjet propulsion. The unique feature of the Zircon is its scramjet engine, which is the first time that the engine of this type is in operational use in the world.

The Zircon is to be launched from the same vertical launchers that are used for the present Oniks- naval missile indicating the two missiles are in the same weight and size class, with comparable range and payload characteristics. The speed of the Zircon is estimated at between Mach 6 and Mach 9 saying that it may well depend on the missile’s flight altitude. Experts estimate the payload at 300-400 kg and the missile length at 8-10 m. The missile is to be fired from universal vertical launchers 3S-14 on warships and submarines and from Bastion mobile coastal missile launchers.

If a low-altitude trajectory is adopted, the dense layers of the atmosphere would reduce the speed considerably. A high-altitude cruise at 30-40km would enable it to accelerate to maximum velocity likely approaching that of a short-range ballistic missile and attack its target in a steep dive. While the high-altitude approach would provide the adversary with greater opportunity to detect the missile, it still would be a difficult weapon to intercept, particularly since most weapons sent against it would be considerably slower. The differences between high and low flight trajectories likely account for the different cited maximum ranges for the weapon.

Zircon’s high cruising speed in combination with significantly reduced radar cross section and agile maneuverability make this missile a great asset to the Russian Navy. Among the best defense missiles in the US today is the Raytheon-produced SM-6, usually carried by the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruisers. The SM-6 missiles have been developed to intercept a variety of manned and unmanned aerial vehicles, supersonic low-altitude missiles, as well as ballistic missiles in the final stages of flight. None of these, however, are claimed to be able to strike hypersonic maneuvering targets, such as the Zircon.

The Zircon will be carried by Russia’s new class of surface warships in the frigate or ‘small destroyer’ size, as well as on the Kilo class and the new Yasen-class cruise missile nuclear subs. These state-of-the-art subs will also carry subsonic Kalibr-cruise missiles with a maximum range of 4.500 km. 

It is planned that the frigate Admiral Golovko will become the first standard carrier of Zircons, the Defense Ministry said. Besides the new frigates, other likely fittings include Russia’s modernized Gremyashchiy class corvettes, as well as renewed Kirov-class battlecruisers (so far Petr Velikiy and Admiral Nakhimov) fielding these alongside hypersonic air defenses and having the potential to deploy over 100 of these Zircon missiles.

On October 4, 2021, the Northern Fleet’s Severodvinsk nuclear-powered submarine has successfully conducted its first test launch of the Zircon hypersonic missile in the Barents Sea. The launch was performed at a hypothetical sea target in the waters of the Barents Sea. According to the control data, the missile’s trajectory matched the set parameters and it hit the hypothetical target. The test was deemed as successful. The first Zircon missile’s launch was conducted from the water surface position.

Few hours later the Defense Ministry told that the nuclear-powered submarine The Severodvinsk has carried out a second successful launch of a hypersonic missile Zircon from the White Sea at a target in the Barents Sea. “A second test launch of a hypersonic cruise missile Zircon was carried out by the crew for the first time beneath the sea surface from a depth of 40 meters in the White Sea. According to the objective monitoring means, the missile’s flight from the moment of surfacing and to hitting the target totally matched the expected parameters,” the Defense Ministry said.

A capability to launch the Zircon missile that can travel at 5-9 times the speed of sound from underwater means the nuclear-powered submarine can approach its firing position and release the missile almost undetected from ground and space-based radar systems. The capability to launch the hypersonic missile from the subsea position is a significant competitive edge in the maritime warfare.

The Zircon represents not only an impressive weapon innovation but is an indicative of the engineering capabilities of the Russian aerospace industry. Obviously, Zircon will be just the beginning of scramjet engine use by the Russian military. The next generation of such missiles will be even smaller and more capable in range and speed.

Earlier it became known that by the end of 2021 it is planned to complete state tests of the Zircon hypersonic cruise missile and from 2022 to begin serial deliveries of missiles to the Navy. It has not yet been disclosed whether the missile will have a variant with a nuclear warhead. Modern ammunition for long-range and strategic aviation is most often developed simultaneously with conventional and special warheads. The serial production and deliveries of Zircon missiles to Russian troops are planned to take place 2022 – 2025.

Other Russian hypersonic missile projects in the pipeline

Hypersonic missile for Su-57

A hypersonic missile for the fifth generation Su-57 fighter aircraft is in development. The product is being developed as part of the Lichinka-MD project. The prospective missile will be able to fly at a speed five times of sound. The second stage of the Lichinka-MD development project began in 2019 and the ramjet engine is being tested. This indicates the question is of “air-to-air” missile. Engineers currently conduct ground tests of ammunition systems and analyze flight performance. The new missile is to be placed in inner compartments of the aircraft.

The new missile seems to be smaller than the previously adopted Kinzahl Kh-47M2. Due to its small size, the missile can be used not only from the side of heavy bombers and MiG-31K interceptors. Long-range supersonic missile carrier Tu-22M, as well as fighters Su-57, Su-30SM and Su-35 can become its carriers. The size of the missile allows it to be placed in the internal compartment of the Russian stealth fighter Su-57.

New long-range hypersonic cruise missile Kh-95

Russia is developing the Kh-95 new long-range hypersonic missile for its Aerospace Force, Colonel-General Vladimir Zarudnitsky wrote in an article published in Military Thought magazine in early August, 2021. “Today supremacy in the aerospace is a vital condition for ground and naval groupings of troops to conduct combat operations successfully,” the article reads.

For this purpose, Russia is developing a cutting-edge long-range hypersonic missile to be used as a part of the modernized Tu-22M3M long-range bomber, the modernized Tu-160M strategic bomber and the so-called Prospective Aviation Complex for Long Range Aviation strategic bomber. The Tupolev PAK DA 5G stealth bomber is expected to replace the aging line of present bomber types for the Russian Air Force in late 2020s. The new bomber will be a true flying wing type.

China

One of China’s most advanced weapons, the DF-17 hypersonic missile, making its debut for the first time by joining China’s National Day parade held in Beijing on October 1, 2019. Equipped with a hypersonic glide vehicle as its warhead, the DF-17 is a short to medium-range missile and very difficult to intercept by any current missile defense system. The first PLA Rocket Force missile brigade equipped with this type of missile conducted recently a fire assault exercise, noting that this brigade is now ready for combat.

The DF-17 hypersonic glider vehicle can be used as a multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle, a MIRV, to deliver its warheads, which makes it far more difficult to detect and intercept. China has successfully tested a new hypersonic vehicle in 2019-2020. According to the China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics (CAAA), the hypersonic missile test has been conducted in northwestern China. The CAAA released a statement indicating the glider was carried into space by a solid-propellant rocket before separating. After separation, it descended to lower altitudes as it autonomously conducted extreme turning maneuvers, reaching Mach 5.5 for more than 400 seconds and reached a top speed of Mach 6. Although, the missile is still in the development stage and probably a few years out from series production, DF-17 could be used to carry conventional and or nuclear warheads capable of penetrating the world’s most advanced anti-missile defense systems.

China’s DF-17 hypersonic missile was seen to get stealth upgrade in early 2021.The transporter erector launcher (TEL) of a missile uses an integrated cover and encloses the missile within the camouflaged transporter as it runs on desert terrain, the upgraded version is the complete form of the DF-17. When the missile made its public debut in 2019, the DF-17 did not have the cover and exposed the whole missile on the back of the TEL. The fully camouflaged TEL can make itself more difficult to be detected by hostile aerial or satellite reconnaissance and the missile within will not be affected by harsh weather conditions or complicated battlefield environments.

In October 2021, according to a FT report, China has tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide missile that travels into space and circles the globe in low-earth orbit before speeding through the atmosphere toward its target. The test, which was confirmed by five officials, proves China has advanced space capability that “caught the US government by surprise”, although the missile missed its final target by more than 30 kilometers. The trial flight is said to have taken place around August, with the boost-glide vehicle being lifted into space by a Long March 2C rocket.

Chinese officials kept silent on the issue. However, the Chinese state-backed outlet Global Times ran an editorial, neither confirming nor denying the claims, but praising what it called an “unstoppable trend that China is narrowing the gap with the US in some key military technologies.”

Just few weeks after AUKUS-pact was hailed as a game-changer by Western analysts in efforts to contain China, now news reports say China is testing hypersonic missiles. It seems clear that the US is underestimating China in the arms race, in the same vein like doing with Russia.

With China having a small fraction of the US’ arsenal of nuclear warheads, the ability to deliver them to American population centers more reliably with more sophisticated delivery vehicles could go a long way towards compensating for the discrepancy in quantity. The Chinese glide vehicle was reportedly lifted into space by a Long March 2C rocket, although it remains to be seen what booster rocket could be paired with service models after the program passes the prototype stage.

Last month, US Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall reportedly warned that China could be heading for a first-strike nuclear capability — including the potential for “global strikes…  from space” — urging the US to accelerate its own weapons development to keep peace with Beijing. Kendall further suggested that China was developing something akin to the “Fractional Orbital Bombardment System” (FOB) that the USSR deployed for part of the Cold War. “If you use that kind of an approach, you don’t have to use a traditional ICBM trajectory. It’s a way to avoid defenses and missile warning systems,” said Kendall.

China has been powerfully investing in new defense and other technologies to defend against the US, according to a recent report by the US Congressional Research Service. The reported test comes as US-China tensions have intensified and Beijing has stepped up military activity near Taiwan.

PLA Navy is currently fielding the YJ-100 missile with a range and other specs comparable to the Russian Zircon – although it is considerably slower and less maneuverable. The newer version YJ-XX is expected to enter service some time before 2025. This will be a hypersonic version and will have a similar performance to its Russian counterpart. The new Chinese missile is suspected of having benefited from transfers of technologies from Russia’s defense sector, the sales of which helped subsidize development costs on the Zircon missile program.

In early autumn 2021, Chinese military researchers say that they have made significant progress on a classified hypersonic drone model. Their work, first reported by the South China Morning Post, appears to confirm the existence of a Chinese military program to design an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) capable of traveling at hypersonic speeds. The product tested by the researchers could be an advanced modification of the supersonic Wuzhen 8 drone unveiled during China’s 2019 National Day military parade or an entirely new prototype unit that’s under development. Chinese team’s alleged technical breakthrough is obviously based on advancements in navigation algorithms that make it possible for UAVs to anticipate optimal landing routines and control their speed.

Closing words

When the US withdrew from the landmark 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, it set in motion a chain of events that not only allowed the US to proceed with the development of the kind of sophisticated, layered missile defense scheme prohibited under the treaty but also empowered its potential adversaries to develop nuclear weapons delivery means that could defeat any missile shield the US managed to construct.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has addressed this view publicly many times, lastly in 2020: “The US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 forced Russia to start developing hypersonic weaponsWe had to create these weapons in response to the US deployment of a strategic missile defense system, which, in the future, would be capable of virtually neutralizing, zeroing out all our nuclear potential.”

For its part, China has also expressed concern over US efforts at deploying missile defense capabilities that could be used against it. Beijing has long viewed the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system (in South Korea, Japan) as something that disrupted the balance in the region by limiting the strategic nuclear deterrence capabilities of its ICBM force. China has also viewed systems such as THAAD and the US Navy’s SM-3 anti-missile system as being part of a broader US strategy to contain China.

Like Russia, China has developed several warhead delivery-options, to include hypersonic glide vehicles, for use in its medium- and intermediate-range missiles in order to defeat both THAAD and the SM-3. The development of an ICBM equipped with FOB technology, however, nullifies the existing and planned US missile defense capabilities.

The US has been estimated to spend more than $200 billion between 1985 and 2020 on developing anti-ballistic missile technology used in the weapons deployed today. Tens of billions of additional dollars have been expended in upgrading the capabilities of related programs, such as the Patriot missile system. None of the technologies paid for by this expenditure are capable of defeating Russian and Chinese hypersonic missiles. In short, the US will have to start from scratch, developing an entirely new approach to missile defense, which not only will cost hundreds of billions of dollars more but, at the end of the day, most likely will not work like RAND report forecasts.

Ranking of today

Based on well-over two hundred articles, research reports and other written materials regarding hypersonic weapons and technology as well as on the above analysis and overview, I dare to make the following assessment of the present situation:

The indisputable leader, as a whole, in this sector of hypersonic weapons development, is Russia, which is approx. 3-5 years ahead of the US depending on particular subsegments.

In the second place is China, which is 1-3 years behind Russia and the third one is the US, being 3-5 years behind Russia.

Other countries like North and South Koreas, Iran, Israel, India and France are years behind the first three. North Korea allegedly tested a short range tactical hypersonic missile, the Hwasong-8 in September 2021. The possibility of technology sharing between China and North Korea has been raised multiple times.

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