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Hypersonic Missile Developments

Updated: April 21, 2022

Testing of hypersonic missiles by Russia, as well as their reported use in the Ukraine conflict, is providing further evidence of a somewhat unsettling race between Russia, China, and the United States in the development and deployment of hypersonic missile systems. Hypersonic missiles can fly on a lower trajectory than ballistic missiles, with potentially unlimited range, and can be difficult to track and defend against.

Russia announced (April 20, 2022) that it had tested its Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile, also known as “Satan II.” While the missile has been under development for some time, it appears Russia may have conducted the test to show the west what it is capable of doing should its aspirations in Ukraine be threatened. The Congressional Research Service (CRS) reports that this missile system was to be deployed by the end of FY 2022.

Last November, Russia announced what it claims was a successful test of its "Zircon" hypersonic missile off of a warship. In October, Russia claimed similar success of a test off of a submarine. Russia has reportedly already tested and deployed its Avangard glide vehicle that launches from an intercontinental ballistic missile.

According to press reports, US intelligence sources believe China conducted one or more tests of a hypersonic missile system in the summer of 2021using its Long March rocket system. According to the reports, the missiles flew around the world and landed back in China. The U.S. has not, as of this date, issued any specific and official statement on this matter, though both U.S. Generals Mark Milley and John Hyten commented publicly on the tests and what they believe were generally successful results. The Chinese have so far denied testing hypersonic missile systems.

North Korea may also be testing hypersonic missiles, with the country itself claiming successful tests, though the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said that a January 2022 test by North Korea was merely a "ballistic missile test." That said, North Korea has conducted multiple rocket tests since January, including ICBM missiles.

Given increasing concerns over China and Russian hypersonic missile development and testing, in particular, there is increasing attention and focus on similar U.S. programs. U.S. programs have been under development for some time, though CRS reports that U.S. systems have been intended for conventional, not nuclear use. It is not clear if that approach will change in the future given international developments.

In terms of some of the key U.S. programs, the Army is developing a Long Range Hypersonic Weapon, the Navy is developing the Conventional Prompt Strike, and the Air Force is developing an Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon. According to press reports, the U.S. tested a DARPA missile program – the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept – as recently as last month (March 2022).

DOD is reportedly working to have a hypersonic missile battery fielded by 2023, a sea-based missile by 2025, and an air-based cruise missile by 2027. In addition, the “AUKUS” – a trilateral alliance between the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia – announced in April 2022 that they will create a security alliance to develop hypersonic missiles, which primarily would address the growing threat of China in the Pacific region, and which may also comport with the first action of the AUKUS last year to agree to the sale of nuclear submarines to Australia.


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