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Russia has to maintain leadership in hypersonic technologies

Media reports say Russia has overtaken the United States in hypersonic weapons. American officials say the same. Does it mean the Americans admit the defeat in the hypersonic race? The Vzglyad business newspaper writes about the Russian breakthrough and efforts of the Pentagon in the sphere.

Russia has to maintain leadership in hypersonic technologies Russian Tsirkon (Zirkon) hypersonic missile (Picture source: The Center News)

It is first necessary to specify the definition. Experts unofficially defined a hypersonic craft as a device capable of exceeding Mach 5 speed in a horizontal flight and use atmospheric air as the oxidizer. There was a sense in it. For decades, any reentry vehicle falling on a target by ballistic trajectory had a speed exceeding the speed of sound several times like a blasted-off space rocket, but nobody considers such craft as hypersonic.

Today any craft is called hypersonic if it can develop Mach 5 speed in a guided flight in the atmosphere. Hypersonic weapons of the following classes are available or are being designed:
1. Gliding reentry vehicles or gliders. They are reentry vehicles of ballistic missiles capable of a controlled flight in the atmosphere. They fly to the target by a flat trajectory and can change the altitude and maneuver. The Russian Avangard system is an example.
2. Missiles that develop hypersonic speed in descending. They are usually launched by an aircraft and descend with an operating jet engine. They resemble ballistic missiles but descend rather than fall on the target. The Russian Kinzhal and the US ARRW are examples.
3. A missile with a hypersonic straight-flow engine capable of flying horizontally and using the atmospheric air as the oxidizer. The US demonstrator missile X-51A Waverider is an example. The Russian Tsirkon is believed to be another one.

The United States is experienced in such weapons. The Americans piloted the X-15 rocket plane at hypersonic speed. They are the only country that succeeded to unite a straight-flow engine and a jet engine into a straight-flow turbo engine and allow SR-71 Blackbird intelligence aircraft to develop supersonic speed into hypersonic. Today, Lockheed Martin is developing a hypersonic intelligence aircraft with a combined straight-flow turbo engine capable of a hypersonic flight (SR-72 Aurora project).

In the early 1990s, Russia held the Kholod R&D partially financed by the Americans. It created an operational hypersonic straight-flow engine and tested it on an experimental craft (small demonstrator missile). It was a successful project and the Americans received all the information. They later bought the data of the hypersonic experimental aircraft (GELA), which was a part of the Kh-90 cruise missile project and experimental hypersonic craft on the basis of Kh-22 anti-ship cruise missile (D2). The US GELA craft was built and flew. The experimental X-43 unmanned rocket plane also flew. Now the huge volume of experimental programs has been synergized in several final projects which have to yield result in the near future.

The US Navy is engaged in the Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS) project. The craft resembles Avangard, but carries a non-nuclear warhead and has a much shorter range. The Americans rate it as a tactical weapon. Like Avangard, it will be delivered to a major altitude by a ballistic missile and accelerate in descend towards the target. The missile will be launched by a submarine. The flight of the glider will be controlled.

The research service of the US Congress reported successful tests of the reentry vehicle in 2011 and 2017. The first missiles with a hypersonic reentry vehicle are to be deployed on nuclear submarines in 2028.

The US army is engaged in the Long Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW) project. It uses the same glider as the Navy to save money. The difference resides in the launch missile. A prototype has to be created in 2023.

The US Air Force is engaged in the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) project. The missile has AGM-183 index. Like Russian Kinzhal, it is a solid-fuel missile which develops hypersonic speed in descent with operating jet engine. Like Kinzhal, it is launched by an aircraft. ARRW tests are on schedule and test launches are to begin in the near future. Flight trials are to end in 2022. Their research is likely a technology design rather than the creation of a new weapon. The projects use engines with air as the oxidizer.

The United States has immense infrastructures for hypersonic research. In 2020, the number of test objects and mobile laboratories comprised 48 units.

The main Russian hypersonic arms are well-known in the world. The first one is the gliding Avangard unit. Its design began in the mid-1980s and entered the final stage today. No missile shield can stop the maneuvering unit in the atmosphere. It is difficult for radars to detect it, as it flies much lower than a ballistic target. The maneuvering capability potentially allows Avangard to hit pinpoint targets. The research service of the US Congress focused on Avangard's potential as a means of a covert first nuclear strike. It is partially true. The potential is much more important than the ability to break through missile defense.

The second design - Kinzhal can immediately destroy US nuclear bases in Europe. The stationary weapon is ideal for a prompt strike. It is delivered by a high-speed carrier and foreign intelligence will not see its approach to the launch position. The missile has a long-range and hit precision comparable to Iskander missiles.

The third Russian hypersonic weapon is the 3M-22 Tsirkon anti-ship missile. It has been test fired by a surface warship and will soon be launched by a submarine. Tsirkon is a top-secret and the most mysterious missile in the whole Russian hypersonic arsenal. In contract to Avangard and Kinzhal, there is no open data and images of it. It is a top-level secrecy.

A leak was likely made by Indian partners who use Russian technologies to develop BrahMos-II hypersonic missile (successor to BrahMos developed from the Russian Onix supersonic missile). If the displayed Indian mockup is no misinformation, the Tsirkon, firstly, uses the atmospheric air as the oxidizer and, secondly, resembles the US Waverider. Conceptually, it has a rectangular fuselage, a solid-fuel booster, and a developed air intake of the hypersonic straight-flow jet engine.

The Waverider is a demonstrator. Tsirkon is already a combat missile. It is fired from a naval universal 3S-14 vertical launcher and accelerates. The Waverider is launched by an aircraft. It confirms a technological breakthrough of Russian engineers. Russian opponents have to admit that Moscow is ahead of the United States in hypersonic technologies despite the more advanced potential of the West.

However, the advantage will not last forever. In the early 2000s, the USA could have achieved a major leap forward and nobody would be able to catch up. However, as the only adversary ceased to exist, no money was appropriated for new weapons. The USA lost time and allowed Russia to catch up and overtake it.

The United States is accelerating at present. In three years the Americans will have their own Kinzhal. A tactical glider is to appear in the ground forces in five-six years which is very difficult to intercept. The financial potential and industrial capabilities of the United States will produce the weapons in mass. Russia is currently ahead. It can cede in some issues shortly, but should not relax, the Vzglyad said.

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