The Pentagon's Hypersonic Horror Stories

The US military establishment makes a play for budget dollars by scaring Congress with Russia's "weapon of the future"

Recent statements by US Strategic Commander Admiral Cecil Haney about the threat posed by the development of hypersonic weapons by Russia and China are just a feature of the struggle for budget funds, according to Igor Nikolaichuk, Head of the Regional Security Sector of RISS' Centre for Euro-Atlantic and Defence Studies.

"From a informational political perspective, the question of Russia and China's new strategic hypersonic weapons is not worth a damn," he stressed. According to the expert, America's Nuclear Power Officers have turned "from the elite troops of the Cold War... into total marginals". "Judge for yourself: new above ground base complexes are not actively and purposefully developed, no upgrade of the USA's nuclear triad is expected in the near the future, and so on." As a result, notes Nikolaichuk, moving up the career ladder is very difficult for US Air Force missile troops. "To become a general is virtually impossible: there's nowhere to prove yourself, which explains why missile soldiers interested in PR invent reports about the Chinese already overtaking the USA in hypersonic development. All of this in the hope Congress will allocate several billion or even tens of billions dollars to create new hypersonic weapons supposedly intended to neutralize the alleged lag."

And yet from a technical point of view there's nothing novel about hypersonic weapons.  "They're ancient, almost like V-2s; Soviet prototypes for hypersonic flight devices were created forty years ago. And the Americans were developing similar programs in parallel," explains Nikolaichuk. "I've been researching this topic for a long time, I know the advances in different countries and can say that hypersonic aircraft or cruise missiles are  an incredibly complicated, expensive and inefficient answer," he says.

However, in Nikolaichuk's view, Russia has nothing to worry about - in its day, the Soviet Union was the leader in hypersonic work from its very beginning, as noted in bulletins on the subject issued by US special services. Little has since changed. Hypersonic aircraft, however, were the basis for the creation and placement into service of intercontinental ballistic missiles with multiple manouevrable warheads. Such warheads can break any ABM system as they can change their trajectory of motion mid-course. At the time, they were revolutionary.

As for the U-71 aircraft tested by Russia and with which the US Admiral frightened politicians, it's still a long way from those prototypes to, say, combat systems. "This aircraft is a very complex aerodynamic shape that can perform maneuvers in the atmosphere at hypersonic speed (at least five times the speed of sound)." The fact is that scientific research on the creation of new hypersonic aircraft today is mainly based on launching significant or full-size models into the upper atmosphere using rockets. They are then separated from the carrier and make a separate descent at hypersonic speeds. Shock wind tunnels that can also simulate and track hypersonic models are extremely complicated and inconvenient to handle.

As such, the only realistic hypersonic weapons today are ballistic warhead missiles, says Nikolaichuk. To speak of the appearance of hypersonic cruise missiles with their own boosters, to say nothing of manned hypersonic aircraft, is still very premature.