The U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense System provides a layered defense against both ballistic missiles and cruise missiles using air defense assets. But what about a threat with the attributes of both? Hypersonic weapons—moving far above Mach 5 (five times the speed of sound)—are now in fast-track testing by our adversaries. Here is an overview of this emerging technology.
1. Hypersonic weapons are ultra-fast like ballistic missiles—and maneuverable like cruise missiles.
“Hypersonic weapons use advances in electronic capacity, sensor quality, and miniaturization to create a new threat,” says Trey Obering, Booz Allen executive vice president. As former head of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), he has a first-hand perspective. “They’re fast and maneuverable. That combination creates a threat that is imperative for the U.S. to address.”
An intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches and flies at a high altitude on a ballistic trajectory (determined by gravity) until its warhead hits the target at hypersonic speed. ICBMs are a challenge for sensors to track throughout their flight, but these weapons are more predictable than cruise missiles. While a cruise missile flies slower, it can maneuver midflight to evade detection. Hypersonics are a whole new category—hybrid weapons which are high speed and highly maneuverable and can carry nuclear warheads to the target with lethal precision.