What are hypersonic missiles? China's new weapons explained after nuclear-capable missile test alarms US

Asia's Tech News Daily

China’s advanced military capabilities took the US by surprise after it was revealed the Asian superpower reportedly tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile that circled around the earth before speeding towards its target.

The rocket, which carried a hypersonic glide vehicle that flew through low-orbit space, missed its target by about 24 miles when it was secretly tested in August, according to the Financial Times.

The advanced technology highlights China’s progress in hypersonic weaponry, which US officials had underestimated until learning of the missile test.

© Provided by The i A hypersonic air-breathing weapons concept (HAWC) missile as seen in an artist’s conception (Photo: Reuters)

However, the Chinese foreign ministry denied the reports and said the country tested a space vehicle in July, not a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile.

Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said it had been a “routine test” for the purpose of testing technology to reuse the vehicle.

The hypersonic arms race is accelerating with the US, Russia and North Korea developing the weapons to break through current generation anti-missile defence systems.

How do hypersonic weapons work?

There are two types of hypersonic technology – boost-glide weapons and hypersonic cruise missiles.

Boost-glide weapons involve a maneuverable glide vehicle placed atop a ballistic missile or rocket booster to launch the weapon into the upper atmosphere, in a similar way to that in which a spacecraft is launched into orbit.

The glider is released and falls towards the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds, continuing towards its target in unpowered flight. 

© Provided by The i Russia launched a new hypersonic cruise missile from a submarine in October (Photo: Russian Defence Ministry/AFP)

Cruise missiles use high speed, air-breathing engines known as “scramjets” (supersonic combustion ramjets) to travel to hypersonic speeds.

Both types can reach targets more rapidly than subsonic or even supersonic cruise missiles and warplanes.

How fast can they travel?

A hypersonic missile is a vehicle that can travel at five times the speed of sound – crossing the supersonic limit, Mach 5 – at about one mile per hour.

It can travel faster than current nuclear-capable ballistic and cruise missiles at low altitudes, can change course during flight and does not follow a predictable trajectory like conventional missiles.

© Provided by The i Read More – Featured Image

Such is its manoeuvrability that it can potentially evade missile shields and early warning systems – and is harder to track.

Which countries are developing them?

The US and Russia have conducted tests of hypersonic weapons in recent months, and North Korea said last month it had tested a newly developed hypersonic missile.

© Provided by The i North Korea claimed that it successfully tested a new hypersonic missile on 28 September (Photo: Korean Central News Agency/AP)

In July, Russia successfully tested a Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missile, which President Vladimir Putin touted as part of a new generation of missile systems. Moscow also tested the weapon from a submarine for the first time.

The US said in late September that it had tested an air-breathing hypersonic weapon – meaning it sustain flight on its own through the atmosphere like a cruise missile – marking the first successful test of that class of weapon since 2013.

North Korea fired a newly developed hypersonic missile, calling it a “strategic weapon” that boosted its defence capabilities, though some South Korean analysts described the test as a failure.

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