Understanding Hypersonic Weapons

Sub Title : A comprehensive analysis of hypersonic weapons and capabilities of advanced militaries in this domain

Issues Details : Vol 18 Issue 1 Mar – Apr 2024

Author : Lt Col Vikas Mishra

Page No. : 35

Category : Military Technology

: March 22, 2024

Hypersonic weapons, with speeds exceeding Mach 5, redefine modern warfare. Their unparalleled velocity enables rapid deployment and precise targeting, challenging traditional defence systems. This technology heralds a new era of strategic capability, demanding careful consideration in global security dynamics

The combination of a more tense geopolitical environment and improvements in strategic technologies like Quantum technology, Unmanned Aerial System (UAS), Military Internet of Things (MIoT), hypersonic weapons etc, have the potential to contribute to arms race dynamics. Hypersonic Weapon System with the advantages of speed, range, low altitude of flight and complemented by manoeuvrability has the potential to provide a decisive military edge over adversaries. The Munich Security Report 2019 described hypersonic weapons as “potentially game changing weapons”, that could, “bypass any current missile defences and radically reduce the warning time for a target”. On 27 December 2019, Russia announced that Avangard, a nuclear armed hypersonic boost glide weapon invulnerable to interception by any current ballistic missile defence system, had become operational. The long range of hypersonic weapons, combined with their manoeuvrability and intended greater precision than traditional long range delivery vehicles like ICBMs. Further, it may be unclear, whether the hypersonic strike is with weapons that are conventional or nuclear, their characteristics mean that it could be unclear what the intended target is (both in terms of country and nature of the target inside a country) until very late. The decision makers will have very little time to respond because of their speed, manoeuvrability and low altitude of flight. Nevertheless, hypersonic weapons may offer potential new capabilities to the armed forces globally and will have significant impact on future warfare. The inability to discern enemy targets as well as the inability to detect and react quickly to a hypersonic attack could lead to the dismantling of traditional deterrence strategies.

What are Hypersonic Weapons?

The main advantages of hypersonic weapons are their speed, manoeuvrability, and range which makes them difficult to track, target and defeat. Several countries have invested heavily in R&D and has most advanced hypersonic weapons programs, which fly at speeds of at least Mach 5 (five times the speed of sound). There are two main classes of hypersonic weapons viz hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV) and hypersonic cruise missiles (HCM). HGV are launched from a rocket before gliding to a target and hypersonic cruise missiles, which are powered by high speed, air breathing engines during flight. Unlike ballistic missiles, hypersonic weapons do not follow predictable parabolic trajectory and can manoeuvre enroute to their terminal object. According to the Financial Times of 16 October 2021, “China tested a nuclear capable hypersonic missile in August that circled the globe before speeding towards its target, demonstrating an advanced space capability.” The remarkable thing about the test is that the warhead was launched into orbit, orbited earth, and

re-entered the atmosphere, approaching its target at hypersonic speed and if we put into practical defence and security apparatus, this involved putting payload or warheads into low earth orbit and having them seek targets on earth and avoid the air defence or missile defence system of targeted enemy nation.

The strategy is not new. The Soviet Union experimented with this type of warhead in the early 1960s. The United States called it a “Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS)” during the Cold War period. As former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former Commander of US Strategic Command General John Hyten has stated, that “hypersonic weapons could enable responsive, long range, strike options against distant, defended, and/or time critical threats [such as road mobile missiles] when other forces are unavailable, denied access, or not preferred.”

Present Development Status of Hypersonice Weapon

It is presumed that hypersonic weapons will strengthen conventional deterrence by providing equal opportunities to their adversaries who are also developing and some have already deployed hypersonic weapons. This weapon system has the capability to create instability between nuclear armed nations by increasing fears of a disarming attack and by fuelling a dangerous arms race. Russia’s repeated use of advanced hypersonic missiles as part of its bombardment of Ukraine may be getting the bulk of the West’s attention, but as per the US defence officials and OSINT, it is China that has the world’s leading hypersonic arsenal. Although Russia, China, and the United States, possess the most advanced hypersonic weapons programs, several other countries including India, Australia, France, Germany, South Korea, North Korea and Japan are also developing hypersonic weapons technology.


Russia is pursuing two hypersonic weapons programs viz the Avangard and the 3M22 Tsirkon (or Zircon) and has reportedly fielded the Kinzhal (“Dagger”), a manoeuvrable air-launched ballistic missile. Avangard is a hypersonic glide vehicle launched from an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), giving it “effectively unlimited range.” Reports indicate that Avangard is currently deployed on the SS-19 Stiletto ICBM, though Russia plans to eventually launch the vehicle from the Sarmat ICBM. Sarmat reportedly entered combat duty in September 2023. Avangard features onboard countermeasures and will reportedly carry a nuclear warhead. It was successfully tested twice in 2016 and once in December 2018, reportedly reaching speeds of Mach 20. Russian news sources claim that Avangard entered combat duty in December 2019. In addition, Russia has fielded Kinzhal, a manoeuvrable air-launched ballistic missile modified from the Iskander missile. Russia reportedly fired Kinzhal from a MiG-31 interceptor aircraft in Ukraine, as per OSINT.


The United States has been engaged in hypersonic research since the 1980s. It has resumed its activities in 2003, as per George W. Bush administration’s Prompt Global Strike (PGS) programme that aimed at providing the United States with the capability to launch attacks against targets around the world in under an hour (Woolf, 2020). Until recently, though, the funding for US hypersonic projects has been quite limited. The various hypersonic technology and weapon development programmes pursued by the United States are conducted by the US Navy, US Army, and the US Air Force as well as the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The US Navy and the US Army are jointly developing a Common Hypersonic Glide Body (C-HGB) that each military service will adapt to its purpose. The US Army will use the common glide body for its Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon and the US Navy for its Conventional Prompt Strike (IISS, 2020). Hypersonic efforts of the US Air Force originally focused on the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon (HCSW – “Hacksaw”) and on the AGM-183A Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW – “Arrow”). Unlike programs in China and Russia, US hypersonic weapons are to be conventionally armed. As a result, US hypersonic weapons will likely require greater accuracy and will be more technically challenging to develop than nuclear-armed Chinese and Russian systems. Indeed, according to one expert, “a nuclear-armed glider would be effective if it were 10 or even 100 times less accurate [than a conventionally armed glider]” due to nuclear blast effects.


India has similarly collaborated with Russia on the development of BrahMos II, a Mach 7 hypersonic cruise missile. Although BrahMos II was initially intended to be fielded in 2017, news reports indicate that the program faces significant delays and is now scheduled to achieve initial operational capability between 2025 and 2028. Reportedly, India is also developing an indigenous, dual-capable hypersonic cruise missile as part of its Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle program and successfully tested a Mach 6 scramjet in June 2019 and September 2020. India operates approximately 12 hypersonic wind tunnels and is capable of testing speeds of up to Mach 13. For India, the short-range hypersonic missiles would be especially valuable due to their manoeuvrability for striking targets otherwise obscured by mountains in contingencies involving Pakistan and China.


As per reports published in open media, China may have tested a nuclear capable HGV launched by a Long March rocket in August 2021. In contrast to the ballistic missiles that China has previously used to launch HGVs, the Long March, a fractional orbital bombardment system (FOBS), launches the HGV into orbit before the HGV deorbits to its target. This could provide China with a space based global strike capability and further reduce the amount of target warning time prior to a strike. China has tested the DF-ZF HGV (previously referred to as the WU-14) at least nine times since 2014. US defence officials have reportedly identified the range of the DF-ZF as approximately 1,200 miles and have stated that the vehicle may be capable of performing “extreme manoeuvres” during flight. China reportedly fielded the DF-ZF in 2020

Hypersonic Weapons may Contribute to Crisis Instability on Global and Regional Scales

The term strategic stability among nations or in the region, may be described as the overall stability of a bilateral relationship that may be affected by a wide range of factors viz military, political, diplomatic, and economic. Hypersonic weapons could exacerbate the stability risks posed by other advancing technologies of concern, such as counterspace and cyber capabilities. There is an ongoing debate on the impact of hypersonic weapons on strategic stability. The extreme speeds of hypersonic weapons coupled with their ability to evade missile detection will ultimately contribute to crisis instability in the event of large scale military conflicts as well as conflicts in smaller theatres. Crisis instability can be defined as, “the condition that exists when either leader feels pressure because of emotion, uncertainty, miscalculation, misperception, or the posture of forces to strike first to avoid the worse consequence of incurring a first strike.” While some consider these weapons to be a game changer, others disagree. The significant difference between ICBM and hypersonic missiles is the manoeuvrability at low altitudes which results in an increased degree of unpredictability, as the target of an incoming hypersonic missile is uncertain. The uncertainty of the target and their ability to manoeuvre at high speeds make it more difficult, if not impossible, to defend against an attack with hypersonic weapons. Hypersonic weapons can prompt an escalation of a conflict due to target and warhead ambiguity i.e. missiles that can be armed with either a conventional or a nuclear warhead.

The development and deployment of hypersonic weapons has the potential to upend the strategic stability in a particular region or globally. It would therefore be necessary to consider the option for reaching possible agreements that limit, or potentially outlaw, this class of weapons. However, while the Cold War was characterised by the power struggle between two dominant world powers viz USSR and US, the world of today is multipolar, which will complicate reaching arms control agreements and will be difficult, if not impossible in achieving the desired strategic stability.

Present Status of Possible Defence Against Hypersonic Weapons

The inherent speed and the manoeuvrability of the hypersonic missile, will require countermeasure that should be able to travel at comparative speeds while tracking and adjusting to its target. The compressed response time or countering hypersonic weapons compounds the inherent challenges. Even with the capability to intercept, one must be able to detect a launch, discriminate, and effectively target the weapon, and then prepare and fire one’s own, possibly within a few minutes. The short timeframes mean near ubiquitous surveillance would be necessary to respond to a surprise launch and HGVs fly too low for most early warning systems to detect. When we look at this, we look at it from a detect, control, and engage framework. Some experts believe that current systems, such as THAAD, can be adapted to be capable of intercepting HGVs in the terminal phase. Indeed, Russia announced in March 2020 that it had successfully destro yed target missiles moving at hypersonic speeds with its S-400 air defence system. The broader consensus is that the highest likelihood for success in interdiction would come during the initial launch/boost phase, before the missile has reached its ultimate speed and, in the case of HGVs, left the Earth’s atmosphere. Theoretically, the F-35 has sensors capable of detecting the infrared signatures of a rocket launch, which could interdict during the boost phase.

Hypersonic Weapons Market

One of the key factors driving the growth of hypersonic technology is the increasing need for faster and more advanced military capabilities. Hypersonic weapons have the potentials to revolutionise military operations by their ability to strike targets with unprecedented speed, reducing the response time for decision makers and increasing the effectiveness of operations. The estimated market size of hypersonic weapons is USD 6.8 billion in 2023 (base year considered is 2022) and is expected to be worth USD 14,5 billion by 2030, growing at a CAGR of 11.4% during the forecast period. Asia pacific is expected to lead the hypersonic market and this is attributed to large military powers to include China, Australia, and Japan (as per report by Markets and Markets, The growth of the market can be attributed to significant rise in demand for precision strike and strategic deterrence Capabilities.

Way Forward

Hypersonic Weapon System with the advantages of speed, range and manoeuvrability has the potential to evade the existing Air Defence Systems and to mitigate or minimise the impact of these weapons, the following measures are being recommended:-

Steps should be taken by the developed nations like US, Russia and China and coordinate risk mitigation measures, such as expanding New START, negotiating new multilateral arms control agreements etc.

 Undertaking transparency and confidence building measures at the highest level.

 Regulate Export and Proliferation of Hypersonic technology.

 Whole new missile defence structures with integrated sensors, faster processing speeds and communications as well as operational doctrine and organisational structures may be required to be developed to mitigate the probable impact and made them operational.

(e) Development of space based detection systems may have the capabilities to detect these missiles at the time of launch and can be used in conjunction with ground based interception systems.

(f)  Latest technologies like AI, datamining, quantum technologies, IoT etc may be incorporated in decision making at integrated command and control centres.

(g) The ways in which political decisions and risk assessments are made requires further research, including extensive wargaming of various plausible conflict scenarios, to better understand how those dynamics might evolve.

(h) Initiate R&D on active countermeasures and adopt Passive Counter measures.


Near space is becoming a critical new domain for military competition. Moreover, the speed and manoeuvrability of hypersonic weapons make defending against them difficult to accomplish at an affordable cost, potentially ushering in an era of offence dominance in conventional strike warfare. Hypersonic weapons development has the potential to nullify existing ballistic missile defence systems and contribute to crisis instability on global and regional scales and these have the potentials to revolutionise military operations by their ability to strike targets with unprecedented speed, reducing the response time for decision makers and increasing the effectiveness of operation.

The perceived advantage of hypersonic weapons system has created a sense of urgency to develop and deploy these weapons with an aim to enhance strategic deterrence, increase operational flexibility and ensure national security. Countries such as the US, Russia, China, India, and other countries have been actively investing in the research, development and testing of hypersonic technology. In short, will they fundamentally change the balance of power or new arms race, or will they provide more of an evolved capability? The answer is still unclear, in part because their ultimate capability will be unknown until the technologies reach full maturity, but also because it is not yet apparent how nations will employ them in the future or what norms may be developed to constrain their employment.