How the US is developing hypersonic weapons against Russia?

This post was published in Vzglyad. The point of view expressed in this article is authorial and do not necessarily reflect BM`s editorial stance.


MOSCOW, (BM) – In recent days, both American politicians and the military have repeatedly announced new US successes in the development of hypersonic weapons. Washington clearly wants to regain leadership in such developments. What are such statements based on, what kind of hypersonic weapons programs are being conducted in the United States today, and what conclusions could Russia draw from what is happening?

After the end of the Cold War, the United States, having lost its rival, slowed down the pace in the development of promising weapons systems. This also applied to hypersonic missiles – Russia lay defeated and presented no danger, and the United States simply did not need another breakthrough in the field of military technology. The Americans “made a pause” for a while, but this pause was short.

Looking back

Let us recall the key stages of US efforts to master hypersonic flight technologies in recent years.

On May 1, 2013, an experimental Boeing X-51 Waverider hypersonic missile launched from a B-52 bomber developed a speed of 5.1 sonic in level flight. The tests were successful. This rocket was a “classic” hypersonic rocket – with an engine that uses atmospheric air as an oxidizer. In terms of military hypersonic programs in the United States, however, completely different systems have emerged as leaders.

Today, the US Navy is conducting the Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS), a non-nuclear swift strike. This is a hypersonic gliding block – a glider, reminiscent of our “Vanguard”, but with differences – it has a non-nuclear warhead and a much, at times, smaller range. The Americans view these weapons as tactical. The glider’s flight will be controlled. Successful tests took place in 2011-2017, the system is now being finalized, the system is expected to enter service in 2028. The carriers will be submarines.

The US Army is leading the Long Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW) project, which means long-range hypersonic weapons. In order to save money, the program uses the same glider as the IUD program. The only difference is in the rocket, which will lift it to the height, for the army it is different, for quite obvious reasons. The planned construction date for the prototype is 2023. The launch will take place from a ground-based mobile launcher.

The US Air Force is conducting the aforementioned Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) missile program, essentially an American Dagger. The missile already has a “military” index – AGM-183. Like the Dagger, it is a solid-propellant rocket that reaches hypersonic speeds in descent flight with its jet engine running. Like the “Dagger”, the rocket is launched from an aircraft, with a high initial velocity given to it due to the speed of the carrier. It is assumed that flight tests of the rocket will end in 2022. The carrier is still planning B-52 bombers.

But this does not mean that other types of hypersonic missiles have been removed from the agenda. They just went into the shadows for a while, remained experimental work, which at one time should have become a weapon. And in 2020 we see how they start to become one.

Air Force Request

On August 12, 2020, the US Air Force issued a request for information on the topic “Consumable Multipurpose Hypersonic Demonstrator Using Ambient Air.” The customer for the theme was the same organization that oversaw the previous development of hypersonic missiles using atmospheric air as an oxidizer – the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). The program’s codename is Mayhem (“Pogrom”).

The requirements for a promising technology demonstrator are as follows. The first is the possibility of using a variety of loads, moreover, in a modular form, when various variants of the warhead are installed on the demonstrator rocket, depending on the task. This immediately hints, for example, at the possibility of using a missile with a nuclear warhead.

Second, the missile must fly farther than any existing US hypersonic weapon. There is reason to believe that the demonstrator rocket should have at least 800 km of range, and most likely more, about 1000 km. If, at the request of the Air Force, it comes to a contract, then contractors will have to create ready-made models of the engine and the weapon itself for the Air Force.

Do they have a chance of this? The US Air Force Laboratory has previously worked with the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to run a total of five hypersonic missile programs. The latest of these, the Hypersonic Air-Breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC, which means hawk, but spelled differently), is due to make its maiden flight this year. This means that the Air Force will already have all the results of research on this particular missile.

The planned flight of the Hawk

The HAWC program started in 2016. If the current request of the Air Force requires the creation of a working model of the weapon, then the old project of DARPA and the Air Force required to work out the elements of a hypersonic missile. Roughly speaking, Mayhem will be a further development of the HAWC project.

In the fall of 2016, DARPA signed contracts with Lockheed Martin and Raytheon to begin work on this program. Four years later, it was time to get results. The Americans announced that the interim results of the program have been achieved and in 2020 the experimental HAWC hypersonic missiles, created by both companies, will go to flight tests.

Here’s what DARPA made in a special HAWC statement on September 1 this year:

“HAWC project implementers Lockheed Martin and Raytheon have each tested their own hypersonic configuration, which promises to achieve and maintain effective hypersonic flight parameters”.

Their upcoming tests will focus on the operation of a ramjet engine running on hydrocarbon fuel and ways to control overheating to achieve a long flight at hypersonic speed, as well as on the creation of an acceptable [for the customer] design and approaches to its mass production. ” At the same time, it was announced that the missiles ready for testing were already flying on the suspension of the carrier aircraft and, according to the results of these flights, they showed suitability for suspension under the carrier and transportation at an altitude to the launch line while maintaining good technical condition throughout the flight.

The missiles themselves in their “ideology” resemble the “Waverrider” and, apparently, our “Zircon”. If you believe DARPA, then these are two-stage systems with a first accelerator stage and a second hypersonic one, equipped with a ramjet engine. This is the rocket that the Americans from DARPA and our artists depicting Zircon draw on their presentations. And the Waverider was just that. By and large, if you focus on the use of outside air as an oxidizer, then there is no other way to make a rocket …

In the remaining months of 2020, the missiles are due to be launched. Based on the results of these launches, the manufacturers, apparently, will smoothly move with the existing technological groundwork into the Mayhem program. Thus, they will begin the next stage in the American program of combat hypersonic missiles.

Conclusions for Russia

The conclusion is simple: the United States is not just planning to create one or two more samples of hypersonic missiles. They are not trying to make a weapon system ready for production right away, but they want a full range of technologies that would then allow them to produce various versions of hypersonic missiles. In other words, they do not need a single sample of a hypersonic missile or even several samples. They need to move completely into the hypersonic era, when, depending on the task, the industry can make a hypersonic missile of any type to hit any target.

Now the United States has subsonic missiles and a small number of supersonic missiles (for example, anti-radar), but will mostly be hypersonic of various types. From gliders to guided missiles with ramjet engines.

It so happened that Russia, concentrating resources on hypersonic topics, bypassed the United States. Now the Americans are not only investing large resources in order to take the first place, but also create a hypersonic threat to all their rivals. In the foreseeable future, we will be faced with the fact that any of our air defense systems should “be able” to shoot down hypersonic targets. In the meantime, there is reason to believe that of the existing systems, only the S-400 can do this in a narrow range of cases.

Russia has invested a lot of time and resources in creating a hypersonic threat to the United States. And the Americans, in return, created it for us. Time will tell if we can find effective, inexpensive and massive protection of our troops and facilities from their hypersonic weapons. But in any case, the successes of the United States in hypersonic subjects and the pace they have taken make our life much more dangerous.


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