Hypersonic missiles that can fly at many times the speed of sound are leading to an arms race between the world’s three greatest super-powers.
The weapons, currently being tested by the US, China and Russia, are designed to beat regular anti-missile defence systems and can strike anywhere in the world.
They can switch direction in flight and do not follow a predictable arc like conventional missiles.
Now, the Pentagon has applied for $120 million (£85m) in funding to develop technologies to intercept the next generation munitions.
Hypersonic missiles that can fly at many times the speed of sound are leading to an arms race between the world’s three greatest super-powers. This artist’s impression, courtesy of the US Air Force, shows the hypersonic X-51A Waverider cruise missile currently under development
The Pentagon’s plans were outlined In the latest proposed US budget released by the Office Of Management And Budget In Washington, DC.
Even as the Pentagon works to ensure that its defenses keep pace with North Korea’s fast-growing rocket program, US officials are increasingly turning their attention to the new missile threat.
In its proposed $9.9 billion (£7bn) requested budget for 2019, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is asking the additional money to develop hypersonic missile defences, a big increase from the $75 million (£53) in fiscal 2018.
‘China’s hypersonic weapons development outpaces ours, we’re falling behind,’ said Admiral Harry Harris, who heads the US military’s Pacific Command.
‘We need to continue to pursue that and in a most aggressive way in order to ensure that we have the capabilities to both defend against China’s hypersonic weapons and to develop our own offensive hypersonic weapons,’ he added.
MDA Director of Operations Gary Pennett told Pentagon reporters this week that the potential deployment by America’s rivals of hypersonic weapons would create a ‘significant’ gap in US sensor and missile interceptor capabilities.
These weapons could be launched from planes, ships or submarines and carry either nuclear or conventional payloads.
‘The key challenge to US national security and the security of US friends and allies is the emergence of new threats designed to defeat the existing’ ballistic missile defense system,’ Mr Pennett said.
According to reports, China has developed and last year tested a new type of hypersonic missile called the DF-17.
The DF-17 is a ballistic missile equipped with a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV), which is said to be capable of achieving speeds of up to 7,680 miles per hour (12,360 kph) – or 10 times the speed of sound.
In tests conducted in November 2017, the missile’s payload flew roughly 870 miles (1,400km) in about 11 minutes with the HGV, though intelligence experts suspect it could one day achieve over 1,500 miles (2,500 km).
According to reports, China has developed and last year tested a new type of hypersonic missile called the DF-17. Since 2013, China has conducted seven successful test flights of its hypersonic craft (model pictured in a state-TV documentary)
Pictured is an official artist’s impression of China’s DF-17 hypersonic craft. Hypersonic vehicles travel so rapidly and unpredictably they could provide an almost-immediate threat to nations across the globe
WHAT ARE HYPERSONIC MISSILES AND HOW DO THEY WORK?
Aircraft and missiles are said to be hypersonic once they exceed speeds of Mach 5 and above, or five times the speed of sound.
This occurs at 1,715 metres per second (3,836mph / 6,174kmh).
The latest class of hypersonic missiles would be smaller, guided and designed to carry conventional explosives for time-sensitive, rapid response in theatre operations.
There are two kinds of approaches to solving the hypersonic challenge in missiles: ‘scramjet’ and ‘boost glide.’
The air-breathing scramjet relies on high speed for its power.
As it accelerates, more air and fuel is pushed into the engine, allowing it to accelerate even more – to hypersonic speeds.
The boost glide model rides a reentry vehicle to extremely high altitudes, where it skips across the Earth’s upper atmosphere.
Traditional ballistic missiles already travel at hypersonic speeds.
Built to carry nuclear and conventional warheads, these weapons are capable of reaching outer space in the course of their flights, but they can’t manoeuvre.
The US Office of the Director of National Intelligence this week stated China ‘has tested a hypersonic glide vehicle.’
Russia too is believed to be developing its own hypersonic weapon called the Zircon.
The Zircon cruise missile travels between 3,800mph (6,115kph) and 4,600mph (7,400kph) – five to six times the speed of sound – and puts Russia ‘half a decade’ ahead of the US’.
This makes it faster than any anti-missile system, including those that are expected to appear in the next two decades.
According to Russian news agency Tass, it is to go into serial production this year.
Though the Pentagon is warning about hypersonics, the United States has been developing the technology for years.
The Air Force says its X-51A Waverider cruise missile, tested in 2012, could travel at speeds faster than Mach 6 (4,603mph / 7,408kph).
That’s more than one mile a second, and future iterations are expected to go much faster.
Russia’s Zircon missile is capable of travelling twice as fast as the Royal Navy’s Sea Ceptor missile (pictured), which would be responsible for shooting it down were it to attack British troops or mainland UK
It would also be more than capable of evading US defences. This image shows a ground-based interceptor missile taking off from Vandenberg Air Force base, California last year in a test against an ICBM
Part of the reason China has been able to advance its hypersonic missile programs is that it is not subject to anti-missile treaties signed between the United States and Russia.
The 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty banned short- and intermediate-range ground-launched missiles.
‘Over 90 per cent of China’s ground-based missiles would be excluded by INF if they were now in it,’ Mr Harris said.
Still, by far the lion’s share of the MDA’s budget continues to go towards improving existing missile-defense systems.
Various sensors and radars can track an incoming missile hurtling towards a target, then blast interceptor rockets toward it to pulverize it with kinetic energy.