Hypersonic weapons: Who has them and why it matters
They’re so fast, their speed can change the surrounding air molecules. They can carry a nuclear warhead, fly low and be hard to detect.
Hypersonic weapons are at the centre of escalating competition between the US and China.
In an appearance on Bloomberg TV on Oct 27, General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, likened China’s suspected tests of a hypersonic weapons system this summer to a “Sputnik moment,” a reference to the Soviet Union’s pioneering launch of a satellite in 1957, giving it an early lead in the space race and shocking the US.
WHAT ARE HYPERSONIC WEAPONS?
They are normally defined as fast, low-flying, and highly maneuverable weapons designed to be too quick and agile for traditional missile defense systems to detect in time.
Unlike ballistic missiles, hypersonic weapons don’t follow a predetermined, arched trajectory and can maneuver on the way to their destination, according to the Congressional Research Service.
The term “hypersonic” describes any speed faster than five times that of sound, which is roughly 760 miles (1,220km) per hour at sea level, meaning these weapons can travel at least 3,800 miles per hour.
At hypersonic speeds, the air molecules around the flight vehicle start to change, breaking apart or gaining a charge in a process called ionisation. This subjects the hypersonic vehicle to “tremendous” stresses as it pushes through the atmosphere, according to a 2018 US Army paper.
WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT KINDS OF HYPERSONIC WEAPONS?
There are two main types – glide vehicles and cruise missiles.
Most of the attention is focused on the former, which are launched from a rocket before gliding to their target, because of the challenges of achieving hypersonic propulsion of missiles.
The missiles have engines called scramjets that use the air’s oxygen and produce thrust during their flight, allowing them to cruise at a steady speed and altitude.
News Credit: www.channelnewsasia.com