The race is on for hypersonic weapons technology. You know, rockets that can fly at an incredible speed of more than Mach 5—and like the space race, the United States, China, and Russia are all competing to build the best of the best hypersonic arsenal there is in the 21st century. Besides speed, these superpower nations are in it because of the capability of weaponry technology to fly across the globe without being detected by defense systems since most aren’t built to stop such attacks… yet.

A team of engineers from China’s National University of Defense Technology in Changsha, Hunan Province, unveiled a supersonic missile blueprint earlier this month in the peer-reviewed Solid Rocket Technology Journal, according to reports. Among its vital component is Boron fuel, a highly reactive light element that ought to contain a lot more energy compared to petroleum and is very safe because it is hard to ignite—the exact reason why it’s been a challenge for scientists to covert it to rocket fuel, besides the fact that it has limited resources, thus very expensive to acquire. But it can be very potent as a weapon, enabling missiles to fly across the globe at high speeds and swim like a torpedo.

The US Air Force previously experimented with boron in the 1950s to increase the power of its supersonic bombers, though unsuccessful, so this isn’t a novel idea. Even the US Navy has recently successfully experimented with boron nitride nanotubes in its hypersonic weapons under its Conventional Prompt Strike program. Now a group of Chinese researchers is working on developing supersonic weapons using the same fuel.

China’s Boron-powered Missile In the Making

The Chinese boron-powered missile is about five meters tall and can cruise at Mach 2.5 at an altitude of 32,800 feet, similar to the ceiling at which a commercial airliner flies. After covering approximately 124 miles, it would dive into the water and peruse over the waves for another 12 miles. Once the target is within a six-mile radius, the missile will morph into a torpedo, allowing it to operate underwater maneuvers at 200 knots. The speed will not be reduced because of the cavitation bubble, also known as supercavitation, which creates a giant air bubble around the rocket that keeps the momentum.

hybrid missile-torpedo
Illustration of how a super cavitating vehicle/rocket will travel underwater. (Image source: Twitter)

Moreover, as per the publication, the researchers claimed that the missile could change course or crash-diving up to 330 feet to avoid underwater defenses, reducing the risk of decelerating. It also implies that the hybrid missile-torpedo is highly potent because no such defense system can prevent nor handle such “a fast cross-media attack” as of present, despite current efforts to develop one.

As sophisticated and promising as the hybrid missile-torpedo sounds, Chinese scientists still face one of the project’s biggest challenges: its power system. They need to have a power system that would generate “considerable thrust while breathing in either air or water,” SCMP reported. Lead scientist Li Pengfei and his team have identified boron as the solution. Still, as mentioned earlier, the element is tough to ignite and a resource rare to scour.

In addition, boron-powered missiles are conventionally meant to be used only in the air, not underwater. Chinese researchers working on the project had made some significant changes in the design, including the adjustable inlets and exhausted nozzles that would effectively allow the fuel to burn in either environment. Because of the changes, the researchers will have to double the boron concentration, which takes us back to the central dilemma of element resource scarcity.

China lacks boron ores and must import them from elsewhere, mainly from the United States, complicating matters further given the two countries’ already tense relations. Furthermore, the latter would almost certainly stymie any exportation to the Asian nation, mainly since the vital component in this project will be used to beef up its arsenal that may or may not be used against them.

Welcome to the Hypersonic Weapon Era

Last month, the US announced its plans to expand its hypersonic weapon detection system along with Beijing and Moscow’s rapidly growing missile technology and how the unpredictability of such weapons could pose a high threat to the nation if not addressed ASAP.

hypersonic detection system in space
(Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Thus far, one of the solutions is to design a new generation of hypersonic missiles stationed in space, as this would provide the best vantage point for monitoring hypersonic threats – an objective the Space Force has to prioritize to keep the one step ahead advantage against erratic adversaries.