North Korea has joined the major powers, such as Russia, China and the United States with its early Tuesday morning test of a new hypersonic missile.
The missile test was North Korea's third round of launches this month.
Kim Jong Un in recent political speeches has vowed to bolster his nuclear program as a deterrent to the US. As the country continues its testing activity, we explain what a hypersonic missile is and what its capabilities are.
What are hypersonic nuclear missiles?
A hypersonic missile travels at speeds of Mach 5 and higher — five times faster than the speed of sound (3,836 mph), which is around 1 mile per second.
Some missiles, such as Russia’s upcoming Kh-47M2 Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile, are allegedly capable of reaching Mach 10 speeds (7,672 mph) and distances up to 1,200 miles.
They are highly manoeuvrable and do not follow a predictable arc as they travel. They are said to combine the speed of ballistic missiles with the manoeuvring capabilities of cruise missiles. The speed makes them hard to track compared to traditional missile tech.
Hypersonic missiles come in two variants: hypersonic cruise missiles and hypersonic glide vehicles.
“Hypersonic cruise missiles are powered all the way to their targets using an advanced propulsion system called a SCRAMJET. These are very, very fast. You may have six minutes from the time its launched until the time it strikes,” Rich Moore, senior engineer and Rand researcher explained to CNBC.
Hypersonic cruise missiles can fly at altitudes up to 100,000 feet whereas hypersonic glide vehicles can fly above 100,000 feet.
Meanwhile, hypersonic glide vehicles are placed on top of rockets, launched, and then glide on top of the atmosphere.
Advantages of a hypersonic missile
Hypersonic missiles offer a number of advantages over subsonic and supersonic weapons.
A hypersonic weapon system will provide a nation with significantly enhanced strike capabilities. Furthermore, the hypersonic missile can overcome the defences of a heavily defended target such as that of an aircraft carrier.
However, the most critical advantage of a hypersonic missile is that currently there is no operational or reliable method of intercepting them.
Rand senior engineer George Nacouzi added that because hypersonic weapons are manoeuvrable and therefore, unpredictable, they are difficult to defend against.
Countries developing hypersonic missiles
As per a report in partyardmilitary.com, the US is developing a range of advanced hypersonic systems and has awarded Lockheed Martin contracts for the development of two systems: the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon ($928 million) and AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon ($480 million).
China, on the other hand, has a number of ongoing hypersonic projects. The nation is reportedly close to deploying a ballistic missile-launched hypersonic glide vehicle, the DF-17 and has publicly exhibited a scramjet-powered missile, the Ling Yun.
Russia, in July, reported a successful test launch of its new Zircon hypersonic cruise missile. The missile had been fired from the Admiral Gorshkov, a warship in the White Sea. The missile successfully hit a target more than 350 kilometres (about 217 miles) away on the coast of the Barents Sea.
The Russian military has reported another successful test launch of a new Zircon hypersonic cruise missile. 🇷🇺
— Forces News (@ForcesNews) July 19, 2021
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the Zircon missile would be capable of flying at nine times the speed of sound and have a range of 1,000 kilometres.
Since 2011, the United Kingdom and France have also been co-developing a hypersonic missile designed to replace the ageing Harpoon and Exocet respectively. The missile, Perseus, is expected to feature an agile and stealthy airframe.
Similarly, India too in 2020, test-fired its first hypersonic missile demonstrator. The indigenous Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle has been developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation.
In a historic mission today, India successfully flight tested Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HSTDV), a giant leap in indigenous defence technologies and significant milestone towards a #sashaktbharat and #atmanirbharbharat.
— DRDO (@DRDO_India) September 7, 2020
A new arms race involving hypersonics, considered the next generation of arms, is clearly already underway.
With inputs from agencies