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In 2019 English Indie artist Sam Fender’s song ‘Hypersonic Missiles’ was voted Hottest Record of the Year by Radio 1 listeners. Sadly, it seems, the MOD wasn’t listening. It took the war in Europe for the level of interest in these systems to peak with Russia’s use of a hypersonic missile in Ukraine.
It is generally accepted that hypersonic weapons travel at least five times the speed of sound, but speed is not everything – they must also have the ability to manoeuvre at these speeds.1 Hypersonic weapons have a unique selling point; a particular set of skills, skills that make them a nightmare for current detection and defensive systems. They can, according to Commander US Strategic Command, provide ‘responsive, long-range, strike options against distant, defended, and/or time-critical threats when other capabilities are either unavailable or denied access’.
Earlier this year, Britain’s Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) said of hypersonic weapons ‘we haven’t got them, and we must have them’.2 It seems CDS is taking the ‘why shouldn’t we have them?’ approach to acquisition. Is he being lured into dangerous waters by the sirens of technology? This article will examine the issues facing UK Defence as and when it joins the hypersonic missiles owners club.
The MOD must work out what its hypersonic weapons will be used for and whether they are the most effective means of conducting those potential missions – be they in a national or a NATO capacity. If it can’t answer those basic questions, then Defence runs the risk of fielding a range of expensive and complicated weapons that may not always be the most appropriate or affordable solution. To paraphrase Maslow, if you’re carrying a hypersonic hammer, everything looks like a hypersonic nail.
Hypersonic weapons may not change the character of war but their procurement and employment needs to be clear and coherent. Establishing a hypersonic strategy would allow the UK to combine the fields of hypersonic weapons, hypersonic propulsion, and hypersonic missile detection and defence. It would also strengthen the UK’s industrial base by committing the country to investment in the relevant areas of science and technology.
To glide or not to glide, that is the question
This article will look at the two types of hypersonic weapons: hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV) and hypersonic cruise missiles (HCM).3 HGVs are launched into the upper atmosphere using a booster system such as a conventional ballistic missile, that allows the HGV to separate and glide towards its target. HCMs are powered by air breathing scramjets throughout the duration of their flight. They both share the same characteristics of speed and manoeuvrability, but the HGVs method of launch and range sets them apart from the cruise missiles. There are also political implications to consider when it comes to fielding HGVs, notably their use as a conventional first strike weapon whose launch profile could be mistaken by an adversary for that of a nuclear missile.
Hypersonics – a good fit for the MOD, pivots, and industry
The 2021 Integrated Review (IR) called for the UK to adopt cutting edge technology and work with allies and partners to secure collective advantage over our potential adversaries.4 The accompanying Command Paper emphasised the importance of interoperability and burden sharing in the Indo-Pacific.5
Hypersonic weapons represent a significant opportunity to do everything the IR and Command Paper asked: embrace cutting edge technology, work with partners, and support any intent to pivot. Weapons that fly further and faster than their sub and supersonic counterparts are a welcome addition in overcoming the tyranny of Indo-Pacific distances and anti-area access denial (A2AD) bastions. The US Army’s Long Range Hypersonic Weapon has a reported range of just under 3000km, making it capable of reaching mainland China from the Philippines.
The opposite may be true for hypersonic weapons in the much smaller, more congested European theatre of operations, where NATO’s current border with Russia is less than 1500km. Range would not be as critical and their payload could be matched by their more numerous (and cheaper) sub and supersonic counterparts. As James Bosbotinis said in 2020, ‘Hypersonic weapons should not be seen as a panacea, but a component of a wider precision strike capability.’
Pitfalls, problems and alternatives?
As fearsome as hypersonic missiles may sound, they too have their limitations – the term ‘high speed hype’ is often used by their critics. HCMs need to carry sufficient fuel to power their ramjet engines throughout the duration of their flight and are likely to carry a relatively small payload for their size. Their speed means the sensor suite and guidance system on both HGVs and HCMs have to cope with the air around them being turned into a ‘thick plasma’.
‘Developments in technology, particularly in hypersonic weapons, are changing the conduct of naval warfare.’6
In February 2022, the First Sea Lord (1SL) said that the Royal Navy was aiming to become a ‘global leader’ in hypersonic weapons. 1SL appears very upbeat, especially given the fact that the UK’s hypersonic cupboard is currently bare. To put this in context, in 2023, the US Navy will begin installing the Conventional Global Strike HGV onto the 16,000 ton USS Zumwalt class destroyer.
Rather than a hypersonic revolution in UK Defence, the three services are focussing on weapons that are at best upgrades to their existing armoury. Any decision to invest in hypersonic weapons must consider the alternatives that are available. The impending upgrade to Block V cruise missiles will give the Royal Navy a significant capability in terms of the weapon’s survivability and its ability to target moving enemy ships at range. In 2028, the Royal Air Force will field the 130km range SPEAR3 air to surface missile, and the Army’s deep fires capability has recently received a boost with the upgrade to its M270 Multiple Launch Rocket Systems that will keep them in service until 2050. The problem with all these options seems to be, well, they’re just not hypersonic.
The senior service
The Royal Navy plans to field the subsonic Anglo-French Future Cruise/Anti-Ship Weapon (FC/ASW) by 2030. The FC/ASW is touted by MBDA as ‘a next generation of deep strike and heavy anti-ship missile’.7. The FC/ASW is compatible with the Mk41 vertical launch systems (VLS) fitted to the Type 26 and potentially the Type 31 frigates. It is highly likely that any HCM fielded by the Royal Navy will also use the same launch system. A future VLS outload consisting of subsonic, supersonic and hypersonic missiles will be an interesting conundrum and one that needs careful consideration as will the sensor suites and fire control systems required to key this range of weapons onto their targets. The Type 83 destroyer, still in its concept phase, will field an anti-hypersonic capability although it is not due to enter service until the late 2030s. A ‘steady as she goes’ approach from the Royal Navy that doesn’t match the soundbites.
The British Army and big rockets
The British Army has shown little interest in adopting hypersonic weapons. Simon Middleton’s Rise of the Rocket Launcher highlights a number of issues the Army faces fielding its current long-range missiles. His ‘fighting in the deep means you have to find in the deep’ sums up the challenge of finding time critical targets in such a congested and contested environment. This has not stopped the Army from signing a memorandum of understanding to procure the 499km ranged Precision Strike Missile. Operating at these ranges also raises the spectre of inter-service rivalry with the RAF who have traditionally seen this as their bailiwick, although the Army’s ability to support offensive counter air missions using these weapons has to be factored into UK doctrine.
The Army’s focus on hypersonic weapons should be ground-based air defence (GBAD) and the protection of C2 nodes, airfields, and seaports. This will be particularly important when supporting Joint Theatre Entry, where traditional Western advantages could be threatened by ‘air threats including hypersonic weapons, low observable cruise missiles, and sophisticated conventional ballistic missile systems’.
Per Ardua ad Hyper?
Like the Navy, the RAF plans to field the FC/ASW by the end of the decade. Any weapon procured for the Royal Air Force and Fleet Air Arm F35Bs invariably needs to be integrated onto the 5th generation aircraft. This will be true for FC/ASW and any HCM. It is not plain sailing; the integration of the Spear 3 and Meteor have both been subject to delays of up to three years. Doctrinally, fielding a hypersonic cruise missile to penetrate A2AD bastions, be they in Europe, the Middle East, or the Pacific is a good match both operationally and for a service that is already keyed into stand-off ISR and the associated targeting requirements.
There’s nothing but space man
Space is one area of defence that could and should have an important role to play in a hypersonic world. The September 2022 release of JDP0-40 UK Space Power came some 18 months after the IR and Command Paper hiatus yet it fails to mention hypersonic weapons once.
Given that HGVs are boosted into the upper atmosphere before they separate, it makes sense that UK ‘Space’ Doctrine doesn’t mention them.8 Except, of course, the space-based sensors being considered by the United States Space Force to detect and track the launch of HGVs as their booster ignites would seem to indicate there is a heavy ‘space feel’ to these weapons.
Given that the US already shares the output from its existing space-based infrared warning and tracking capability, and the Enhanced Space Cooperation memorandum of understanding between the US and UK Space Commands promises ‘deeper military cooperation in the space domain’, it seems logical that UK Space Command will also receive data from any potential hypersonic detection capability. The opportunity to include hypersonic weapons in the latest UK Space Doctrine seems another example of the disjointed approach in which this technology is being persued.
Hey big spender – or not as the case may be
In June 2022, the MOD announced that part of a £2bn research and development budget would be used over the next four years to develop a cutting-edge weapons demonstrator capable of travelling at hypersonic speeds. Welcome news, but that announcement needs to be put into context. The March 21 GAO report showed that the United States was expected to spend a total of $15Bn between 2015 and 2024. The US Department of Defence believes that China is spending more money each year on hypersonic weapons than either Russia or the United States.
It’s all about the base, the Defence industrial base
A lack of a missile under development or testing and viable hypersonic test facility is perhaps the starkest example of just how bare the UK’s hypersonic cupboard is.9 The 2021 Congressional Research Service paper listed eight nations actively pursuing hypersonic weapons – the United Kingdom was not on that list. This is not just a matter for the military, it is a concern across industry.
The UK’s National Wind Tunnel Facility lists a small number of hypersonic test facilities that are capable of testing objects up to 30-40cm in diameter with published run times measured in seconds. To put this in perspective, China’s JF-12 wind tunnel has been in operation since 2012, its FL-64 wind tunnel can accommodate objects up to 1m in diameter, and operate for up to 30 seconds at a time. When it comes to hypersonic test facilities, size really does matter – testing larger objects over longer test cycles has clearly paid dividends for China who fielded the DF17 ‘carrier killer’ in 2019.
Help me AUKUS, you’re our only hope
‘The MOD is working closely with AUKUS partners to accelerate development of advanced hypersonic and counter-hypersonic capabilities to meet current and future threats.’
Six months after its launch, the AUKUS partnership declared that they were ‘committed to commence new trilateral cooperation on hypersonics and counter-hypersonics’. Of the three partners, America is well ahead of the other two in terms of funding, research, and progress. We have already seen the United Kingdom’s efforts to date. Australia brings the Woomera Missile Test Facility, the largest land-based missile test facility in the world to the party. It also has six hypersonic wind tunnels, capable of testing to Mach 30, has recently opened a Hypersonics Research Precinct, and is already collaborating with the United States to develop a Mach 5 hypersonic cruise missile.
It would seem that the future of the UK’s hypersonic weapon programme sits within the AUKUS pact, which is fortunate, given its own progress to date. When Jeremy Quinn said the UK would ‘accelerate’ its hypersonic weapons development, he should have perhaps added it would be from a standing start.
Anyone for Conventional Prompt Strike?
Finally, the AUKUS arrangement and the US’ willingness to share in the development of high-end technology could allow the UK to take part in America’s Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS) hypersonic missile programme that uses HGVs launched from conventional ballistic missiles. The Navy’s Astute Class is planned to remain in service until the 2040s and its relatively small size would mean it would require the addition of something akin to the Virginia Payload Module (VPM) should the boat need to carry the CPS missile.
If the Astute replacement, the Submersible Ship Nuclear Replacement (SSNR) is to truly encompass future or near future technologies , then hypersonics and CPS should be part of that equation. It is a big political call but one that does talk to the language of the Command Paper in terms of cooperation and burden sharing.
Fielding hypersonic weapons will present the UK with a number of challenges: a Defence budget under constant stress and an industrial base that compares poorly to our allies and partners. Speeches and soundbites from senior officers are encouraging but the substance is not there – yet. There are also serious questions to answer as to whether hypersonic weapons are preferable to cheaper and capable weapons such as SPEAR 3 and the FC/ASW. These ‘wonder weapons’ are still very much under test and evaluation, are expensive, and need to be seen as complementary to rather than a wholesale replacement for their current sub and supersonic cousins.
Chasing the Chinese hypersonic dragon is out of the question but at least the AUKUS pact will give the UK much needed access to hypersonic development and test facilities and make up for weaknesses in our own industrial base. The UK has a lot to offer AUKUS in the round, but it certainly has the most to gain of the three partners when it comes to hypersonics.
The real value in hypersonic weapons is derived from how they are integrated into an overarching doctrine rather than in their specific capabilities. Treating hypersonics as a domain is a step too far but there is more to hypersonic weapons than simply placing them in the DE&S Director Weapons’ portfolio. The UK needs a hypersonic weapons strategy as a vital first step in clearing a pathway to the development, procurement, and use of these weapons.
Phil Clare is a former RAF Logistics Officer. He has over 30 years experience of single and joint service environments, as well as operational experience that spans Op GRANBY to HERRICK.
- Intercontinental ballistic missiles travel at hypersonic speeds, but they are unable to manoeuvre and follow predictable ballistic flight profiles.
- L. Brown and C Philp. Admiral Tony Radakin warns of Russian threat at sea, Sunday Times, 7 January 2022.
- The article will not cover aero-ballistic missiles such as the Kinzhal, which are dropped from an aircraft and accelerate to hypersonic speed but otherwise follow a ballistic profile.
- Defence in a Competitive Age, HMSO 2021, 8.9, 62.
- Defence Command Paper, 12, 3.6.
- House of Commons Defence Committee: The Navy, purpose and procurement, 25 February 2022.
- Éric Béranger, MBDA CEO, 22 July 2022.
- While there is no agreement as to where airspace ends and space begins, the JDP tells us that ‘anything in orbit more than 100km above mean sea level, known as the Kármán Line, is regarded as being in space.
- Noting that Reaction Engines work in this field mainly relates to hypersonic flight rather than weapons.
- Jeremy Quin MP, Ministry of Defence Questions, 13 July 2022.