Reaching the target with more than Mach 5: What makes hypersonic weapons so dangerous

This article first appeared on ntv.

Reaching the target with more than Mach 5: What makes hypersonic weapons so dangerous

This article first appeared on

Hypersonic weapons only came into the limelight a few years ago. But what exactly is meant when politicians and researchers speak of hypersonic weapons is not always entirely clear. Recently, there has again been talk of an attack by Russia with the hypersonic missile Kinzhal ("Dagger") on targets in Ukraine. But actually this has little to do with the dreaded new hypersonic weapons that are currently being developed worldwide. Here is an overview of the most important facts:

Speeds of more than five times the speed of sound (Mach 5) are referred to as hypersonic - i.e. more than 6000 kilometers per hour. In fact, all ballistic missiles in use since World War II are hypersonic weapons. The nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles that have been in use since the 1960s even reach speeds of Mach 20. However, in today's parlance, hypersonic weapons actually mean something else.

When talking about hypersonic weapons today, two different types are usually meant:

Hypersonic glide missile: These weapon systems, also known as Hypersonic Glide Vehicle (HGV), consist of two parts: an ICBM and a so-called glide missile. The intercontinental ballistic missile does not climb to an altitude of more than 1000 kilometers as usual, but sets down the gliding missile at a significantly lower altitude. This dives back into the atmosphere and glides in a wave-like manner to the target at initially Mach 20 due to aerodynamic lift. In this way, it can cover many thousands of kilometers. At the same time, the gliding missile - in contrast to ballistic missiles - can change its trajectory significantly by means of control flaps.

Self-Propelled Hypersonic Missile: While the glide missile glides to the target without propulsion, there is also the concept of self-propelled hypersonic missiles. In principle, these are extremely fast cruise missiles that fly faster than five times the speed of sound. It is powered by an air-breathing ramjet, also known as a scramjet. These weapons only fly in the atmosphere, are slower and have a shorter range than the glide missiles.

Both types of hypersonic weapons severely test the defenses of an attacked state. Because of their lower flight altitude compared to ballistic missiles, they can only be detected by radar much later (see graphic). They can also use their controls to alter their trajectory - making it impossible to predict their trajectory and launch an interceptor missile in the direction of the hypersonic weapon early enough.

Do Hypersonic Weapons Present a New Category of Threat? Not quite: Even intercontinental ballistic missiles are difficult to intercept with today's technology. From a strategic point of view, not much will change. But experts warn of other risks: The short flight time and possible late discovery of hypersonic weapons could pose a problem for decision-makers in an emergency. Unsure of whether a hypersonic weapon carries a conventional or nuclear warhead, they must quickly decide whether to launch a nuclear counterattack - which could lead to an unwanted escalation.

Several countries around the world are working on the development of hypersonic weapons. At the end of 2019, Russia declared its hypersonic glide missile Avangard operational. China has also had the DF-ZF gliding missile in service since 2019, which is said to have a range of around 2500 kilometers. For their part, the USA, France, India, Japan and North Korea are developing gliding missiles, which, however, are not operational according to the current state of knowledge. Hypersonic missiles are also being researched in Germany. Iran also claims to have developed a hypersonic ballistic missile, but it is unclear whether it is a gliding missile.

In addition, a hypersonic cruise missile was built by Russia, which is said to have already been put into service at the beginning of the year: The hypersonic anti-ship missile called SS-N-33 Zirkon is said to have a range of up to 500 kilometers and Mach 8 (9800 km/h). h) achieve. Similar concepts are also being researched in the USA, Great Britain, France, India, China and Brazil.

As mentioned, all ballistic missiles are hypersonic weapons, traveling faster than five times the speed of sound. This also applies to the Russian Kinzhal, repeatedly referred to as a hypersonic missile, which has already been used in Ukraine.

But strictly speaking, the kinshah is not a hypersonic weapon. Because it is neither a hypersonic glide missile nor a hypersonic cruise missile. Rather, it is a ballistic missile launched from an airplane. Its development dates back to the 1980s. The rocket is said to have a range of 2,000 kilometers and a speed of more than 14,400 km/h at Mach 12. This makes it many times faster than conventional cruise missiles, but according to Russian information it should be manoeuvrable. That makes defending very difficult.

The fact that the Kinschal is repeatedly referred to as a hypersonic weapon should also be in the interest of Russia. In this way, a supposed technological superiority of one's own weapon systems can be demonstrated internally and externally. At the same time, the technology can be tested in Ukraine - also in terms of its effectiveness in the face of modern Western air defenses such as IRIS-T, which are already in use by Ukraine.