A reality check of ‘Hype’rsonic Weapons
Hypersonic weapons' development and deployment have garnered much international attention in the last few years. Worldwide, media outlets describe hypersonic weapons as unstoppable weapons with existing ballistic missile defense systems. Also, they are projecting them as a new class of weapons with a severe potential to destabilize status quo security dynamics between great powers in the international system. The media outlet's claims are grounded on some of the estimates of militaries and global security experts.
The development of hypersonic weapons is an evolution in the development of missile capabilities. Hypersonic weapons are missiles that travel four times and above the speed of sound (Mach 4 = >). Indeed, hypersonic weapons are a new class of weapons, but they are not new or revolutionary. The Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) travel close to Mach 20-24 during their terminal phase (descent) before hitting the target. Also, we have had supersonic cruise missiles (Example: BrahMos) for years that travel between 1<Mach<3.
Many countries worldwide are working on developing and deploying hypersonic weapons with dedicated operations capabilities in air, land, and sea war domains. So far, Russia is leading the so-called hypersonic arms race, following China and the US. Russia deployed hypersonic weapons (Avangard, Tsirkon, Kinzhal) in air, land, and sea domains. China has one operational hypersonic weapon (DF-17) and tested many. The US is working intensely to catch up with Russia and China, and its weapons are in the testing phase.
The picture was taken from Cameron L. Tracy and David Wright's work "Modeling the Performance of Hypersonic Boost-Glide Missiles.
Hypersonic weapons are insanely fast and travel in a depressed trajectory, unlike ballistic missiles. However, hypersonic weapons can be tracked through their heat signature using space-based infrared systems, contrary to popular belief. According to Federation of American Scientists simulation data, hypersonic weapons don't offer a significant advantage compared to ballistic missiles over Intercontinental distances as many claims to be. As Tracy and Wright's work suggests, ballistic missiles fired with a depressed trajectory have better delivery time than hypersonic weapons. Hypersonic weapons' advantage is that maneuverability during their terminal or descent phase determines nearly impossible to specify the target. These weapons are deadly in the short and medium ranges due to their low trajectory, making it challenging to track till the last few minutes and short travel time. Few countreis are working towards addressing the hypersonic missile threats by developing new defense systems and counter weapons. Without question, hypersonic weapons capabilities have the potential to destabilize the international security dynamics to a certain extent for some time, but the hype built around them exceeds their capabilities in reality.