China’s development of next-generation hypersonic missiles has raised concerns among aerospace engineers and military strategists worldwide. These advanced weapons possess unique capabilities that make them a significant threat to global security, particularly in terms of their potential impact on the balance of power among nations.
Recent reports suggest that China’s latest hypersonic missile, the DF-27, has the ability to fly as far as Hawaii and penetrate U.S. missile defenses. Pentagon assessments indicate that these missiles pose a particular threat to U.S. aircraft carriers, potentially sidelining them in the Pacific and limiting the U.S.’s options in assisting Taiwan if a conflict were to arise. Such a shift in the strategic balance of power underscores the gravity of the threat posed by these next-generation hypersonic missiles, which China, Russia, and the U.S. are all actively developing.
Hypersonic missiles pose significant challenges to defense systems due to their high speed, maneuverability, and ability to change trajectory. They operate in an altitude range that is different from other existing threats, making tracking and intercepting them more difficult. These are the three types:
- Aeroballistics: This type of hypersonic missile is dropped from an aircraft and then accelerated to hypersonic speed using a rocket. Once accelerated, it follows a ballistic, unpowered trajectory towards its target. An example of an aeroballistic missile is the Kinzhal, which is used by Russian forces.
- Glide vehicles: Hypersonic glide vehicles are boosted to a high altitude by a rocket and then glide to their target, maneuvering along the way. These vehicles can change their trajectory and make evasive maneuvers, making them difficult to track and intercept. Examples of hypersonic glide vehicles include China’s Dongfeng-17, Russia’s Avangard, and the U.S. Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike system.
- Cruise missiles: Hypersonic cruise missiles are boosted to hypersonic speed by a rocket and then use an air-breathing engine called a scramjet to sustain that speed. They can maintain their high speed throughout their flight. Hypersonic cruise missiles require smaller launch rockets compared to hypersonic glide vehicles and can be launched from more locations. Both China and the United States are developing hypersonic cruise missiles.
As an aerospace engineer specializing in space and defense systems, including hypersonic technologies, I have studied the challenges posed by these systems. One crucial aspect is their exceptional maneuverability throughout their trajectory. Unlike traditional missiles, hypersonic missiles can alter their flight paths as they travel, making them extremely difficult to defend against. Tracking these missiles throughout their entire flight becomes a critical necessity.
Another significant challenge arises from the fact that hypersonic missiles operate in a unique region of the atmosphere, distinct from other existing threats. They fly at altitudes higher than slower subsonic missiles but lower than intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Unfortunately, the U.S., its allies, as well as Russia and China, lack sufficient tracking coverage for this intermediate atmospheric region.
The potential destabilizing effect of these modern hypersonic missiles is perhaps the most significant risk they present. Russia has claimed that some of its hypersonic weapons can carry nuclear warheads, which raises concerns about the ambiguity of their use. If a country were to perceive a hypersonic missile as carrying a nuclear warhead, it could trigger a first-strike response from its adversary, leaving minimal time for diplomatic resolutions. The hypersonic speed of these weapons further exacerbates the urgency of such situations.
Given these risks, it is crucial for the U.S. and its allies to rapidly develop their own hypersonic weapons as a means to bring nations like Russia and China to the negotiating table. Establishing a diplomatic framework for managing these weapons becomes imperative in mitigating their destabilizing influence.
Hypersonic systems operate at speeds significantly faster than the speed of sound. While passenger jets typically travel at around 600 mph, hypersonic systems can reach speeds of 3,500 mph or more, equivalent to about one mile per second. Hypersonic technology has been in use for decades, with intercontinental ballistic missiles being a prime example. These missiles can travel at speeds of up to 15,000 mph or approximately four miles per second.
There are three main types of non-ICBM hypersonic weapons: aeroballistics, glide vehicles, and cruise missiles. Aeroballistic systems are dropped from aircraft, accelerated to hypersonic speeds using rockets, and then follow a ballistic trajectory. Russia’s Kinzhal missile is an example of an aeroballistic system.
Glide vehicles are boosted to high altitudes by rockets and then glide to their targets, maneuvering along the way. China’s Dongfeng-17, Russia’s Avangard, and the U.S. Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike system are all examples of hypersonic glide vehicles. Concerns have been raised about China’s more advanced hypersonic glide vehicle technology compared to the U.S.
Hypersonic cruise missiles, on the other hand, are boosted by rockets to hypersonic speeds and then rely on air-breathing engines called scramjets to sustain their speed. These missiles require smaller launch rockets compared to glide vehicles, making them more cost-effective and enabling launch from a wider range