Hypersonic Missiles

March 2016 by Zach Berger


An artist's rendition of the DF-ZF, China's hypersonic missile that is currently in the testing phase of development

An artist’s rendition of the DF-ZF, China’s hypersonic missile that is currently in the testing phase of development

Hypersonic missiles are specifically designed for increased survivability against modern ballistic missile defense systems. These missiles are capable of delivering conventional or nuclear payloads at ultra-high velocities over long ranges. Hypersonic missiles are delivered in two ways: (1) they can be fired from the last stages of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) or Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBM) and skip along the top of the atmosphere using specialized jet engines to accelerate to hypersonic speeds; or (2) they can be launched independently or released from a bomber—similar to cruise missiles—before accelerating to ultra-high speeds.

In contrast to conventional Reentry Vehicles (RV) that travel at supersonic speeds (between Mach 1 and Mach 5), hypersonic weapons travel along the edge of space and accelerate to between Mach 5 (around 3,800 mph) and Mach 10 (over 7,500 mph). While conventional ballistic missiles are launched at steep trajectories that inhibit speed during the high friction of launch and reentry, hypersonic missiles glide atop the atmosphere while engaging specialized jet engines to perpetually accelerate up to hypersonic speeds.

This ability to travel at ultra-high velocity is the primary appeal of hypersonic missiles because it extends their range and allows them to bypass modern layered missile defenses. [1] Hypersonic missiles are also capable of maneuvering in flight, allowing them to evade missile defense tracking systems and interceptors. This is in contrast to conventional RVs, which descend through the atmosphere on a predictable ballistic trajectory that can be tracked and intercepted by modern missile defense systems.

Nations in Pursuit of Hypersonic Missile Technology

The United States, China, and Russia are designing and testing hypersonic missiles. The U.S. is pursuing hypersonic missiles to deliver conventional payloads, while China and Russia plan to equip hypersonic missiles with conventional as well as nuclear warheads.

The United States The United States has invested in research and development of a hypersonic missile called the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon (AHW), which uses boost glide technology to propel warheads with conventional—rather than nuclear—payloads. Hypersonic boost glide technology uses a different type of propulsion known as Supersonic Combustion Ramjet or “scramjet.” Scramjet engines take in the oxygen needed for the engine to combust from the air passing through the vehicle, rather than an onboard tank. This allows AHW to achieve hypersonic speeds by maintaining thrust while reducing the weight of fuel the missile must carry. During a test in 2011, AHW was launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii, to the Reagan Test Site on the Marshall Islands. The glide vehicle successfully struck a target that was located 3,700 km away, demonstrating the long-range and high precision of the AHW. [2]

An artist's rendition of the HTV-2

An artist’s rendition of the HTV-2

Lockheed Martin is developing a hypersonic vehicle called the Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2), which is a maneuverable rocket-launched aircraft that glides through the Earth’s atmosphere at speeds up to Mach 20 (13,000 mph). [3] Equipped with numerous sensors to collect data while the vehicle is in hypersonic flight, the HTV-2 is representative of a U.S. initiative to research and develop technologies that make long-duration hypersonic flight a reality. The United States plans to use the HTV-2 and AHW for “Prompt Global Strike,” which would allow the U.S. to launch a conventional hypersonic strike against targets anywhere on the planet in less than one hour.

China Since 2014, China has carried out several tests of its Hypersonic Glide Vehicle (HGV) called the DF-ZF. The DF-ZF is launched during the last stage of a missile and can reach nearly 7,500 mph (Mach10), as well as maneuver to avoid missile defenses and zero in on targets. This weapon can be configured to carry a nuclear or conventional warhead and China claims it is precise enough to attack ships at sea. The DF-ZF is scheduled to be operational as early as 2020. [4]

Russia Russia has been designing and testing the YU-71 hypersonic missile. The YU-71 can travel at speeds of up to 7,000 mph, is highly maneuverable, and can carry conventional or nuclear warheads. It has been tested several times since February 2015 and is scheduled to be deployed between 2020 and 2025. Russia is also developing a stealth bomber called the PAK DA that is capable of carrying hypersonic cruise missiles. [5]


[1] http://nationalinterest.org/feature/coming-war-near-you-hypersonic-weapons-13649?page=2

[2] http://www.army-technology.com/projects/advanced-hypersonic-weapon-ahw/

[3] http://www.lockheedmartin.com/us/products/falcon-htv-2.html

[4] http://thediplomat.com/2015/11/china-tests-new-hypersonic-weapon/

[5] http://www.ibtimes.com/russias-secret-hypersonic-nuclear-missile-yu-71-can-breach-existing-missile-defense-1987590

Missile Threat and Proliferation


International Cooperation