Up to Speed: Issue 1, Hypersonics Primer

Up to Speed: Issue 1, Hypersonics Primer

This is the first installment in a new research series from FON Investment Banking that will provide commentary and analysis on developments in the hypersonic weapons industry. This issue is a primer that sets a baseline for the current state of hypersonic weapon development, with more focused reports to follow on hypersonic topics including missile defense, space-based systems, infrastructure, and adversary programs.

Hypersonic weapons – which travel at speeds in excess of Mach 5 (approximately 1 mile per second, or 6,000 kmh) 1 – have been a part of defense research and development in the United States since the 1960s.2 It was during the George W. Bush administration in the early 2000s that the US began to make more targeted investments to develop hypersonic weapons as part of the Conventional Prompt Global Strike (CPGS) program. 3

Hypersonic weapons are typically classified into two categories – hypersonic glide vehicles (“HGV”) and hypersonic cruise missiles (“HCM”):

  • HGVs are unpowered vehicles that are launched from a rocket and then released to glide to its target. These vehicles are maneuverable once they reach the glide phase, therefore holding large areas at risk during flight. Unlike ballistic missiles which can reach upwards of 1,200+ km in altitude, HGVs reach between 40 km to 100 km – flying at trajectories that create significant challenges for existing land- and space-based detection systems and sensor architecture
  • HCMs can be launched from the ground, from aircraft, or from ships. These missiles have airbreathing engines that can produce thrust to hypersonics speeds, known as supersonic combustion ramjet (scramjet) engines. 5 Similar to HGVs, the HCMs combine speed and maneuverability to make them highly effective weapons as compared to conventional cruise missiles.

Hypersonic weapons can be paired with nuclear or conventional warheads, however given their high rate of speed, conventional hypersonic weapons are expected to use only kinetic energy to destroy targets.6 The combination of maneuverability, speed, and flight trajectory not only make this first generation of hypersonic missiles very difficult to detect and defend against, but they materially compress timelines for decisionmakers to assess and respond to the threat once the weapon is in-flight, creating urgency among major governments to have offensive and defensive capabilities. Read More

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