Russia-Ukraine War: What are hypersonic missiles?

With the war raging it is important to understand these novel – and controversial – weapons.

A missile is launched during what state media report is a hypersonic missile test at an undisclosed location in North Korea, January 11, 2022, in this photo released January 12, 2022 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). (photo credit: KCNA VIA REUTERS/FILE PHOTO)
A missile is launched during what state media report is a hypersonic missile test at an undisclosed location in North Korea, January 11, 2022, in this photo released January 12, 2022 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
(photo credit: KCNA VIA REUTERS/FILE PHOTO)

As the war between Russia and Ukraine enters its fourth week, Moscow’s ruthless assault reaches new heights. On Friday, March 18, Russia announced that it had launched hypersonic missiles at a target near Mykolaiv, Ukraine – marking the first time such missiles have been used in live combat.

The use of hypersonic missiles raised concern around the world, as the next-gen weapons are able to hit any target on the globe within an hour. With war raging and perhaps escalating, it is important to understand these novel – and controversial – weapons.

What is a hypersonic missile?

Simply put, hypersonic missiles are defined as missiles that travel at hypersonic speeds when launched. Hypersonic speed is defined at speeds greater than Mach 5 (about 6,100 km/h or 3,800 mph) – five times the speed of sound. Thus, hypersonic missiles can, by definition, travel almost two kilometers every second.

 A Russian Air Force MiG-31 fighter jet releases Kinzhal hypersonic missile during a drill in an unknown location in Russia, in this still image taken from video released February 19, 2022. (credit: RUSSIAN DEFENSE MINISTRY/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS) A Russian Air Force MiG-31 fighter jet releases Kinzhal hypersonic missile during a drill in an unknown location in Russia, in this still image taken from video released February 19, 2022. (credit: RUSSIAN DEFENSE MINISTRY/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

While ballistic missiles travel at comparable speeds, they cannot alter their course, as opposed to hypersonic missiles, which are highly maneuverable – thereby stretching the concept of what is possible during modern warfare.

How were hypersonic missiles developed?

The first planned hypersonic missile – the Kh-45 – was designed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s, but was never successfully launched; its integration into active armament was canceled in 1976–77.

On November 18, 2011, the first advanced hypersonic weapon (AHW) glide vehicle was successfully tested by the United States Army. Launched from Hawaii, the missile struck its target in the Marshall Islands over 3,700 km. (2,300 miles) away in just under 30 minutes.

Russia, which was concurrently working on their first hypersonic missile, announced their “Avangard” missile in 2018, though it had reportedly been successfully tested in 2015 and 2016. The Avangard hit its target 6,055 kilometers (3,762 mi) away.

Who has hypersonic missiles?

While the Soviet Union was the first to attempt to develop a hypersonic missile, efforts mostly stalled until the 2000s. Once the US announced its first hypersonic missile in 2011, other countries began developing their own hypersonic infrastructure and testing potential missiles. China became the second country to successfully reach hypersonic speeds in their 2014 missile test, while Russia announced their first missile in 2018 – three years after their reported first successful test in 2015.

 Military vehicles carrying hypersonic missiles DF-17 travel past Tiananmen Square during the military parade marking the 70th founding anniversary of People's Republic of China, on its National Day in Beijing, China October 1, 2019. (credit: REUTERS/JASON LEE) Military vehicles carrying hypersonic missiles DF-17 travel past Tiananmen Square during the military parade marking the 70th founding anniversary of People's Republic of China, on its National Day in Beijing, China October 1, 2019. (credit: REUTERS/JASON LEE)

India joined the US, China and Russia in 2019, when their HSTDV (Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle) successfully reached Mach 5 speed. Israel reportedly helped India develop its missile via wind tunnel testing, and is currently developing a hypersonic missile in tandem with the US military. Israel’s “Arrow 3” hypersonic missile is being developed by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and Boeing, with the first tests beginning in 2011.

Why are hypersonic missiles so controversial?

Hypersonic missiles can be used to launch nuclear warheads, while the speeds involved with launching such missiles would theoretically provide a massive advantage, as the side with stronger hypersonic weapons could wipe out enemy outposts from thousands of miles away within minutes.

This was the reasoning for the “Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty” signed by the US and Soviet Union in 1972, which limited both sides to two anti-ballistic missile complexes and a total of just 100 anti-ballistic missiles, which are meant to strike down ballistic missiles. The treaty survived the dissolution of the Soviet Union until the United States terminatedit in 2002.

In 2018, Putin cited America's withdrawal of the treaty as the reason Russia developed new hypersonic missile systems – which were shown to the world last Saturday in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, when its “Kinzhal” missile became the first such missile to ever be used in live action.