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The Cold War gave the world Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) that can carry nuclear weapons and cruise missiles that can be launched from ships and airplanes.


Now, like much Cold War era military equipment, these weapons are the subject of a 21st century development. But it’s not the payloads that are getting more and more advanced, it’s the delivery systems.

Missiles capable of flying at hypersonic speeds could render global missile defenses useless and, if left unchecked, could become the next global arms race among the nations of the world.

Related: America’s Cold War Nuclear Launch Code Was Weaker Than Your Grandma’s AOL Password

There are mainly two types of missiles pursued in this race: Hypersonic Cruise Missiles (HCM) and Hypersonic Glide Vehicle (HGV). Both are pursued by a number of countries, but China, Russia and the United States are leading the way.

Two types of weapons

Screen capture from RAND Corporation hypersonic missile non-proliferation video showing the two types of hypersonic weapons in development. (TheRANDCorporation Youtube)

HCMs are essentially faster cruise missiles and HGVs essentially replace conventional reentry vehicles placed on ICBMs.

Of the two, heavyweights are the easier to make, as they only have to overcome one of three hurdles: materials science.

Heavy goods vehicles are placed above the ICBMs. When they reach maximum altitude, they separate from the missile and hover above the atmosphere to their target – in this case, at hypersonic speeds.

Also read: Watch the Air Force launch an ICBM into the air from the back of a C-5

Due to their hypersonic speeds, it may not even be necessary to have explosives on the weapons themselves, as the kinetic energy could be strong enough to cause damage in a limited area – albeit far away. the size of a nuclear explosion.

What makes both weapons so menacing is the fact that they are maneuverable, meaning they can change direction at any time and keep their target a secret until the last moments before impact.

The F-22 carried out its first-ever airstrike in Afghanistan
An image from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) showing how a hypersonic glide vehicle is launched. (Advanced Defense Projects Agency)

Current missiles can be intercepted because their flight paths are determined by momentum and gravity. Most, if not all, ballistic missile defenses, like THAAD and Aegis Ashore, require a projectile to make physical contact for a successful interception or be close enough that shrapnel from a proximity explosion can damage an incoming missile.

Because HCMs and heavy trucks are maneuverable and fly at such high speeds, interception of such missiles is almost impossible.

Potentially dangerous outcomes of hypersonic weapons

The widespread proliferation of this technology could have results that increase the risk of conflict and destabilization, especially when these weapons are armed with nuclear charges.

According to a report on hypersonic weapons released by the RAND Corporation, governments may be so concerned with maintaining first strike capability because the response time for these weapons is so short that they may be forced to take risky action. .

These include devolving command and control of weapons to the military rather than national leaders, a broader disbursement of weapons across the world, a launch on warning posture and a decision to strike first.

The F-22 carried out its first-ever airstrike in Afghanistan
Concept art of the WU-14, a Chinese hypersonic sliding vehicle.

The RAND report shows that at least 23 countries are active in the pursuit of hypersonic technology for commercial or military purposes. Currently, the United States, Russia and China are leading the way.

The report suggests that the widespread proliferation of hypersonic technology could cause military personnel around the world, especially those with strained relationships with their neighbors, to have capabilities that could be destabilizing.

The RAND Corporation suggests that it could also act as an incentive to modify or amend the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a voluntary agreement with 35 countries that aims to prevent the proliferation of missiles that can carry nuclear warheads.

More: These 5 Hypersonic Weapons Are The Future Of Military Firepower

RAND believes the MTCR should include completed hypersonic delivery vehicles, scramjets and other hypersonic components in the list of items that cannot be exported. At the very least, a trilateral deal between the United States, Russia and China could be struck to prevent hypersonic weapons from falling into dangerous hands.

RAND believes that hypersonic missiles will become usable on the battlefield over the next 10 years.

Obstacles preventing sustained hypersonic flight

Hypersonic technology allows cruise missiles and nuclear weapons to go as fast as Mach 5 or higher, or about 3,800 miles per hour, or 340 miles every six minutes.

Missiles and rockets have long been capable of becoming hypersonic; space shuttles and ICBMs, for example, both fly at hypersonic speeds, sometimes as high as Mach 20 or 24 (Mach 25 is the upper limit). However, they only do this for a short period of time.

The F-22 carried out its first-ever airstrike in Afghanistan
A Pratt Whitney SJX61-2 successfully completes ground tests simulating Mach 5 flight conditions at NASA’s Langley Research Center, Hampton, Virginia, 2008.

A technology under development will allow sustained hypersonic flight, overcoming three different challenges: materials science; aerodynamics and flight controls; and propulsion.

The problem of materials science is relatively straightforward. Since the missile will fly at such a high speed, high melting point materials are required so that they can absorb the heat that would be accumulated over a long period of time, in order to prevent the disintegration of the missile.

“You can think of it as stealing that torch,” said Rich Moore, senior engineer at the RAND Corporation. “The faster a vehicle flies, the more pressure and temperature increase exponentially. ”

The problem of aerodynamics and flight controls is somewhat related. In order to achieve hypersonic speeds, the missile body must be constructed so that air resistance is minimal. In addition, the shape of the missile must be structurally strong enough to prevent bending and bending that would affect flight performance.

“You’re under such great pressure, you’re going so fast that the body itself may not keep its shape all the time,” George Nacouzi, senior engineer at RAND Corporation, told Business Insider.

Read more: Air Force is developing hypersonic weapons by 2020

Propulsion is probably the most complex challenge after materials science. Once an object reaches Mach 5, traditional jet engines cannot generate enough power to maintain speed or go faster. “It has been compared to lighting a match in a 2,000 mph wind,” said Richard Speier, political scientist at RAND.

Trying to keep the engine running is extremely complex.

“You have potential shock waves, the combustion has to be just at the right rate, you have to have the right mixture of fuel and oxidant,” Nacouzi said of the difficulties.

The result of trying to overcome this problem is a scramjet, a clean, breathable engine that uses oxygen from the atmosphere as an oxidant for combustion. Although the scramjets are currently in the testing phase, they have already reached hypersonic speeds.

Dr Nacouzi thinks that of these three problems, flight control is perhaps the easiest to overcome.



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