American Hypersonic Missile Tests: A Threat to China and Russia

Hypersonic Air-Breathing Weapons Concept (HAWC) missile, as imagined by an artist (Courtesy: Raytheon Missiles & Defense)

Unfortunately, the American military's pursuit of hypersonic weapons has met with some notable failures. It might not matter, though, given that the United States appears to be on the cusp of producing a number of technologies that will have a clear advantage over its adversaries.

A total of 21 public hypersonic missile tests were conducted by the United States between April 2010 and July 2022. Ten of the 21 tests passed with flying colors, three passed with varying degrees of success, and eight failed completely.

The United States has increased its hypersonic efforts in response to new weapons being developed by rival adversaries China and, to a lesser extent, Russia, with more than half of those 10 successful tests occurring in the last 11 months.

Many nations have recently placed a premium on developing air defense systems despite their ineffectiveness against missiles or warheads traveling at speeds greater than Mach 5.

Hypersonic missiles are currently only in use in China and Russia, with the United States playing catch-up. This has led to much discussion about why the United States has lagged behind other countries in hypersonic technology. People's perception of the rivalry has been influenced more by the degree of openness practiced in each country than by the level of technological progress itself.

Despite its occasional opacity, the United States has been much more open about its hypersonic endeavors, reporting both successes and failures when they occur. Since neither Russia nor China openly reports the shortcomings of its top-tier defense systems, making fair comparisons is difficult. For instance, the United States may be late to the game, but it has developed scramjet propulsion for hypersonic cruise missiles, a technique that no other country has yet succeeded in using. This indicates that the United States is, at least in some cases, technologically more advanced than its rivals.

Despite America's best efforts, there will inevitably be setbacks. The United States may be well-positioned to win the actual hypersonic arms race, which is the race to field the most effective systems, as a result of several high-profile triumphs during the past 11 months.

A public address marked the beginning of today's hypersonic missile race.

Putin's remark in March of 2018 has been widely seen as the spark that ignited the current missile race. Putin said in his state of the nation address that Russia's new Kh47M2 Kinzhal and Avangard boost-glide missile systems will render all other countries' air defense systems obsolete.

"Sarmat is a formidable missile and, owing to its characteristics, is untroubled by even the most advanced missile defence systems," Putin said of the nation’s newest nuclear ICBM.

"But we did not stop there. We have started to develop new types of strategic arms that do not use ballistic trajectories at all when moving toward a target, and, therefore, missile defense systems are useless against them. They are absolutely pointless. "

China's DF-ZF hypersonic boost-glide anti-ship missile entered service in 2019, following Russia's example. Since then, no country has successfully deployed a modern hypersonic weapon, while researchers from Australia to Brazil are still hard at work on the problem. The United States currently has over seventy hypersonic development initiatives funded by the Pentagon budget, but the country has not yet broken the test-and-development-to-operational-use chasm.

Results of American missile tests so far

The United States has been slow to conduct missile tests despite widespread coverage of the topic in the media. Despite fast advancements achieved by competitors in Russia and China, the United States has conducted only 21 tests over a 12-year period, averaging slightly fewer than two launches per year.

Source:Youtube | US Tests Hypersonic Missiles, Could Hit Targets in Just 30 Minutes

But there are valid reasons for the sluggish pace of improvement. The United States has been at the forefront of hypersonics study for many years. The United States had already launched the first hypersonic vehicle, flown the first crewed hypersonic aircraft, and had plans for a hypersonic bomber in development when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. NASA's hypersonic X-43 and Boeing's X-51 continued to break records and set milestones into the 21st century.

In reality, hypersonic travel isn't all that uncommon. For example, hypersonic speeds are routine for the Space Shuttle and virtually all ballistic missiles. It is not just speed, but speed combined with mobility, that makes current hypersonic missile platforms so hazardous. Modern hypersonic missiles are challenging to track and intercept because of their maneuverability at such high speeds. However, the research and testing phases of a weapon capable of this feat are lengthy and costly due to the need for specific equipment and environments. Only one wind tunnel in the United States is capable of supporting hypersonic speeds, and NASA owns it, thus the country simply doesn't have enough of these facilities to allow quick development and testing.

However, the Pentagon has already started spending funds to upgrade America's testing infrastructure, and it seems likely that the country's progress in this arena will continue to quicken as the testing bottle-neck caused by limited access to facilities loosens.

Note that while the United States does report both hypersonic triumphs and failures, neither Russia nor China do. Neither country has disclosed the percentage of failed tests of their hypersonic weapons; instead, they have focused on trumpeting the achievements.

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