The race to develop hypersonic weapons has become significantly prominent for the United States Space Force as they seek to combat future threats against China and Russia’s rapidly growing missile technology.

According to experts, the need to prepare for missile threats has become apparent following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Back on March 18, barely a month since the “special military operation” commenced, the US was able to track in real-time when Russia launched its hypersonic missile toward Ukraine. It was the first known use of such a missile on the modern battlefield.

Aside from bombarding its neighbor, it was a high-key flex opportunity for Russia, sending its western adversaries a message about its military equipment capabilities. To give a quick review, Russia used its hypersonic “Kinzhal” missiles which destroyed a Ukrainian ammunition depot and some establishments in Delyatin village in western Ukraine.

And while the Pentagon still has the most advanced ground and space-based missile detection systems, if not prioritized, then it would only be a matter of time before these hectors develop something that could eventually bypass current defense.

The Era of Powerful Missile System

As Chris Stone said, “the era of missile warfare is definitely upon us,” and preparation is evident before it’s too late. In his recent policy paper from the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace, he explained that China’s DF-17 and Russia’s Avangard hypersonic boost-glide could potentially be enhanced and sneak under the radar of the US missile warning systems were mainly designed for ballistic missiles.

“These lower altitude fliers and the others that can maneuver create challenges to our ability to sense,” Stone said.

If not addressed,  the Kremlin and Beijing will have the upper hand in striking down conventional and long-range missiles with nuclear warheads attached.

The former commander of Strategic Command, Kevin Chilton, further stressed that these Great Power competitors “could cripple the operation of foreign deployed US forces and their theater bases.”

Exploiting Earth’s Curvature

Usually traveling at Mach 5 speed or faster, a hypersonic missile can be very challenging to detect. This is because it was built to travel fast and at a far lower trajectory than high-arcing ballistic missiles. Not to mention its advanced maneuver and evade capabilities, exploiting the curvature of the Earth.

US Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said space architecture is among the top funding priorities in the service branch. Space Force submitted a $1 billion request for the 2023 budget dedicated to enhancing its missile warning/missile tracking capacities, developing a constellation of satellites that could start detecting hypersonic technologies before the decade’s end.

Moreover, the Space Force is also looking to develop a nuclear warning and a “ground and the geosynchronous orbit segments of the next-generation overhead persistent infrared sensors missile tracking and warning systems,” superseding its current space-based infrared systems.

These next-generation sensors will be more sensitive and accurate, enabling them “to detect the weaker infrared signature of hypersonic missiles.”

(Source: The Conversation)

Dangerously Unpredictable

Unlike the predictable ballistic missile warhead, hypersonic missiles can “maneuver” as soon as it leaves their booster, making target prediction very challenging.

“A surface radar’s horizon is limited by the curvature of the Earth,” said Jerome Dunn, Northrop Grumman Director of Systems Engineering.

Dunn continued: “A low-flying hypersonic traveling at Mach 5 or higher won’t cross that horizon until it’s too late for current weapons to respond. Hypersonics are totally designed to outflank our ability to get an interceptor into the battlespace in time.”

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The curvature of the Earth limits the horizon of surface radar, and a low-flying hypersonic will not cross that horizon until current weapons are no longer capable of responding.

Space Has The Best Vantage Point

Aerospace engineer Iain Boyd, a professor from the University of Colorado Boulder, explained that a hypersonic could travel at a speed in excess of the speed of sound—around 1,225 kilometers per hour at sea level and 1,067 kph at 10,668 meters, where passenger jets fly—and has been around for decades. Nevertheless, while the new generation of hypersonic missiles flies very fast, it is not as fast as the Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs).

He said there are three non-ICBM hypersonic weapons: aero-ballistic, glide vehicles, and cruise missiles.

Russia’s Kinzhal is an example of an aero-ballistic missile. It is deployed by being droped from an aircraft, accelerating at hypersonic speed via rocket, and assisted by an unpowered ballistic trajectory. Meanwhile, hypersonic glide vehicles—such as China’s DF-17, Russia’s Avangard, and the US Conventional Strike system—are launched on a rocket to high altitude before it glides down and maneuvers to their target.

Like glide vehicles, cruise missiles are also boosted via rocket. However, instead of gliding, it will use an air-breathing engine called scramjet that would help sustain its hypersonic speed. In addition, since this equipment will be ingesting air into their machines, it will require smaller launch rockets, thus making it more cost-effective than the hypersonic glide vehicles. This type of weapon is currently under development by China and the US, with the latter conducting its first test flight of scramjet in early 2020.

Hypersonic Boost Glide
A 3D visualization of the boost-glide feature of a hypersonic weapon. (Image source: US Air Force/DVIDS)

As a result, space is regarded as the best vantage point for monitoring hypersonic threats. Keeping track, however, is more complex than it appears.

Failure is not an option for the US armed forces, an objective the Space Force organization is willing to reach heights to immediately address the imminent threat of hypersonic weapons and maintain a step ahead of adversaries, especially in space.

“This is a no-fail mission. Failure in this mission area is directly related to loss of life and property in ways [that] our nation and our political leaders cannot stop, so failure is not an option,” said Col. Miguel Cruz, commander of Delta 4.