Russia, China, and America's Hypersonic Missile Race
Image Credit: Wikicommons

Russia, China, and America's Hypersonic Missile Race


At first everything went as planned: the vehicle separated from a B-52 Stratofortress high above a naval air warfare center sea range in California and decoupled from the rocket booster. But 31 seconds into the test, a problem developed with a cruiser control fin and the X-51A Waverider hypersonic vehicle plummeted into the Pacific Ocean, missing its target of cruising at Mach 6 for five minutes.

Despite the August 14 failure, the race for hypersonic cruise vehicle (HCV) capability between the US, China, and Russia is still on, with India piggybacking on Russian efforts. For a number of years now, the three countries have made major advances in the development of air vehicles that can be maneuvered at speeds beyond Mach 5 (6,125kph). While interest arose during the Cold War, real advances only occurred in the early 1990s, with Russia becoming the first country to successfully test-flight a supersonic combustion ramjet, or scramjet, experimental vehicle, beating the U.S. by nine years.

The X-51A is the result of a consortium involving the USAF, Boeing, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the National Aeronautic and Space Administration, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, and the USAF Research Laboratory’s Propulsion Directorate. So far, the US$140 million program’s only success occurred on May 26, 2010, when the vehicle flew for more than 200 seconds at Mach 5 off the southern California Pacific coast.

For their part the Chinese have reportedly showed significant interest in HCV technology, with research and development work occurring at a number of centers, including the Qian Xuesen National Engineering Science Experiment Base in Beijing’s Huairou district. News emerged in 2007 — three years after the launch of the X-51A program — that Chinese scientists were planning to test scramjet models capable of reaching Mach 5.6 speed at a new wind tunnel in Beijing. According to Chinese media earlier this year, Chinese scientists may also have built a wind tunnel capable of testing supersonic devices at Mach 9.

While the commercial applications for HCV technology are self-evident — an aircraft achieving such speeds could fly from London to New York in less than an hour — they have also caught the imagination of military scientists (the Pentagon is said to have spent about US$2 billion on six hypersonic projects in the past decade alone). One objective is to push beyond ramjet-powered cruise missiles, whose speed and range are limited by the need to keep the gas flow in the combustion unit at subsonic velocity. Being able to burn fuel when airflow within the engine is at supersonic speed would greatly enhance both the speed and range of a missile.

The benefits of added range are obvious, as are those regarding speed. A June 2010 report by the Air Force Association on hypersonic technology points to the 80 minutes it took land-attack cruise missiles (LACM) launched from U.S. ships in the Arabian Sea to reach al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan in 1998 following the terrorist attacks against U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. By contrast, supercruise missiles would have “compressed the shooter-to-target loop,” meaning that the same attack would have taken 12 minutes, the report said, arguing that the 80 minutes it took for the missiles to reach their target gave al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden sufficient to escape. The ability to attack targets anywhere quickly is part of the Prompt Global Strike program initiated in 2001, when planners at the Pentagon began looking for the means to hit a foe almost instantly without risking nuclear escalation.

Closing the shooter-to-target loop is only part of the equation, however, as hypersonic missiles would also write a new chapter in the evolutionary battle between penetration and intercept capabilities.

Operating at speeds below Mach 2, current ramjet-powered missiles like Russia’s SS-N-22 “Sunburn” and the U.S.’ Harpoon, or turbojet-powered missiles such as China’s C.802 anti-ship/LACM, are slow enough that targets can intercept them. However, intercepting missiles cruising at Mach 5+ would be a formidable task and would put targets like carrier battle groups at great risk. Granted, the re-entry speed of China’s Dong Feng 21D anti-ship ballistic missile would be even greater than the maximum speed reached by a hypersonic cruise missile, but cruise missiles have the advantage of being much more maneuverable, and their low-flying ability allows them to escape notice by early-warning systems and have better chances of slipping through small tactical radar and infrared cross sections.

We’re probably years from seeing the deployment of hypersonic cruise missiles, but given the clear advantages in range, speed, and precision (not to mention the benefits of having a non-nuclear strategic strike force), this is technology that has far too much appeal to be abandoned. The arms race, it seems, has entered a supersonic phase.

November 21, 2013 at 00:32

Possibly the americans is above every one in the arm race but tends to conceal it intention so as to potrait both china,ussr successor as belligerent

September 24, 2013 at 03:09

India is on Top of the list of countries with Hypersonic missiles… for ur info follow this link

India is not piggybacking on Russian efforts… watch ur words b4 U use it… not even US, China hv developed such a technology…

Arun Johnson
August 2, 2013 at 00:59

who told to u, its not a hypersonic misile. check it on indias  website….  india and ressia have now most powerful crise misile  Brahmos that is a joint product

Old Buff Keeper
May 29, 2013 at 07:05

As one who, after the most thorough pre-flight EVER(!!), hunkered down with his crewchief and fellows, waited for our CinC, John F. Kennedy, to give the order that would end civilization, AND US(!!!), but not before we got our bird aloft, I cannot fathom the combination of fanaticism and sheer, clueless stupidity, that sends types like "Old Salt" to cheer the wastage of our most precious resource, the loyatlty, and the BLOOD(!!) of our people in unform on flights of fancy or imperialistic daydreams, cooked up by armchair activists and "think tank heroes".   The idea of going to war for reasons as petty as access to some resource or other is obscene on the very face of it, and your disappointment that the last such misadventure, against a sovereign nation that had not attacked us and (astoundingly!!) was actually a blood foe of the force that DID(!!) attack us, and for reasons that were KNOWN(!!!) to be outright lies, even as they were being told, and by those who were telling them, did not work out quite as all you "Pax Americana" fanatics had hoped and planned, is the least you despicable lunatics deserve!!!     Forget "cloning "The Gipper"!   What we really need is LEE  HARVEY OSWALD(!!!), and his colleagues on The Grassy Knoll, and in the Dallas County Records building, and supply them with a list of all the neo-cons, and speculators!

What ?
March 8, 2013 at 10:08

Shaurya is not a cruise missile, it is a quasi ballistic missile similar to Russia's Iskander. A cruise missile will sustain constant velocity from launch site to target for example Brahmos is said to cruise at M2.8 to M3.0 ( the terminal velocity might be more, it is speculated to be over M5.0 for Brahmos).

India is working on its own Hypersonic cruise missile/technolgy program which is called HSTDV (Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle) which may be tested in late 2014 according to janes weekly.

February 3, 2013 at 02:04

India's indegious developed Shaurya is the only one hypersonic missile which has achieved mach 7.5 with a range of 750 km to 2,000 km.So India is already with a hypersonic nuclear cruise missile what is a draem for other big countries like usa,china,france and russia.So India is not pigybacking anyones effort.Brahmos-2 will be the first hypersonic cruise missile for russia but not for India.

September 9, 2012 at 04:30

forget he french / they've cost us to much already our debt has been paid for 50 years maybee more . looks like they want syria or wherever

Old Salt
August 21, 2012 at 23:01

Duke is typical of the liberla peace freaks and New World Order, We aRe thWorld types.
Too bad Duke but they have shipyards that not only have been cranking out fast attack subs and now Boomers, but 5 Regan class carriers (the 2 Rusiian ones were for training their pilots using J-15 aircraft variants).
You wanted that fraud and charlatan and socialist in office who now is the usurper and despot in the making…gave away the Iraq Oil Contract (we bled and he through the oil away!), the Canadian contract, and then after the UN put sanctions on Iran, he gace them unilaterally permission to free trade with Iran (at least Bush went through the UN!).
The question is the last three wars we knew who the enemy was – this time I am in serious doubt to attack from within or without…the next war bring back the draft and grab everyone of those slackers from the sixties to the present and put them in front of our brave but tired troops to catch some lead and learn the price of the nails that built this nation…more than iron metal or iron-will, but iron character.
To late to dig up Mr. Reagan and clone him … and the Obama clone in a rush to get done used voodoo, got a genie to ask what he wanted, and he asked for white, thight and out of sight – and we got Biden (a tampon would have been better for what he asked for!)
The war is on and only a question of when with Turkey pissed, France in the lead of western forces, and Chine starved for resources, and Russia in fear of lossing the next to last warm water port it has…and while we paid to dearm Russian nukes, they guilt what – what a fool and his mob Obama was, and what great risk he has put our nation let alone our children in – but wasn't the plan all along?

August 21, 2012 at 18:21

why would other people use what still being solved? use your few brain cells and think about it, i said the military jet engines are not quite there yet, as for other non-major-frontline-engines, yes plenty of nations are using it, chinese missile(such as the c-802) and its small turbo fans are used by many nations, j-7 and its engines are used all over

duke chan
August 21, 2012 at 16:18

Does anyone use them beside the Chinese? Face it.

Bad leaders = More Killing Machines
August 21, 2012 at 08:48

The Obama Adminsitration is bent on developing deadly killing machines which is what the arms race is all about.  When the Nobel Prize Committee going to strip off that NOBEL PEACE PRIZE award from that Chief-Commander-of-Global-Arms-Race, Chief-Commander-of-Assasination, Chief-Commander-of-Global-Wars in Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, iraq, and possibly Iran in the near future.  Not to mention China.
This "half-President"  Mr Obama and the other half-President" – that war-mongering ultra conservative shameless borrower of that "Clinton" name – are worse than President Carter.  In comparison, President Carter stands out like a Giant  next to these two irresponsible, unscrupulous, and disastrous "half-presidents".
Let's hope there's a better team to replace these two "Jonahs" of the world.

August 21, 2012 at 04:53

You are correct. The AHW thus far is the leading demonstrator.

August 21, 2012 at 03:14

go educate yourself, china builds lots of jets engines, it is only the high end military jet engines used in fighter jets that are causing a problem and that too is only due to manufracturing concerrns ie: quality control and not a design issue. however that problem is seemingly being solved and in 10 years or less they should be completely self suficient in that area too.

Bob Carpenter
August 20, 2012 at 18:21

The article fails to mention last years successful test of the Army's Advanced Hypersonic Weapon late last year. If I'm not mistaken, The AHW currently heads the pack in the race for Hypervelocity capabilities.

duke chan
August 20, 2012 at 18:17

Please stop giving fake hypes to the Chinese. They do not have even a capability to build a regular jet engine. This is a cold war trap for the Chinese, they spend money on somethings they never win until they collapse.

August 20, 2012 at 16:53

Don't worry about India…since they are piggybacking on Russia's effort…Wait for few more year and see with Gods help how many countries will either caught up with technology or how many countries will surpass…

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