Can the U.S stop Russian & Chinese Hypersonic Missiles?

Can the U.S. Stop Russian and Chinese Hypersonic Missiles?

In Videos, Weapons by Paul ShillitoLeave a Comment


Hypersonic weapons have been under development for decades and have taken on an almost mythical quality because their main selling points of speed and manoeuvrability make them seem unstoppable.

Recently, Russian president Vladimir Putin has been the man putting the hype into hypersonic, claiming that Russia has perfected the Avangard missile that could strike targets anywhere on the globe at up to 27 times the speed of sound. This and their high manoeuvrability enable them to avoid current U.S. missile defence systems, and that Russia now leads the world in this new class of weapons.

China also claims to have the DF-ZF hypersonic missile that can reach up to MACH 10 but are these weapons as invincible as they are made out to be.

The U.S has admitted that these new weapons pose a grave threat and are rushing to develop ways to counter them, so in this video, we’ll look at if and how these new missiles might be stopped.

The term hypersonic seems to have captured the public imagination but maybe for all the wrong reasons.

Hypersonic as defined by NASA in 2007 is the speed at which air resistance becomes THE major problem around MACH 5 and above. However, there is no defining point like going faster than the speed of sound when going supersonic.

Just like when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, the threat then was from ICBMs or intercontinental ballistic missiles, however today’s hypersonic missiles have been framed as the biggest threat even though they are still far from a fully developed technology like ICBMs.

Hypersonic missiles aren’t doing anything different from the ICBMs or existing supersonic missiles.

Their job is to deliver a warhead, be it nuclear, conventional or using the kinetic energy from travelling at MACH 5 or above and hitting whatever the target is.

Their extreme speed and ability to manoeuvre unpredictably make them ideal weapons against even the most modern aircraft carriers like the $13.3B USS Gerald R Ford and others who are now more vulnerable than they have ever been since WW2.

When it comes to ICBMs, what makes hypersonic missiles so much more effective is the way ICBMs operate. ICBMs follow a predictable ballistic path, similar to a shell fired from a gun.

However, unlike an artillery shell, ICBMs travel much farther because the warhead is mounted on top of a missile body with enough energy and fuel to travel up into space in a giant arc flying to an altitude of 2000km where there is no atmosphere to slow them down before falling back to earth.

Here the warhead separates from the missile body, allowing it to travel great distances at a very high speed, typically around MACH 22 to MACH 27 or 27 to 33,000km/h, before re-entering the atmosphere.

Once it starts falling towards its target, it follows a ballistic path like a standard shell, although it can alter its course by several hundred kilometres on the way down by using thrusters.

It’s this predictable path which is the main weakness of ICBMs. If you can work out its launch point, heading and speed from space and or land-based observation systems, you can calculate where it will be at any point along its trajectory, and if you have a fast enough interceptor, you can hit and destroy it.

Over the decade’s various methods have been developed to try and make the trajectory and the final destination more challenging to work out and thus hinder any attempt to stop them such as using multiple warheads and decoys.

Using these methods, it is currently almost impossible to intercept every warhead in a multiple-missile attack.

But suppose you have enough anti-missile systems placed around key strategic targets like command and control, military, political or large population centres. In that case, you can protect the most critical places, but you will sacrifice the less important ones.

This is where hypersonic missiles attempt to fill that weakness with the two main types, hypersonic glide vehicles and hypersonic cruise missiles.

Hypersonic glide vehicles are a warhead launched by an ICBM into space. Instead of flying up to 2000km like the ICBMs, they only fly upto around 100km, where they detach and fly at speeds up to MACH 25 on a boost-glide missile trajectory in the upper atmosphere, which allows them to manoeuvre more like a plane than fall like a ballistic warhead.

To do this, they have what is called a lifting body. Instead of wings that provide aerodynamic lift like an aircraft, the body’s shape is such that it creates lift by itself, enough to glide for thousands of kilometres.

Missile defence systems use tracking and algorithmic models to predict where the warhead will be to launch fast missiles to intercept it.

By using control surfaces or chemical thrusters, a hypersonic missile can steer itself to fly around highly defended areas and confuse tracking systems, and do this at very high speed. This makes it much more challenging to shoot it down because its path can no longer be predicted, and it needs to be tracked along its entire flight path.

Now, this all looks good in theory but doing it in reality, is another matter.

Travelling through the air is easy if you go slowly, but as the speed increase, so does the wind resistance. This drag on a flying object increases in proportion to the square of its velocity, making things particularly difficult at hypersonic speeds.

A glider travelling at MACH 5 has 25 times the drag of one travelling at MACH 1, and a glider travelling at MACH 25 has 400 times the drag, and that drag needs a lot of energy to keep it going.

A glider travelling at MACH 5 will lose energy 125 times faster than one at MACH 1, a MACH 20 glider will lose energy 8000 times faster than one at MACH 1 and that energy which is used to push air molecules ahead of and to the side nearly all ends up as heat and shock waves.

At MACH 10 and above, the temperature of the leading edges can reach over 2000C, so the materials used have to withstand that for sustained periods which also causes air molecules to start to break down and create ions or plasma, which also eats away at the materials.

This plasma creates a shield around the missile that disrupts communications to and from the missile and creates a bright infrared heat signature which can be picked, so these things are hardly stealthy.

Then there is the lift-to-drag ratio of a lifting body that is much less than that of one with wings. This is typically about 3 to 1 compared to subsonic aircraft of about 20 to 1, so you have to keep the speed up to create lift and keep it flying.

However, with every turn they make, they lose energy and slow down, and the range reduces, so doing lots of evasive manoeuvres literally sucks the life out of hypersonic gliders and limits their range.

Hypersonic cruise missiles on the other hand carry their own engine with them but unlike a typical jet engine that can go up to about MACH 3.6, SCRAMJet engines can go up to a theoretical MACH 25, though studies show it might be nearer MACH 17 in practice.

They use the speed of the craft to compress the air in the engine, which is mixed with fuel and ignited using instead of turbines like a jet engine to do the compression.

This means there are no moving parts but it is a very tricky system to get right and has been likened to lighting a match in a 3000km/h wind, and they only work from around MACH 5 and above.

The Russian Zircon and the Chinese DF-ZF Hypersonic antiship cruise missile use solid fuel rockets to boost their speed to supersonic where a SCRAMJet engine takes over to reach a stated MACH 9 with a range of about 1000km for the Zircon and Mach 10 and 1500 km for the DF-ZF.

At these MACH speeds, they can punch through existing missile defences, making significant high, value targets like aircraft carriers highly vulnerable.

Russia has also worked with India to develop the Brahmos II, which is thought to be an export version of the Zircon.

These are relatively cheap at $2.75 Million each and could be mass-produced in enough numbers to overwhelm a country’s defences through speed and numbers.

Like the hypersonic glide missiles, these hypersonic cruise missiles create a plasma shield around the front of the missile, which absorbs radar signals, making them almost invisible to the ship’s radar systems.

However, this is a double-edged sword because the plasma also stops it from seeing forward using its own targeting radar or infrared seekers and has to rely upon an inertial guidance system and upto date coordinates of the target being sent in real-time.

It also creates a bright Infrared signal that can be tracked but due to thier sea-skimming speed they would be very difficult to intercept with current anti-missile defences.

To have any defence against these weapons, you have to know where they are well before to come barreling over the horizon, which means tracking them from birth to death, which is currently not possible in a proper joined-up fashion.

A hypersonic missile might be picked up at some point but then lost again as to moves from one surveillance frame to another.

To keep track of these, the information has to be passed from one frame to another in real-time, which may not be possible if there are not enough tracking systems along its path.

Hypersonic missiles will actively avoid areas with good defences, using their manoeuvrability to fly around them and through radar-quiet areas to avoid being tracked.

At this point, as it approaches the target flying low at hypersonic speeds and due to the earth’s curvature, surface radar won’t pick it up in time for current interceptors to respond.

Currently, it would require the interceptor to adjust its trajectory three times faster than a hypersonic weapon to intercept it during the final phase when it is flying in a relatively straight line.

In 2019 the Defense Department’s Missile Defense Agency started a competition to develop a satellite-based system, the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor or HBTSS.

This would be a low earth orbit constellation of around a thousand satellites that would work as one large network looking for the telltale infrared signature of an object travelling Mach 5 and beyond from birth to death but also discriminating against those that are not enemy missiles.

By using optical communications between the satellites, the target could be tracked over the land, sea, air, and in space in real-time, giving potential targets and defence systems along the way and advanced notice of their approach to launch interceptors.

It’s not that hypersonic missiles can’t be shot down, it’s just that, at the moment, they travel too fast and unpredictably for the defence system to know where they are in time to launch a defence against them.

However, the USS Gerald R. Ford has one potential ace up its sleeve: the 300MW of generating power from its twin nuclear reactors. More than enough to run high-power lasers, which have already been tested on other smaller naval ships.

Tests using a 60kW laser showed that it could disable small boats and drones, but to destroy a hypersonic missile would take something much more powerful.

Hypersonic missiles already have to contend with temperatures of 2000C, punching through this heat-resistant material in what could be as little as 30 seconds from it appearing over the horizon and to overcome the refractive nature of turbulent air over long distances, its calculated that a 1MW laser would be required.

Lasers work at the speed of light, so as long as you can get a track on the target, there is no need to lead it like a phalanx gun or interceptor missile, just point straight at it and fire. It also has an unlimited amount of ammunition as long as it has power and is kept from overheating.

In 2022 Northrop Grumman, who were awarded a contract to develop such a laser, said that they had completed a preliminary design that combined several laser beams into one and that a 300kW prototype would be scaleable to 1MW but this would still be years away from deployment.

As the saying goes, for warned is for armed and having a tracking history of their movement in real-time would make it easier to place an inceptor or laser in the right place at the right time.

So the short answer to the question of Can the US stop Russian & Chinese Hypersonic Missiles would be no, they can’t, but in maybe five years, they probably will.

Paul Shillito
Creator and presenter of Curious Droid Youtube channel and website

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