Backgrounder: Hypersonic Weapons

AIRAR, Palau - 240616-M-MO098-1008 (June 16, 2024) An Autonomous Multi-Domain Launcher with the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Aviation & Missile Center and Ground Vehicle Systems Center conducts a live fire during exercise Valiant Shield 24 at Airar, Palau, June 16, 2024. Exercises such as Valiant Shield allow the Indo-Pacific Command Joint Forces the opportunity to integrate forces from all branches of service and with our allies to conduct precise, lethal, and overwhelming multi-axis, multi-domain effects that demonstrate the strength and versatility of the Joint Force and our commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Kyle Chan)

The ‘hypersonic’ label refers to weapons capable of traveling at speeds greater than Mach 5 (five times the speed of sound). Known for their high speed, maneuverability, and ability to evade current missile defense systems, these weapons represent a significant advancement in military technology. They can strike quickly and accurately from great distances and are nearly impossible to intercept. Currently, the United States, Russia, and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have developed and continue to improve their hypersonic arsenals. Iran and the Houthis in Yemen also claim to possess hypersonic weapons.

There are several types of hypersonic weapons, including hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs), hypersonic cruise missiles (HCMs), and aero-ballistic missiles. These weapons can be launched from air, ground, or naval platforms. HGVs are launched atop traditional ballistic missiles and then released at high altitudes. They re-enter the atmosphere and glide toward their target at hypersonic speeds, performing evasive maneuvers during flight, making them difficult to predict and intercept.

Hypersonic cruise missiles (HCMs) are powered by advanced propulsion systems, such as scramjets, which enable them to maintain hypersonic speeds throughout their flight. They typically fly at lower altitudes compared to hypersonic glide vehicles and follow more traditional missile flight paths, but at much higher speeds. Their ability to vary altitude and trajectory during flight, combined with their intense speed, makes them extremely difficult to intercept.


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