Wed, Jan 30, 2019 - Page 7 News List

Race for ‘hypersonic’ weapons heats up

AFP, PARIS

A computer simulation shows Russia’s Avangard hypersonic glider detaching from a booster rocket in a video grab taken on March 1 last year.

Photo: AP via RU-RTR Russian Television

World powers are vying to develop so-called “hypersonic” weapons that travel several times the speed of sound, with France the latest to join a field led so far by Russia and China.

Hypersonics are like missiles that travel at more than five times the speed of sound (Mach 5), but are able to maneuver in mid-flight, making them much harder to track and intercept than traditional projectiles.

France is the fourth of the five permanent UN Security Council members to join the so-called “stealth by speed” contest, after China, Russia and the US.

“We have decided to issue a contract for a hypersonic glider” that can travel at more than 6,000kph, French Minister of Defense Florence Parly said last week, promising a test flight by the end of 2021.

“Many countries are acquiring them [hypersonic weapons] and we have the know-how to develop them. We could no longer afford to wait,” Parly said, unveiling project Experimental Maneuvering Vehicle, or V-MaX.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in March last year stunned Western military analysts — and many in Russia — by unveiling plans for a new arsenal of hypersonic weapons, which he said would render missile defense systems obsolete.

Putin said that the weapons would only ever be used in self-defense, but his presentation featured video montages of missiles crossing the Atlantic, sparking jitters among NATO members.

A few months later, US President Donald Trump threatened to walk away from a key arms control treaty with Moscow.

France has already carried out studies on propulsion systems for hypersonic flights as part of a 37 billion euro (US$42 billion) revamp of its nuclear arsenal. Under the V-MaX project, being led by ArianeGroup — a joint venture between Airbus and France’s Safran — the air-to-surface ASN4G missile, which would replace the medium-range ASMP, could possibly be configured to travel at hypersonic speeds.

“These weapons could constitute an instantaneous threat of a conventional or even nuclear strike,” the French inter-ministerial Secretariat for National Defense and Security wrote in a 2017 report on next-generation technologies.

Hypersonic gliders would be carried to the edge of the atmosphere by a launch vehicle and would then “glide” back to a target on the ground.

“The goal is high-speed maneuverability. That’s how it differs from a ballistic trajectory,” the French Directorate General of Armaments said.

“Once the initial speed is reached, we can play with speed and altitude to move up and down, to the left and to the right, creating a trajectory that is more difficult to intercept,” it said.

“If we are targeted by a defense system, we can operate evasive maneuvers,” it added.

The Kremlin last month touted the capabilities of its new hypersonic glider, aptly named “Avanguard.”

In tests, the intercontinental projectile reached 27 times the speed of sound — 33,000kph, or Mach 27, the Kremlin said.

“At this speed not a single interceptor missile can shoot it down,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov said.

China has also reportedly carried out several successful tests since 2014 of a glider that can reach speeds of Mach 5 to Mach 10.

Harry Harris, former US military commander for the Pacific region, last year said that “China’s hypersonic weapons development outpaces ours ... we’re falling behind.”

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