All the Secret (Or Not) Ways to Kill a Hypersonic Missile

Samran Ali
DOD

Samran Ali

Technology, Americas

Can this work?

All the Secret (Or Not) Ways to Kill a Hypersonic Missile

The defense against the cruise missiles is more challenging and difficult since they remain in the atmosphere during all their flight time at low altitude. Currently, the United States has different anti-cruise missiles including the Standard Missile-2, Standard Missiles-6, Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS), and Evolved Seasparrow Missile (ESSM) systems. These systems are designed for supersonic cruise missiles.

At a time when existing missile defenses can’t guarantee success against the ballistic missiles, a whole new challenge has been posed by hypersonic vehicles. Many people believe that after a certain time period the effectiveness of ballistic missile defenses will grow. In that situation, hypersonic weapons’ deployment is important. However, as of now, the Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGVs) and Hypersonic Cruise Missiles (HCMs) are solutions looking for a problem.

(This first appeared earlier in June 2019.)

What’s New in Hypersonic Weapons

Speed, maneuverability, and low-altitude travel are major traits of hypersonic weapons which are not comparable to the existing ballistic or cruise missiles. Cruise missiles lack speed while the ballistic missiles can’t maneuver. Hypersonic weapons travel normally at speeds greater than Mach 5 at lower altitudes with maneuverability making them harder to detect and kill than the legacy ballistic and cruise missiles.

Major global powers are engaged in building, testing and deploying hypersonic weapons. Among them are the United States, Russia, and China. India and France are also working on hypersonic research and development. Russian’s demonstration of “Avangard” in 2018 added urgency to the U.S. plans to expedite hypersonic developments. The United States is also looking at various options to defend against Russian and Chinese hypersonic threats with parallel developments of its own weapons. Russia and China would also be considering options of defensive capabilities after the United States has rushed to develop this capability.

Among the options being discussed to protect against hypersonic threats are directed-energy weapons, hit-to-kill capabilities, space-based interceptors, a laser weapon mounted on an unmanned airborne platform to track and destroy missiles in their boost-phase, and cyber-attacks on the enemy’s command and control systems.

Boost Phase Interception

Hypersonic gliders can be best intercepted during their launch from the ICBM in boost phase when a missile travels at its slowest speed. Unlike conventional reentry vehicles (RVs), glide vehicles follow unpredictable trajectories due to their maneuvering ability after the boost phase. The interception becomes hard during the terminal phase. The F-35 Lightning II aircraft has a sensor system capable of detecting infrared signatures and the location of a boosting missile. It is capable of shooting down cruise missiles today. The Missile Defense Review (MDR) 2019 has called for a report from the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency on incorporating ballistic missile defense capability to F-35 to shoot down missiles in boost phase. As the hypersonic glider is launched from a traditional ICBM till the boost-phase, the F-35 can be one of the options to defend against the Avangard glider.

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