In the eternal competition between offense and defense for military dominance, the offense is winning. Russia has been testing a hypersonic cruise missile with a speed above 6,000 miles per hour that can be used to deliver nuclear or conventional warheads against targets at sea or on land. The U.S. military at present has no defense against the weapon.
U.S. intelligence expects the missile, called Zircon, to be deployed on Russian warships in the near future. Meanwhile, Russia is testing a second hypersonic weapon, a glide vehicle boosted to speeds in excess of a mile per second by a ballistic missile, that is expected to carry a nuclear warhead over intercontinental distances. China has similar research under way, and has tested its own hypersonic system within the last year.
So, a technology that the Pentagon until recently considered mainly a boon to the firepower of the joint force is now rapidly turning into the biggest military threat of the Trump era. It isn’t hard to see what makes hypersonic weapons so worrisome. Aside from their high velocity—five times the speed of sound or greater—they operate almost entirely within the atmosphere, at elevations below which existing early-warning sensors are optimized to monitor.
And they maneuver, so that unlike the parabolic trajectory of a ballistic missile, their flight path and target cannot be predicted. As if all that were not enough, the super-heated plasma that surrounds a missile traveling at over a mile per second through the atmosphere tends to absorb radio waves, so the weapons might be invisible to radar.
Only infrared sensors will work, and the current U.S. overhead architecture isn’t designed to track heat-emitting threats continuously throughout their flight so that an effective defense can be mounted. (end of excerpt)
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