USA will deploy hypersonic weapons a few years after Russia and China

The US has tripled the annual funding level for hypersonic weapons compared to prior years. However, Russia appears to already be deploying hypersonic weapons as the warhead for missiles. Russia has three hypersonic weapons under development. China appears likely to deploy its hypersonic missile weapon in 2018 or 2019.

Russia and China will be able to use a few hypersonic weapons to improve their offensive military effectiveness against US forces.

The US currently still has superior conventional offensive capabilities. The US has more stealth fighters. The US has precision weapons. The US military is still able to defeat Russian and China’s military even with the addition of hypersonic weapons.

Russia and China getting deployed hypersonic missiles first means that the US would have even more vulnerability for aircraft carriers and other big high-value naval targets. It would also mean that the small chance that the US could successfully shoot down an ICBM would drop back to zero for hypersonic warhead tipped ICBM.

Russian Hypersonic weapons to overcome missile defenses

The Russian hypersonic program goal is to overcome missile defenses. Russian hypersonic weapons are nuclear, not conventional. There are three known Russian hypersonic weapons:
1. the 3M22 Zircon (or Tsirkon), which is intended either for ship or submarine launch and is relatively short range. The 3M22 Zircon, which is said to have a speed of Mach 7, has a range of 241km to 434km. It is essentially an anti-ship weapon, although it can be used against land targets. It was successfully tested in 2017 and two Kirov class battlecruisers, the Admiral Nakhimov (2018) and the Pyotr Veliky (2022), are being fitted to accommodate the Zircon. The Zircon uses a scramjet engine after it is launched with a rocket boost.

2. The YU-71 and YU-74 for launch on ballistic missiles. The Yu-71 has a claimed speed of 11,200km/h and may be launched from the new Russian super-heavy MIRVed ICBM known as Sarmat (Samaritan). The Yu-74 is a hypersonic glide vehicle also launchable from the Sarmat, with a 10,000km range. Reports are most of the Yu-71 and Yu-74 tests have been unsuccessful.

3. the air-launched KH-47M2 Kinzhal (“Dagger”), a high precision air to surface missile with a range of 2,000km and a claimed speed of Mach 10.

China using hypersonic weapons to force US aircraft carriers to stay away

China may have deployed the DH-17, aka WU-14, hypersonic glide vehicle which has a speed of somewhere between Mach 5 and Mach 10 and features a combined cycle engine and glides atop the earth’s atmosphere. China has claimed several successful tests.

Once the DH-17 may become an add-on to the DF-21D missile. Adding on the DH-17 would significantly extend the range of the anti-ship DH-21D missile.

US Hypersonic programs

The US Air Force has a roadmap to develop a hypersonic strike weapon by 2020 and a hypersonic aircraft to perform intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance in an A2/AD environment by 2030. The Air Force recently awarded Lockheed Martin a $1 billion dollar contract for an air-launched, hypersonic conventional strike weapon.

DARPA plans to start flying air-breathing test vehicles in 2019 and a tactical boost-glide prototype in 2022 or 2023.

The United States has three major hypersonic programs:
1. a new Advanced Hypersonic Weapon (AHW) first tested in 2011;
2. a Tactical Boost Glide Weapon (TBG) which is a rocket glider that can reach speeds of 20,921 kilometers per hour (Mach 20) and uses a scramjet/ramjet engine (itself based on the hypersonic test vehicle HTV-2)
3. Advanced Full Range hypersonic Engine program (AFRE) which is intended as a reusable hypersonic engine that combines an off the shelf jet turbine engine with a dual mode ramjet engine.

Even with successful US hypersonic weapon tests in 2020-2022, it seems unlikely the US would actually deploy hypersonic weapons until 2023 or later.

Russia, China and the USA will not have any strong defensive capabilities against other hypersonic weapons for many years. The best defences would be attacking rockets or planes on the ground or before they launched the hypersonic weapon.

Eventually megawatt combat lasers could have some ability to defeat hypersonic weapons. The USA is in the lead in the race to get to megawatt combat lasers.

The US Air Force is close to announcing a plan to significantly speed up hypersonic weapon development.

SOURCES- National Interest, Breaking Defense