Russia’s use of hypersonic weapons in warfare represents a new development in the history of modern conflict, introducing a previously unprecedented speed of attack.
Russia Hypersonic Weapons
There may have been little actual tactical benefit or rationale for using hypersonic weapons against Ukraine, so it seems to appear as somewhat of an intimidation tactic to show the US, NATO and the world that it now operates with a margin of military superiority to some extent.
Hypersonic weapons certainly present a number paradigm-changing levels of high-speed attack. Traveling at 5 times the speed of sound, defenders simply have little to no time to actually see, track and therefore defend against incoming hypersonic attacks.
US Army weapons developers directly and clearly say that the US is “number three” in the world of hypersonics, behind both Russia and China.
However, while this sounds and is potentially alarming, there are a few lesser recognized things to consider regarding hypersonics.
US Hypersonic Weapons
First, the US is fast-progressing with its own hypersonic weapons arsenal and plans to deliver a ground-launched Long Range Hypersonic Weapon by 2023. Eight missiles will travel in a mobile battery and operate with an ability to hold long-range targets at risk of ultra-high-speed hypersonic attack. The new LRHW will also be deployable aboard an Air Force C-17 cargo plane and therefore be capable of expeditionary operations and rapid mobilization.
LRHW developers are working intensely to achieve an ambitious timeframe given the current global threat environment. Army developers are also thinking forward and pursuing new innovations to enable hypersonic weapons to actually hit “maneuvering” targets, something which has not thus far been possible. Senior Army weapons developers call it a “tech insertion,” indicating that sensor and software upgrades can help modify the weapon’s flight guidance and targeting systems to introduce an ability to track and fire upon mobile targets. This would of course be extremely significant for ground commanders looking to maneuver into new positions and hold advancing enemy targets at risk.
Video Above: The Long Range Hypersonic Weapon and Status of United States Hypersonic Weapons
At the same time, the Air Force continues to make rapid progress with its Air Launched Rapid Response Weapon, or ARRW, a fighter-jet and airplane-mounted weapon able to fire at ground targets at high speeds. Hypersonics increase survivability to a large degree because launching an attack means giving up your combat location as it can be detected by an enemy at the moment of launch. Its speed of travel however, means the launching location will have a much better time window through which to relocate and escape detection.
Therefore, if there is any kind of short-lived “gap” or discrepancy in military capability giving Russia a troubling window of advantage, the Pentagon is now extremely close to closing it.
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Part of closing the gap with any possible hypersonic weapons superiority also involves evolving defenses against them.
The world is now focused on the advent of hypersonic weapons given Russia’s recent decision to fire them in Ukraine, a move likely intended to send an intimidating message to NATO, the US and other would-be rivals.
The conventional wisdom and widely discussed reality is that there is simply no actual operational effective defense against hypersonic weapons. That is true. However, there may be misconceptions regarding the pressing question as to whether they can actually be defended. The answer is maybe … and even leaning toward a “yes.”
Avenues of exploration in the world of hypersonics defenses are multi-faceted, including the exploration of something called “boundary layer phenomenology,” a method of inquiry exploring the possibility of disrupting the “air flow” surrounding a hypersonic projectile to throw it off course.
A senior official with the Air Force Research Laboratory explained this to The National Interest in a previous interview, indicating that new innovations are getting traction exploring this possibility. Typically, the hope would be for a hypersonic projectile to travel with a “laminar” or smooth air flow surrounding the weapon as it travels, something which favors stability in flight. However, should the air flow become “turbulent” in any way, the molecules could shift in flight to disrupt the air flow and succeed in actually throwing the weapon off course.
Video Above: How Quickly can US Close Hypersonics Weapons Gap with Russia & China?
Another emerging area of hypersonic defenses is based in space, meaning lower-flying, better networked satellites can help establish a “continuous” targeting track of an approaching hypersonic weapon. Under current circumstances, hypersonic projectiles will likely travel too quickly from one radar aperture to another, making it virtually impossible to establish a consistent, steady targeting “track.”
When a missile traveling that fast passes from one radar “field of regard” to another, it could be lost in transition and therefore need to be reacquired. That is a process which can impede any continuous tracking and therefore complicate any effort to establish a track loop sufficient to destroy the attack.
Networking and processing this kind of data is the reason why the Pentagon is launching a new Hypersonic Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor technology to establish a continuous track of fast-moving hypersonic missiles from “beyond-line-of-sight” by networking small satellites to one another.
“One method is obviously data fusion and doing what fusion implies, I need to get that data that comes from the satellites down to the ground and to weapons as quickly as possible. A method of doing that is potentially processing some of that data in real time to a weapons database and transfer that data from the satellite system down to the weapon,” Mike Ciffone, director, Strategy, Capture & Operations, OPIR & Geospatial Systems, Northrop Grumman, told reports at a Space and Missile Defense Symposium last year.
Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University