How do you kill a hypersonic missile? This is arguably the single most important tactical question the U.S. military is dealing with today.
The concern regarding hypersonic weapons —defined as a munition that can travel at five times the speed of sound, roughly 3,800 miles an hour— didn’t come out of nowhere.
America’s biggest military competitors, such as China and Russia, have been busy at work developing hypersonic missiles, part of these countries’ more general effort in closing the technological gap between them and the United States. Many analysts feel hypersonics could be a game changer strategically.
The key to understanding why these countries are interested in hypersonic weapons development lies in their potential to bypass traditional missile defense systems. The common view in the world of defense technology is that current-generation point defense weaponry is entirely incapable of intercepting a hypersonic missile or glide vehicle. Current systems rely on the fact that missiles follow a ballistic and therefore predictable trajectory. As one British government analyst put it: “Once you introduce a hypersonic glide vehicle-type payload, it becomes capable of changing direction quite significantly, and changing its flight path. You’re then looking at something that no longer follows a predictable path.”
This is why the Defense Department has been busy at work developing innovations to counter a hypersonic missile. Two ideas in particular look the most promising.
The first, a proposal laid out in DoD’s 2019 Missile Defense Review involves basing missile defense systems in space. These systems would take advantage of the large area viewable from space for improved tracking and targeting of new-age missiles.
The second strategy, one that has actually been in development for some time, involves ditching the “kill a missile with another missile” model in favor of new-age directed energy weapons. Shooting directed energy at incoming missiles would drastically reduce the response time needed to counter such threats—not to mention slash the costs of every intercepting shot fired.