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Hypersonic Arms Race Reaches a Fever Pitch among Several Nations

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By William Tucker
Contributor, In Homeland Security

Over the past two decades, the military and defense contractors of several major nations have made statements on the move toward hypersonic weapons and aircraft. Hypersonic flight is generally defined as anything that reaches speeds above Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound. These types of weapons could conceivably strike a target anywhere on the globe within minutes.

Although prototypes have appeared over the years, it seems that the tempo of scientific discovery, so necessary to make these devices a reality, has reached a fever pitch. We may be in the midst of another arms race, even if some of the more significant technical capability details such as launching, targeting and doctrine remain elusive.

DoD Created ‘Prompt Global Strike’ Program to Use Weapons on Short Notice

The allure of hypersonic capabilities is understandable from a military standpoint. In the early 2000s, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) pursued a program known as “prompt global strike” with the idea of using a conventional weapon on short notice. That program would allow the President to target a rogue regime developing a nuclear capability as a means of conflict deterrence.

North Korea and Iran fit the bill for this type of strike should either nation develop a deliverable nuclear weapon, or worse, actually decide to use it.

China and Russia have pursued hypersonic capabilities as well. When the George W. Bush administration explored the possibility of building a missile defense shield in Europe to deter a potential Iranian nuclear weapons program, Russia viewed the move as a threat to U.S.-Russian nuclear parity. In response, Moscow ramped up its Topol M and Iskander missile programs to counter Washington’s missile defense plan.

Russia Plans to Counter US Defenses with Overwhelming Number of Weapons

Taking the threat further, Russia began investing heavily in hypersonic capabilities, hoping to overwhelm any potential missile defense system with sheer numbers. This line of thinking is still prevalent in Russia and hypersonic weapons would create rapid first-strike capabilities.

In addition, Russia has stated that it is developing a hypersonic anti-ship missile. That project is a year ahead of schedule.

China Developing Hypersonic Gliders for Use in Near Future

China has tested hypersonic gliders, the most notable prototype being the DF-ZF hypersonic glide vehicle. Recently, China raised the stakes by successfully testing a new missile known as the DF-17, the first missile system to use a hypersonic glide vehicle as its payload. The DF-17 is expected to be in service by 2020.

US Is Also Developing Weapons

The U.S. is involved in numerous development projects in the field, despite claims by some defense hawks that Washington has fallen behind in the arms race. U.S. defense contractor Boeing developed the X-51 Waverider in 2005, while Lockheed Martin is developing a successor to the SR-71 that will reach speeds greater than Mach 5.

Washington has also pursued hypersonic missile technology using conventional warheads, while other warheads rely on the missile’s kinetic energy. A mix of both conventional and kinetic energy warheads is another avenue the DoD is exploring.

Naturally, the DoD wants to enhance its existing missile defense capabilities to protect against a potential threat. As the technology of these hypersonic vehicles mature, new applications and engineering breakthroughs will follow.

The implications of hypersonic technology  currently raises more questions than answers about how opposing nations will use this technology.  For now, however, an arms race is noticeably afoot.

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