Hypersonic missiles: What are they and can they be stopped?


RAND researchers present an overview of their key findings on hypersonic missiles — a new class of military threat capable of maneuvering and flying faster than 5,000 kilometers per hour.

Richard Speier, George Nacouzi, Rich Moore, and 2015–2016 Stanton Nuclear Fellow Carrie Lee describe how speed and maneuverability enable such missiles to penetrate most missile defenses, and further compress the timelines for a response by a nation under attack.

This research, sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York for its project Disruptive Technologies and the Future of Deterrence, suggests that there is probably less than a decade available to substantially hinder the potential proliferation of hypersonic missiles and associated technologies.

The US, China and Russia are racing to develop hypersonic missiles – a missile system so fast no modern defence system can stop it. Here is a rundown of current and future projects.

An overview of hypersonic missiles

After a long hiatus, hypersonic missile research and development is back in full swing. Major Powers, such as Russia, China and the US have been racing to develop hypersonic missile – a missile system so fast that it cannot be intercepted by any current missile defence system. 

Hypersonic missiles will play a huge role in foreign policy in the years to come, as core pillars of geopolitics such as geography and technological power can be undermined by hypersonic missiles. And, given a recent uptick in “successful” tests from the likes of China and Russia, hypersonic missiles are much closer than we think, forcing a global re-assessment of traditional notions of deterrence.

Defence IQ wanted to explore this topic in greater detail, so we have sought the expertise of Dr James Bosbotinis, a UK-based specialist in defence and international affairs, with a particular focus on maritime and air force developments.

What is a hypersonic missile?

A hypersonic missile travels at speeds of Mach 5 and higher – five times faster than the speed of sound (3836 mph), which is around 1 mile per second.  Some missiles, such as Russia’s upcoming Kh-47M2 Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile, are allegedly capable of reaching Mach 10 speeds (7672 mph) and distances up to 1200 miles. 

For comparison, the US Tomahawk cruise missile – the United States Navy and Royal Navy’s go-to long range missile-system – is subsonic, travelling around 550 mph and travelling a maximum distance around 1500 miles.

Hypersonic missiles come in two variants; hypersonic cruise missiles and hypersonic glide vehicles.

  • What is a hypersonic cruise missile?

    This type of missile reaches its target with the help of a high-speed jet engine that allows it to travel at extreme speeds, in excess of Mach-5. It is non-ballistic – the opposite of traditional Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) which utilises gravitational forces to reach its target.

  • What is a hypersonic glide vehicle?

    This type of hypersonic missile utilises re-entry vehicles. Initially, the missile is launched into space on an arching trajectory, where the warheads are released and fall towards the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds.

    Rather than leaving the payload at the mercy of gravitational forces – as is the case for traditional ICBMs – the warheads are attached to a glide vehicle which re-enters the atmosphere, and through its aerodynamic shape it can ride the shockwaves generated by its own lift as it breaches the speed of sound, giving it enough speed to overcome existing missile defence systems. The glide vehicle surfs on the atmosphere between 40-100km in altitude and reaches its destination by leveraging aerodynamic forces.

When hypersonic missiles become operational, the gap between missile defence systems and missile offence will be huge. Simply put, there is no operational missile defence system that is capable of intercepting a hypersonic missile, which is why the race to develop hypersonic weapons is such an important one.

Hypersonic missiles remain a closely guarded secret, but in recent months, many governments have announced successful tests and future projects.

What impact will hypersonic missiles have? 

“Hypersonic missiles offer a number of advantages over subsonic and supersonic weapons, particularly with regard to the prosecution of time-critical targets (for example, mobile ballistic missile launchers), where the additional speed of a hypersonic weapon is valuable,” Bosbotinis said. “It can also overcome the defences of heavily-defended targets (such as an aircraft carrier).”

The development and deployment of hypersonic weapon systems will provide states with significantly enhanced strike capabilities and potentially, the means to coerce. This will be particularly the case where a major regional power, such as Russia, may seek to coerce a neighbour, leveraging the threat of hypersonic strikes against critical targets. As such, the proliferation of hypersonic capabilities to regional states could also be destabilising, upsetting local balances of power. However, it could also strengthen deterrence.

“In this regard, consider the implications of Iran deploying hypersonic weapons versus an Israeli deployment. Hypersonic weapons may also be problematic in terms of escalation control in the context of a NATO-Russia or US-China confrontation. This concerns dual-capable systems, that is, systems with both conventional and nuclear capabilities, for example, the Kinzhal.”

Bosbotinis also explained that dual-capable systems raise the issue of discrimination: how does one know if the incoming threat is conventional or nuclear? In the context of hypersonic threats, this is compounded by the reduced time available to decision-makers to respond to an incoming threat. 

Moreover, the development of submarine-launched hypersonic missiles would raise the potential threat – real or perceived – of attempted decapitation strikes, utilising the combination of the inherent stealth of a nuclear-powered submarine and the speed of a hypersonic missile.

What is the difference between subsonic, supersonic and hypersonic?

  • Subsonic – Subsonic missiles are slower than the speed of sound. Most well-known missiles fall into this category, such as the US Tomahawk cruise missile, the French Exocet, and the Indian Nirbhay. Subsonic missiles travel at a speed around Mach-0.9 (705 mph).

    Subsonic missiles are slow and easier to intercept, but they still play a huge role in modern battlefields. Not only are they substantially cheaper to produce as the technological challenges have already been overcome and mastered, but subsonic missiles provide an additional layer of strategic value due to its low speed and small size.

    Once a subsonic missile has been launched, it can loiter in proximity to its intended target, as a result of its fuel efficiency. This, combined with its comparatively low speed, gives senior military decision-makers ample time to decide if a strike should be continued or abandoned. Comparatively, a hypersonic or supersonic missile compresses the time afforded to senior decisions makers into a matter of minutes. 

  • Supersonic – A supersonic missile exceeds the speed of sound (Mach 1) but is not faster than Mach-3. Most supersonic missiles travel at a speed between Mach-2 and Mach-3, which is up to 2,300 mph. The most well-known supersonic missile is the Indian/Russian BrahMos, is currently the fastest operational supersonic missile capable of speeds around 2,100–2,300 mph.
  • Hypersonic – A hypersonic missile exceeds Mach-5 (3,800 mph) and is five times faster than the speed of sound. Currently, there is no operational defence system that can deny the use of these strategic weapons.
    As a result, many world powers including the US, Russia, India, and China are working on hypersonic missiles. However, there are many technological hurdles to overcome, particularly with regards to sustaining combustion inside the missile system, while enduring the extreme temperatures of hypersonic speed. 

Ameriqual APack

Ameriqual finally gets into the civilian MRE market with a very strong product. They offer a decent entree variety and do a good job in varying the spreads, sides, and desserts. The included heater is a big plus.

Pros: Lots of food per MRE – almost as many calories as a regular military MRE. Heater included (uses provided salt water packet). Beverage base is sugar/calorie-free – this frees up more calories for real food. Crackers! Nothing says MRE quite like those crackers.

Cons: No paper napkin; short, wide-mouth spoon helps you eat too much food too fast.

Sopakco Sure-Pak 12

The Sure-Pak 12 has been around the longest of all the civilian MREs. Of all the civilian MREs, this one comes closest to the military version. Even the meal bag is an almost exact duplicate of the military MRE bag with the exception that it’s clear and the menu info isn’t printed on the bag.

Pros: A real MRE spoon. A real MRE (plain water-based) heater can be included in the MRE bag. Instant coffee/creamer/sugar in every MRE. While entree variety is limited to six menus per case, the menus can differ between cases. Crackers and spreads in every MRE! The MRE bag is almost exactly like the military MRE bag.

Cons: Despite having a very MRE-like menu and good variety of sides/spreads/desserts, the calorie count for the Sure-Paks came in around 100 calories lower than its competitors.

Wornick Eversafe

Wornick Eversafes are back on the market with a new menu selection for this 4th interation. All items in the Eversafes are now the same military-type items found in other civilian MREs so this new offering should provide a good option for emergency preparedness foods.

Pros: The highest calorie count out of all the civilian MREs – almost as much as a regular military MRE. Good combination of main entrees and sides, good variety of peanut butter/cheese spread. FRH is activated with regular water. Coffee and creamer in every MRE.

Cons: Beverages and desserts could use some variety. Limited dealers available.


XMRE is an International Company that manufactures, assembles and markets shelf stable food products. XMRE possesses decades of combined experience in the prepared food industry and for many years has been a supplier to militaries, international organizations, governments, and institutions around the world. XMRE solutions are designed to serve both military demand and the increased demand from the civilian marketplace that ranges from preparedness, rescue, disaster relief, camping, fitness, hunting, and other outdoor sports.

Pros: One of the highest calorie count out of all the civilian MREs – almost as much as a regular military MRE. Good combination of main entrees and sides, good variety of peanut butter/cheese spread. FRH is activated with regular water. Coffee and creamer in every MRE. Multiple calories count options available.

Cons: Limited dealers available.

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