For the last several years, the world’s most powerful militaries have been hard at work developing the next generation of long-range missile technology.
The main objective is to reach farther, faster.
That’s prompted weapons designers to push the boundaries of physics and hit speeds in the “hypersonic” realm, which is typically considered atmospheric travel faster than Mach 5
Imagine a missile fired from the Chinese mainland that could strike anywhere in the South China Sea in 20 minutes. That could be a massive game changer for such a turbulent region, many strategists believe.
There’s an international arms race in progress to develop hypersonic weapons. Four countries, including China, Russia, India, and the U.S., are in various phases of research, testing, or otherwise developing hypersonic weapons systems — planes, warheads, and cruise missiles capable of sustaining speeds well above Mach 5.
1. DF-ZF Hypersonic Glide Vehicle – China
The most promising Chinese hypersonic vehicle was successfully tested as recently as April. Beijing’s “Dong Feng” DF-41 ICBM carried two nuclear-capable warheads from the mainland into the South China Sea. To underline the tension in the South China’s Sea, Popular Mechanics’ Kyle Mizokami noted that this was the first time China tested its weaponry in the area.
The DF-41 booster rocket has a reported maximum operational range of 9,300 kilometers – not only covering the South China Sea, but also the mainland United States. It also has the ability to launch the hypersonic DF-ZF glide vehicle, which can reach speeds of 7,000 miles per hour – the speed of sound is just 768 mph.
2. Tactical Boost Glide Aircraft – United States
DARPA is developing technology similar to the Chinese DF-ZF they say is, “an air-launched, tactical-range hypersonic boost-glide system.” An ICBM boosts the glider to hypersonic speeds, then it separates from the rocket and coasts unpowered to its target. The project became known as the Falcon project — a test bed for projects that will enable the U.S. to hit any target in the world within one hour using unmanned hypersonic bombers.
The Falcon HTV-2’s top speed of Mach 20 would allow the United States to strike a target in Syria from the American East Coast in around 27 minutes, analysts say.
3. BrahMos II Missile – Russia and India
The BrahMos II is a cruise missile in joint development between India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation and Russia’s NPO Mashinostroeyenia. The BrahMos II is expected to have a range of about 180 miles and a top speed of Mach 7. During the cruise stage, the missile will be propelled by an air-breathing scramjet engine using a classified fuel formula to help sustain its top speed.
As of March the BrahMos II has been undergoing tests in Russia. Military planners say it is intended as a conventional missile without a nuclear payload and is expected to be aboard Russian ships as early as 2019.
4. X-51 Waverider – United States
Jointly developed by Boeing and the Air Force, the X-51 WaveRider project is another research vehicle designed to test technology for the so-called “High-Speed Strike Weapon,” which is intended to be in military service by 2020.
Unlike the Falcon HTV-2, the HSSW is intended to cruise at only Mach 5, have a maximum range of 600 nautical miles, and be launched by F-35 or B-2 aircraft.
The most successful WaveRider test so far hit Mach 5.1 for 210 seconds (short of the 300-second goal). It was enough to consider that phase of testing a success and advance to the next stages of development.
5. DF-21D – China
The DF-21D is a medium-range ballistic missile — sometimes referred to in defense industry circles as China’s “Carrier Killer.” The Dong-Feng 21 is considered an anti-ship missile, and a critical component to China’s plans to control the South China Sea. It’s a land-based, nuclear-capable missile that can fly at speeds of Mach 10, and uses a drone to help acquire its targets. Many think the DF-21 is designed to weaken the U.S. ability to project power with aircraft carriers.Writing for the National Interest, Harry J. Kazianis wrote that the missiles are likely already deployed around China, and have been since at least 2010. As for their ability to knock out an aircraft carrier, Kazianis quoted defense expert Roger Cliff, who remarked that while the U.S. Navy has never had to defend itself against such a weapon, China has no experience using one, either.