The AGM-183 ARRW Hypersonic Missile: A Glimpse into the Future of U.S. Airpower


In the annals of modern military technology, the development and subsequent cancellation of the AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) program by the United States Air Force stands as a compelling case study. Commencing in April 2018 with ambitious goals of operational deployment by 2022, the ARRW program encountered a series of setbacks and challenges, culminating in its final test flights in August and October of 2023.

The inception of the ARRW program was rooted in strategic imperatives. Designed to be a conventionally armed hypersonic glide vehicle, the ARRW aimed to leverage cutting-edge technologies pioneered in the Tactical Boost Glide program, a collaborative effort between the Air Force and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). This lineage underscored the program’s potential for revolutionizing military capabilities, promising rapid response times and enhanced precision targeting against high-value assets.

However, the reality of the ARRW program’s trajectory diverged sharply from its initial aspirations. By March 2023, Air Force officials acknowledged the program’s faltering progress, citing a litany of hardware and software issues that had plagued its testing phase. The decision not to pursue follow-up procurement after testing completion signaled a definitive endpoint for the ARRW program, casting doubts on its viability and effectiveness.

Central to the ARRW’s design was its propulsion system, which integrated a single-stage solid booster reminiscent of the MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS). This strategic choice underscored the program’s emphasis on adaptability and interoperability, potentially allowing for integration across multiple platforms, including the B-52H Stratofortress bomber from which it was launched during tests. Moreover, plans to integrate the ARRW with other aircraft such as the B-1B Lancer bomber and the F-15E Strike Eagle underscored its intended versatility and strategic utility.

The demise of the ARRW program, however, is emblematic of broader challenges facing the United States in the realm of hypersonic technology. As adversaries such as China and Russia make significant strides in developing hypersonic missile capabilities, the urgency to counter these advancements has become increasingly apparent. The cancellation of the ARRW program reflects the difficulty of accelerating the development of Mach 5+ platforms, with implications for the strategic balance of power in the modern era.

Moreover, the setbacks encountered by the ARRW program are not isolated incidents but part of a broader pattern of delays and cancellations across various hypersonic initiatives within the U.S. military. The US Army’s Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon program, for instance, has also faced hurdles, resulting in postponed tests and delayed deployment timelines. These setbacks underscore the formidable technical challenges inherent in developing and operationalizing hypersonic capabilities, despite their potential strategic advantages.


Unveiling the AGM-183 ARRW on B-52H Stratofortress

In a notable display of advanced weaponry, the U.S. Air Force recently unveiled images of the AGM-183 Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), a cutting-edge hypersonic missile, attached to the wing of a B-52H Stratofortress bomber. This event took place at Andersen Air Force Base on Guam, a key strategic location in the Pacific. The release of these images, especially in light of the Air Force’s previous announcement of plans to terminate the ARRW program, has reignited discussions about the future and strategic implications of this hypersonic weapon system.

Image:   AGM-183A – the missile’s serial number, AR-AUR-005

The images highlighted a live AGM-183A missile, identifiable by two yellow bands on its front and rear, underscoring the seriousness of the training and the operational capability of the ARRW. The specific B-52H unit involved in this exercise remains unspecified, but participation from the 23rd Expeditionary Bomb Squadron and the 49th Test and Evaluation Squadron was confirmed. This “hypersonic weapon familiarization training” on February 27 aimed not only at increasing operational readiness but also at preparing Air Force personnel for future engagements with hypersonic technologies, including the ARRW and other developmental systems.

B-52 Stratofortress crews from the 23rd Expeditionary Bomb Squadron, Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota and the 49th Test and Evaluation Squadron, Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, participated in hypersonic weapon familiarization training at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, Feb. 27, 2024. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Pedro Tenorio)

The strategic deployment of ARRW for training in Guam raises questions about its intended use and signals potential power projection in the Pacific, emphasizing the significance of hypersonic capabilities in deterring adversaries and reassuring allies. The ARRW’s complex design, featuring a hypersonic boost-glide vehicle for high-speed, maneuverable flight, represents a significant advancement in missile technology, posing a challenge to current defense systems due to its unpredictable trajectory and high velocity.

Despite mixed results from initial testing phases, the Air Force’s continued testing and refinement of ARRW technology highlight its potential role in future combat scenarios. With tests continuing into Fiscal Year 2024, including operations aimed at validating launch conditions and flight characteristics, the Air Force’s commitment to advancing hypersonic capabilities is clear. These efforts align with broader Department of Defense strategies for maintaining a competitive edge in high-speed weaponry, amidst growing global interests in hypersonic technologies.

B-52 Stratofortress crews from the 23rd Expeditionary Bomb Squadron, Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota and the 49th Test and Evaluation Squadron, Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, participated in hypersonic weapon familiarization training at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, Feb. 27, 2024. Hypersonics is an attribute being pursued for advanced munitions. The Department of Defense is developing hypersonic science and technology to ensure the U.S. can rapidly transition operational hypersonic systems. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Pedro Tenorio)

The cost and complexity of hypersonic weapons, such as the ARRW, underscore the challenges of integrating such systems into the U.S. arsenal. With estimated costs significantly higher than existing missile systems, strategic deployment against high-value targets is a likely use case. This emphasizes the role of hypersonic weapons in future conflict scenarios, particularly in the Pacific region where the U.S. seeks to deter potential adversaries like China through advanced military capabilities.

Andersen Air Force Base’s role in this hypersonic weapon training event highlights Guam’s strategic importance in the Pacific, serving as a central hub for U.S. military operations. This event coincides with broader military planning efforts that emphasize long-range, conventional strike capabilities as essential elements of strategic deterrence.

As the Pentagon prepares to unveil its budget request for the 2025 Fiscal Year, further details on the future of the ARRW program and other hypersonic weapon initiatives are anticipated. The ongoing development and operational testing of the AGM-183A indicate that the Air Force may not have entirely abandoned its hypersonic ambitions, despite previous announcements suggesting otherwise.

The development of the Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile (HACM) marks a significant shift in military capabilities for the U.S. Air Force, targeting a rapid deployment by FY 2027. This missile, powered by a supersonic ramjet (scramjet) engine, offers a distinct advantage in hypersonic warfare, a domain where speed and the ability to evade traditional missile defenses are paramount.

The HACM’s design allows for integration into a wider variety of aircraft, unlike its predecessor, the Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), which is limited by its larger size. This capability enables the U.S. to expand the platforms from which hypersonic attacks can be launched, potentially increasing operational flexibility and responsiveness.

However, the strategic implications of deploying the HACM involve several considerations. First, while the HACM propels the U.S. into a more competitive position in hypersonic technology—especially given that neither China nor Russia currently fields an air-launched hypersonic cruise missile—it also reflects the ongoing global arms race in developing Mach 5+ capabilities. Both China and Russia have ground-launched hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs) and are pursuing other hypersonic systems, indicating a broader trend towards these advanced weapons.

The HACM’s estimated range of 1,000 km, although significant, is shorter than that of the ARRW. This limitation is primarily due to the challenges associated with sustaining scramjet-powered flight over extended distances. Such a constraint potentially reduces the U.S. Air Force’s ability to conduct stand-off land-attacks from safe distances, which could impact strategic planning and operational tactics against adversaries with advanced air defense systems.

Moreover, the integration of the HACM onto different types of aircraft raises questions about the U.S.’s long-range power projection capabilities. Specifically, unless the missile can be effectively deployed from bomber aircraft, which have longer range and loitering capabilities than single-seat fighters, the U.S. might face limitations in its ability to project power at considerable distances. This is a critical aspect of modern warfare, where the ability to strike from afar can significantly influence the outcome of conflicts.

Analyzing the Viability and Cost of Hypersonic Missiles in Modern Warfare Scenarios

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently conducted an in-depth analysis of hypersonic missiles, exploring their relative capabilities and potential costs compared to alternative weaponry in scenarios where long-range, rapid-response weapons are essential. This examination sheds light on the strategic implications of employing hypersonic missiles, considering their effectiveness, cost-effectiveness, and technical challenges.

DefinitionHypersonic missiles: missiles traveling at speeds exceeding Mach 5.
Ranges for A2/AD Scenarios– Air-launched missiles: at least 1,000 kilometers (km).
– Ground or sea-launched missiles: at least 3,000 km.
Cost ComparisonHypersonic missiles estimated to cost roughly one-third more than ballistic missiles with similar range, accuracy, and maneuverability.
Technical Challenges– Advanced propulsion systems and materials required for withstanding extreme temperatures.
– Greater technical complexities compared to ballistic missiles.
Advantages– Potential capability to penetrate long-range missile defenses operating outside the atmosphere.
– Enhanced speed and penetration capabilities.
Disadvantages– Uncertain superiority over ballistic missiles against shorter-range defenses.
– Considerable cost disparity compared to alternative missile systems.
Operational Considerations– Hypersonic weapons provide a niche capability for addressing well-defended and time-sensitive threats.
– Cheaper alternatives like cruise missiles viable for less time-sensitive missions.
– Ballistic missiles with maneuverable warheads suitable for targets lacking effective defense systems.

Hypersonic missiles, defined as missiles traveling at speeds exceeding Mach 5, have garnered significant attention due to their ability to potentially evade existing missile defense systems and strike targets with unprecedented speed and precision. The CBO’s analysis focused on hypersonic missiles with ranges suitable for Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) scenarios, where distances of at least 1,000 kilometers (km) for air-launched missiles and 3,000 km for ground or sea-launched missiles are deemed necessary.

One of the primary findings of the CBO’s analysis is the considerable cost disparity between hypersonic missiles and ballistic missiles with maneuverable warheads. Hypersonic missiles, while offering enhanced speed and penetration capabilities, are estimated to cost approximately one-third more than ballistic missiles with similar range, accuracy, and maneuverability. This cost factor raises questions about the affordability and scalability of incorporating hypersonic weapons into the military arsenal.

Furthermore, the technical challenges associated with developing and deploying hypersonic missiles pose additional hurdles. Unlike ballistic missiles, hypersonic missiles require advanced propulsion systems and materials to withstand the extreme temperatures generated by their high-speed flight. These technical complexities contribute to the elevated costs and uncertainties surrounding the practical implementation of hypersonic weaponry.

While hypersonic missiles may hold advantages over ballistic missiles in penetrating long-range missile defenses operating outside the Earth’s atmosphere, the absence of such defenses among potential adversaries diminishes this potential advantage. Against shorter-range defenses, the superiority of hypersonic missiles remains uncertain, raising doubts about their efficacy in real-world combat scenarios.

The CBO’s analysis emphasizes that hypersonic weapons offer a niche capability, primarily suited for addressing threats characterized by both robust defenses and time-sensitive requirements. In scenarios where rapid response times—ranging from 15 to 30 minutes—are critical, hypersonic missiles could prove invaluable. However, if time constraints are less stringent, cheaper alternatives such as cruise missiles could fulfill the mission requirements more economically.

Moreover, for targets lacking effective defense systems against incoming ballistic missiles, employing less expensive ballistic missiles with maneuverable warheads may present a viable alternative. This underscores the importance of considering the specific operational context and threat environment when evaluating the suitability of hypersonic missiles versus alternative weapon systems.

The CBO’s analysis underscores the complex trade-offs associated with hypersonic missiles, balancing their enhanced capabilities with substantial cost considerations and technical challenges. While hypersonic weapons hold promise as a disruptive technology in modern warfare, their practical utility hinges on addressing these challenges and aligning their deployment with strategic priorities and operational requirements.

Image :The hypersonic missiles being developed by the U.S. military combine desirable traits of two types of U.S. missiles with well-developed technology: ballistic missiles’ speed and long ranges, and subsonic cruise missiles’ maneuverability and ability to survive against midcourse missile defenses. Hypersonic missiles introduce new technical challenges, however.

Evaluating Hypersonic Weapons and Alternatives: A CBO Analysis

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently undertook a comprehensive evaluation of hypersonic missiles and potential alternatives, scrutinizing various scenarios for their application and the requisite attributes such as range, responsiveness, and survivability. Amidst the backdrop of China and Russia’s formidable long-range Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) systems, tailored to impede U.S. superiority across air, land, and sea domains, the assessment aimed to discern the efficacy of different weapon systems. The findings shed light on the evolving landscape of modern warfare and the technological advancements required to maintain strategic advantage.

In envisaging scenarios where fleeting intelligence necessitates swift action against high-value targets, CBO delineated the significance of long-distance, highly responsive weaponry. These scenarios, particularly in regions like the South China Sea and the Baltic, underscored the imperative for rapid strikes from extended distances. Crucially, the assessment factored in the presence of missile defense systems employed by potential adversaries, crucial for gauging the effectiveness of incoming U.S. missiles.

To facilitate comparison and analysis, CBO identified a spectrum of potential weapons, ranging from existing systems like the Navy’s Tomahawk Land Attack System to prospective future technologies such as hypersonic cruise missiles and boost-glide missiles under development by the Department of Defense (DoD). The distinction between cruise missiles, which maintain engine propulsion throughout flight, and boost-glide missiles, initially accelerated by rockets before gliding through the atmosphere, framed the assessment’s technical scope. Additionally, CBO explored hypothetical ballistic missiles featuring maneuverable warheads, offering accuracies akin to projected capabilities of hypersonic boost-glide missiles.

Subsequently, CBO refined its selection to encompass only those technologies capable of meeting the stringent criteria for range, responsiveness, and survivability across pertinent scenarios. Each system underwent meticulous scrutiny, with a focus on its intrinsic characteristics and estimated production costs. This discerning approach aimed to distill the most viable options amidst a plethora of technological solutions.

In essence, the CBO’s analysis serves as a compass navigating the complex terrain of modern warfare, where the interplay of technology, strategy, and geopolitical dynamics shapes the contours of conflict. By delving into the nuances of hypersonic weapons and potential alternatives, policymakers gain invaluable insights into the investments necessary to safeguard national security interests. As adversaries continue to advance their military capabilities, such assessments become indispensable for maintaining strategic parity and ensuring preparedness for future contingencies.

CBO Analysis Reveals Essential Attributes for Operating in A2/AD Zones

In a detailed assessment conducted by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), critical insights have emerged regarding the operational requirements for the U.S. military within adversary Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) zones. The findings underscore the imperative for swift and precise strikes against key targets, necessitating capabilities with exceptional speed and range. Against the backdrop of evolving military strategies, CBO’s estimations provide valuable guidance for strategic planning and defense investments.

CBO’s analysis posits that within an adversary’s A2/AD zone, the U.S. military may encounter scenarios where the need arises to engage a limited number of targets within remarkably short timeframes. These targets, including coastal air-defense systems, long-range strike capabilities, and over-the-horizon radars, are pivotal for sustaining the adversary’s A2/AD capabilities. To mitigate the effects of these systems early in a conflict, thereby enabling the utilization of a wider array of weaponry thereafter, the United States must possess the capability to degrade these critical assets swiftly and decisively.

Estimates provided by CBO suggest that to meet the stringent demands of such missions, the U.S. military would require weapons capable of striking targets at ranges spanning from 3,000 km to 5,000 km (approximately 1,900 miles to 3,400 miles). These distances, coupled with the necessity for rapid response, emphasize the crucial interplay between speed, range, and precision in modern warfare scenarios. Notably, the ability to neutralize adversary long-range strike systems and defenses promptly emerges as a strategic imperative, enabling the U.S. military to gain a decisive edge in the early stages of conflict escalation.

Among the spectrum of potential alternatives scrutinized by CBO for such missions, two categories of weapon systems stand out: ballistic missiles equipped with maneuverable reentry vehicles (MaRVs) and hypersonic boost-glide missiles. These technologies exhibit the requisite combination of speed and range essential for engaging targets within the strict time constraints inherent in the most challenging A2/AD scenarios. The agility afforded by maneuverable reentry vehicles and the exceptional speed and unpredictability of hypersonic boost-glide missiles align closely with the operational demands dictated by modern conflict dynamics.

The significance of CBO’s findings extends beyond mere technological assessment; it underscores the evolving nature of contemporary warfare and the imperative for strategic adaptation. As geopolitical tensions persist and adversaries continue to bolster their A2/AD capabilities, the United States must remain vigilant in its pursuit of cutting-edge technologies and strategic doctrines. CBO’s insights serve as a clarion call for sustained investment in research, development, and acquisition programs aimed at fortifying America’s defense posture and preserving its strategic interests on the global stage.

A Comparative Analysis of Hypersonic Boost-Glide Missiles and Ballistic Missiles in Modern Warfare

The advent of hypersonic weapons technology has ushered in a new era of strategic military capabilities, challenging existing ballistic missile defense systems and prompting a reevaluation of defense strategies worldwide. A recent report by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) provides a comprehensive analysis of the advantages and drawbacks of hypersonic boost-glide missiles compared to traditional ballistic missiles, shedding light on their respective roles in modern warfare.

One of the primary motivations driving the development of hypersonic weapons by nations like China and Russia is their perceived ability to outmaneuver and evade existing ballistic missile defense systems, particularly those employed by the United States. Unlike ballistic missiles, which follow a predictable trajectory and can be intercepted during midcourse flight, hypersonic boost-glide missiles spend a significant portion of their flight inside the Earth’s atmosphere. This characteristic poses a considerable challenge to midcourse ballistic missile defense systems, as hypersonic missiles fly at lower altitudes and exhibit unpredictable flight paths, making them harder to detect and intercept.

Furthermore, the report highlights the uncertainty introduced by hypersonic missiles regarding their ultimate target. Their low flight profile and ability to maneuver during gliding phases make tracking and interception difficult, potentially complicating defense strategies and decision-making processes for adversaries. While ballistic missiles equipped with maneuverable reentry vehicles (MaRVs) can also create target uncertainty, the maneuverability of hypersonic missiles throughout their flight trajectory exacerbates this challenge.

In assessing the cost-effectiveness of hypersonic boost-glide missiles versus ballistic missiles, the CBO report reveals important insights. Despite their technological superiority and enhanced survivability against certain defense systems, hypersonic missiles come at a higher procurement and sustainment cost compared to ballistic missiles. This cost disparity, estimated to be approximately one-third higher for hypersonic missiles, underscores the economic considerations involved in military procurement decisions.

Moreover, the report emphasizes the evolving geopolitical landscape surrounding intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs). While the United States refrained from deploying such missiles due to treaty obligations, advancements in technology have enabled the mastery of operating IRBMs, as demonstrated by historical deployments of medium-range ballistic missiles with maneuverable warheads. However, both hypersonic missiles and ballistic missiles require further advancements in targeting technology to enhance accuracy and effectively engage moving targets.

The CBO report provides a nuanced analysis of the capabilities, limitations, and cost considerations associated with hypersonic boost-glide missiles and ballistic missiles. As nations continue to invest in advanced weaponry and defense systems, understanding the strategic implications of these technologies is paramount for policymakers and military planners alike. The ongoing development and deployment of hypersonic weapons herald a new chapter in military affairs, shaping the future landscape of global security and defense strategies.

Comparison of the Missile Options That CBO Analyzed
OptionLaunch ModeEstimated Range (Kilometers)Average Speed Over Estimated Range (Mach number)aNumber of Missiles PurchasedEstimated Procurement Cost per Missile (Millions of 2023 dollars)Estimated Cost of Option (Billions of 2023 dollars)b
Intermediate-Range Hypersonic Boost-Glide Missiles (Similar to LRHW/IR-CPS)Land or ship3000103004117.9
Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missiles Equipped With MaRVsLand or ship300093002613.4
Medium-Range Hypersonic Boost-Glide Missiles (Similar to ARRW)cAircraft10007300155.3
Short-Range Hypersonic Cruise Missiles (Similar to HACM/HALO)dAircraftLess than 5007n.e.n.e.n.e.
Short-Range Ballistic Missiles (Similar to SM-6 Block IB)Land or shipeLess than 1,000630063.5
Data source: Congressional Budget Office. See
CBO’s estimates are subject to significant uncertainty about the costs of less mature technology or components, which represent long-term investments in a wide range of research areas that are associated with high risks of cost and schedule overruns. These estimates represent one possible outcome based on the specific assumptions made about technologies and capabilities (see Appendix C for details).
ARRW = Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (being developed by the Air Force); HACM = Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missle (being developed by the Air Force); HALO = Hypersonic Air-Launched Offensive Antisurface Warfare missile (being developed by the Navy); IR-CPS = Intermediate-Range Conventional Prompt Strike missile (being developed by the Navy); LRHW = Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon (being developed by the Army); MaRVs = maneuverable reentry vehicles;
n.e. = not estimated; SM = Standard Missile.
“Mach number” refers to an object’s speed relative to the speed of sound in the air at sea level; for example, Mach 5 is five times the speed of sound.
Consists of the costs to procure the missiles; the costs to integrate the missiles with existing platforms and to buy associated equipment, such as launchers; and the costs to sustain the missile system for 20 years. Costs to develop the missiles are not included.
CBO estimated the costs of two versions of this option: one with 300 missiles, the same as the number of hypersonic LRHW/IR-CPS missiles in Option 1, and one with 100 missiles to reflect the fact that the air-launched weapons in this option would not need to be spread among ships and submarines in different parts of the world but could be stored in a few locations and flown to where they were needed on short notice. Thus, a smaller number of the air-launched hypersonic missiles in this option could provide a worldwide availability similar to that provided by the larger number of land- or sea-launched hypersonic missiles in Option 1.
The Department of Defense is early in the process of developing this missile. Little is known about its characteristics, so CBO did not have a basis for estimating the cost of the missile.
The SM-6 Block IB is being developed by the Navy as a variant of its existing Block IA ballistic missile. Although the new missile would primarily be a Navy weapon, reports indicate that the Army is also planning to use it.

The Technical Challenges of Hypersonic Missile Development

In the realm of modern warfare, the pursuit of hypersonic missile technology represents a paradigm shift in strategic capabilities, promising unprecedented speed, maneuverability, and precision. However, the realization of this potential is contingent upon overcoming a myriad of complex technical challenges inherent in hypersonic flight. From materials engineering to aerodynamics and communications, the development of hypersonic missiles demands innovative solutions and meticulous attention to detail.

The term “hypersonic” denotes speeds exceeding Mach 5 within the Earth’s atmosphere, distinguishing it from spaceflight or reentry trajectories. Unlike spacecraft or ballistic missiles, which experience brief encounters with extreme heat during reentry, hypersonic missiles must contend with prolonged thermal effects throughout their flight path. This necessitates the utilization of advanced materials capable of withstanding temperatures ranging from 1,000 K to 2,000 K, while maintaining structural integrity and aerodynamic stability. High-performance alloys, ceramic composites, and carbon-carbon materials emerge as leading candidates for withstanding the rigors of hypersonic flight, albeit at significant manufacturing costs.

Central to the aerodynamic design of hypersonic missiles is the reliance on aerodynamic control surfaces for maneuverability. Unlike spacecraft propelled by thrusters, hypersonic missiles employ wings or tail fins to glide and maneuver within the Earth’s atmosphere. This necessitates the presence of air for aerodynamic surfaces to function effectively, presenting unique challenges in design and operation. Moreover, the transition from smooth to turbulent airflow around a hypersonic missile can disrupt stability and exacerbate thermal loads, limiting maneuverability and range.

Communications and targeting represent additional hurdles in hypersonic missile development. While advancements in technology enable the emission and reception of radio signals, the integration of sensitive electronics within the missile’s structure poses challenges in thermal management and signal transmission. Developing radomes capable of facilitating communication while providing thermal shielding remains a formidable task for defense researchers and engineers.

The phased approach adopted by the Department of Defense (DoD) in developing hypersonic missiles underscores the incremental nature of technological advancements in this domain. Early iterations may exhibit limited capabilities, necessitating ongoing research and development to address performance gaps and operational requirements. Furthermore, uncertainties surrounding material properties, aerodynamic behavior, and communication protocols necessitate rigorous testing and validation to ensure the reliability and effectiveness of hypersonic missiles in combat scenarios.

The Evolution and Strategic Significance of the Army’s Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon

The United States Army’s development of the Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW) marks a pivotal advancement in modern warfare capabilities, reflecting the ongoing global shift towards the adoption of hypersonic technology for strategic military applications. This detailed exploration sheds light on the intricacies of the LRHW program, including its operational framework, financial underpinnings, developmental trajectory, and the broader strategic implications of its deployment.

Operational Capabilities and Structure

The LRHW is a ground-launched boost-glide missile system, designed for rapid deployment and high mobility across diverse terrains. Its deployment mechanism involves mobile transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) vehicles, which underscore the system’s emphasis on flexibility and responsiveness. Each LRHW battery is comprised of four TELs, equipped with a total of eight missiles, alongside a singular operations center dedicated to overseeing the battery’s functionality. This structure is tailored to enhance the operational autonomy and effectiveness of the LRHW units in field conditions.

Although most of the LRHW’s performance specifications remain classified, its disclosed operational range exceeds 2,775 kilometers (approximately 1,724 miles), positioning it as a formidable asset capable of striking targets well beyond conventional ranges. This extended range capability significantly augments the strategic reach of the Army, enabling precision strikes against distant high-value targets in a conflict scenario.

Financial Overview and Developmental Timeline

Since its inception in 2020, the LRHW program has been a focal point of military investment, with funding allocations reaching $1.7 billion by 2022. The Department of Defense (DoD) earmarked an additional $807 million for the program in 2023, indicating sustained commitment to advancing this strategic initiative. The budgetary forecast anticipates the conclusion of Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation (RDT&E) activities by 2027, with total expenditures projected at $5.3 billion. This financial trajectory underscores the strategic priority assigned to hypersonic capabilities within the broader defense budgeting framework.

The 2023 fiscal year further allocated $249 million towards procurement, signaling the transition from developmental phases towards active deployment and operationalization of the LRHW systems. This budgetary allocation reflects a strategic investment in enhancing the Army’s long-range precision strike capabilities, aligning with broader military modernization efforts.

Testing Milestones and Future Projections

The LRHW program has navigated through various developmental milestones, including successful flight tests of prototype missiles. These successes demonstrate tangible progress in the program’s maturation, albeit punctuated by test failures that highlight the technical challenges inherent in hypersonic weapon development. The collaborative flight tests planned with the Navy through 2028 signify a concerted inter-service effort to refine and validate the operational efficacy of hypersonic technologies.

The Army’s roadmap envisions the initial deployment of prototype LRHW missiles in 2023, with subsequent expansions slated for 2025 and 2027. These phased deployments aim to incrementally integrate LRHW capabilities into the operational framework, ensuring a calibrated approach to adopting this transformative technology.

Strategic Implications and Global Context

The development and deployment of the LRHW represent a critical evolution in military strategy, reflecting the increasing importance of hypersonic weapons in global power dynamics. Hypersonic capabilities, characterized by their unparalleled speed and maneuverability, offer a strategic advantage in overcoming conventional missile defenses, thereby reshaping the contours of military deterrence and engagement strategies.

The LRHW program, within this context, exemplifies the United States’ commitment to maintaining a technological edge in an era of intensifying strategic competition. As nations globally accelerate their hypersonic development programs, the LRHW’s successful deployment will be a pivotal factor in sustaining strategic stability and reinforcing deterrence in the face of evolving global threats.

Advancements and Challenges in the Navy’s Intermediate-Range Conventional Prompt Strike Program

The United States Navy’s initiative to develop and deploy the Intermediate-Range Conventional Prompt Strike (IR-CPS) weapon system represents a significant leap in the evolution of modern naval warfare capabilities. This program aims to integrate a cutting-edge boost-glide missile, carrying the Common Hypersonic Glide Body, into the Navy’s arsenal. The strategic development of the IR-CPS reflects a broader shift towards hypersonic technology within the defense sector, emphasizing speed, precision, and the ability to penetrate advanced missile defenses.

Strategic Deployment and Operational Framework

Initially, the Navy planned to deploy the IR-CPS aboard Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarines, leveraging the Virginia Payload Module—a multimissile launcher designed for newer versions of these submarines. This approach underscored the strategic flexibility and stealth capabilities inherent to submarine-launched missile systems. However, in a bid to expedite the missile’s deployment, the Navy adjusted its strategy to first integrate the IR-CPS onto existing Zumwalt-class destroyers, with subsequent plans to develop and enhance launch capabilities for Virginia-class submarines. The decision to prioritize deployment on Zumwalt-class destroyers reflects a pragmatic approach to fielding hypersonic capabilities, leveraging the advanced technological platforms available within the existing fleet.

The IR-CPS’s specifications, while largely classified, have been indicated to possess a range comparable to the Army’s Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW), exceeding 2,775 kilometers. This substantial range capability underscores the strategic value of the IR-CPS, enabling the Navy to conduct precision strikes at intermediate distances, thereby extending the operational reach of naval forces.

Financial Investment and Developmental Trajectory

Since 2019, the IR-CPS program has secured substantial financial backing, with allocations amounting to $2.6 billion through 2022. The Department of Defense (DoD) further bolstered the program with a $1.2 billion request in 2023. These investments reflect the strategic emphasis placed on developing hypersonic technologies, with the Navy’s research and development efforts on the IR-CPS projected to extend beyond 2027, accumulating a total cost exceeding $9 billion. Such financial commitments signify the program’s critical role in the Navy’s future operational capabilities.

Technical Challenges and Developmental Hurdles

The development of the Navy’s version of the boost-glide missile has encountered several unique challenges, notably due to its sea-launching mechanism. Unlike the Army’s LRHW, which utilizes a “hot launch” system, the IR-CPS requires a “cold launch” process. This method involves ejecting the missile from its launch tube using a gas generator before ignition, a technique that introduces additional complexity compared to ground-launched systems. The initial development timeline was closely tied to the readiness of the Virginia Payload Module, further complicating the program’s progression.

Despite these challenges, the Navy aimed to demonstrate a prototype capability of the IR-CPS in 2022. However, the program experienced a setback with the failure of its first flight test that year. Despite this, joint flight tests with the Army are planned to continue through 2028, illustrating a collaborative effort to overcome technical obstacles and refine the system’s capabilities.

Future Projections and Strategic Implications

The Navy’s roadmap for the IR-CPS includes demonstrating a cold-launch prototype in 2024, deploying prototype missiles on Zumwalt-class destroyers by 2025, and achieving full-capability missile deployment on Virginia-class submarines by 2028. This phased approach highlights the strategic importance of the IR-CPS in enhancing the Navy’s strike capabilities, particularly in contested environments where conventional missile defenses pose significant challenges.

Image : Zumwalt-class destroyers

The development and eventual deployment of the IR-CPS are poised to significantly bolster the Navy’s operational flexibility, enabling precision strikes at intermediate ranges with unprecedented speed. As the program navigates its developmental challenges, the strategic integration of hypersonic capabilities into the Navy’s arsenal will undoubtedly play a pivotal role in shaping future naval warfare strategies, reinforcing the United States’ commitment to maintaining a technological edge in an increasingly competitive global security landscape.

Source: Air Force Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon program office (Lockheed Martin illustration). – The Tactical Boost Glide (TBG) vehicle developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency forms the basis for the hypersonic boost-glide missile that the Air Force is developing, the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW). The TBG is shown here as a slender, pointed object on the front end of the missile. The cone in the upper left of the drawing is the protective shroud from the front of the missile, which has just been ejected in preparation for releasing the TBG.

U.S. Hypersonic Weapons Programs and Their RDT&E Funding
    RDT&E Funding (Millions of nominal dollars)
Service or AgencyProgramDescriptionEstimated Range (Kilometers)Request for 2023Total Past and Planned FundingaPlanned Initial Fielding Date
Army  30008075,2692023
Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW)Ground-launched boost-glide missile
 Operational FiresGround-based launcher for hypersonic boost-glide missiles; uses the TBG and a tunable rocket motor for variable range50011662023
NavyIntermediate-Range Conventional Prompt Strike (IR-CPS)Sea-launched boost-glide missile3,000b1,205At least 8,902 (continuing)2025
 Hypersonic Air- Launched Offensive Antisurface Warfare (HALO)Air-launched cruise missileN.A.92At least 444 (continuing)2028
Air ForceAir-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW)Air-launched boost-glide missile10001151,3152023
 Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile (HACM)Air-launched cruise missile500c4621,812N.A.
Defense Advanced Research Projects AgencyHypersonic Air- Breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC)Cruise missile technologyN.A.60At least 195 (continuing)n.a. (Transitioned to the Air Force)
 Tactical Boost Glide (TBG)Glide body prototype for ARRWn.a.30At least 555 (continuing)n.a. (Transitioned to the Air Force)
 Operational FiresGround-based launcher for hypersonic boost-glide missiles; uses the TBG and a tunable rocket motor for variable rangen.a.N.A.169n.a. (Transitioned to the Army)
Data source: Congressional Budget Office, using Department of Defense data from the President’s budget request. See
n.a. = not applicable; N.A. = not available; RDT&E = research, development, test, and evaluation.
Total RDT&E funding from the beginning of the program through the 2023–2027 Future Years Defense Program. Programs labeled “continuing” are expected to receive additional RDT&E funding after 2027.
The range of the Navy’s IR-CPS is expected to be about the same as that of the Army’s LRHW, which will use the same glide body.
The design details, including ranges, of HALO and HACM have not been made public. The range of a cruise missile depends largely on the amount of fuel it carries. Because of the Air Force’s stated intent to design HACM to be smaller than ARRW, CBO anticipates that the range will be about 500 kilometers. CBO has not evaluated whether HACM can achieve that range and still have a smaller size and lower weight than ARRW.

The Landscape of Hypersonic Programs Beyond Military Initiatives

In the realm of hypersonic technology, the United States military is actively engaged in various programs aimed at advancing its capabilities in both boost-glide and cruise missile systems. However, beyond the military’s endeavors, there are other significant initiatives underway, including ground-based launchers and collaborative research efforts with DARPA. This comprehensive overview delves into the intricacies of these programs, detailing their funding, objectives, and potential implications.

OpFires Launchers: One notable program in development is DARPA’s Operational Fires (OpFires), which the Army is actively pursuing. OpFires focuses on creating a ground-based launch system for short-range hypersonic boost-glide missiles, with the capacity to deploy multiple payloads over various ranges. Since its inception in 2018, OpFires has received substantial funding, totaling $169 million through 2022. The Army’s investment in OpFires amounted to $55 million in both 2021 and 2022, with an additional $11 million requested for 2023. Budget projections indicate that OpFires will be operational alongside the Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW) by 2023.

Hypersonic Cruise Missiles: Apart from boost-glide missiles, the Department of Defense (DoD) is also actively pursuing hypersonic cruise missiles, leveraging scramjet technology. DARPA’s Hypersonic Air-Breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) program, initiated in 2014, has been pivotal in advancing scramjet research, receiving $195 million in funding through 2022. Renamed as the Modified Hypersonic Air-Breathing Weapon Concept (MoHAWC), the program saw a budget request of $60 million for 2023. Both the Air Force and the Navy are deeply involved in scramjet research, with each service embarking on its own hypersonic cruise missile program.

The Air Force’s Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile (HACM) program, with a budget allocation of $190 million in 2022 and a request for an additional $462 million in 2023, aims to achieve long-range, prompt strike capabilities. Collaborating with DARPA, three companies received funding to develop HACM prototypes, two of which underwent successful demonstrations in 2021 and 2022. Similarly, the Navy is advancing its Offensive Anti-Surface Warfare (OASuW) Increment 2, known as the Hypersonic Air-Launched OASuW (HALO) program, with a budget request of $92 million in 2023, targeting missile deployment by 2028.

Technological Challenges and Future Prospects: While these programs signify significant advancements in hypersonic capabilities, challenges remain in terms of range, maneuverability, and targeting precision. Ongoing research efforts, spearheaded by DARPA and military laboratories, aim to address these challenges and enhance the performance of next-generation hypersonic missiles. However, it’s anticipated that initial iterations of hypersonic weapons may operate at or below the minimum ranges associated with missile categories due to thermal constraints and technological limitations.

Moreover, thermal challenges pose restrictions on the maneuverability of hypersonic missiles, necessitating trajectory designs to minimize thermal stresses. Additionally, the first-generation hypersonic missiles may lack the accuracy and sensor capabilities required for effective operation in dynamic target environments. Despite these challenges, continued research and development efforts suggest a promising trajectory for the evolution of hypersonic technology, paving the way for enhanced defense capabilities in the future.

Policy Challenges Surrounding the Advancement of Hypersonic Missiles

In the realm of military technology, hypersonic missiles have emerged as a focal point of discussion and development in recent years. The United States, in particular, has intensified its interest in these high-speed weapons, spurred by several factors including the evolving geopolitical landscape and advancements made by potential adversaries such as China and Russia. This article delves into the multifaceted policy issues associated with the development and deployment of hypersonic missiles, exploring concerns ranging from nuclear ambiguity to crisis instability.

The foundation of the discussion lies in the context of evolving global power dynamics. The emergence of China as a formidable technological and military force, alongside Russia’s persistent advancements, has prompted a recalibration of U.S. defense policy towards these near-peer competitors. This shift has led to heightened interest and support for hypersonic missile technology as a means to maintain strategic parity and deterrence.

However, amidst this backdrop of strategic competition, questions arise regarding the necessity and affordability of hypersonic missiles. Despite assertions of their potential utility, critics argue that existing arsenals already offer a diverse range of strike capabilities, making additional investment in hypersonic technology questionable, particularly given the nascent state of adversaries’ defenses against current U.S. missiles.

Central to the debate are the policy implications associated with the unique characteristics of hypersonic missiles. One prominent concern is the issue of nuclear ambiguity, wherein adversaries may misinterpret the nature of an incoming missile’s payload, potentially leading to a nuclear response to a conventional strike. This dilemma echoes past debates, such as the cancellation of the Navy’s Conventional Trident Modification program, where lawmakers expressed concerns over the inability to distinguish between nuclear and conventional warheads.

Addressing nuclear ambiguity necessitates innovative solutions to ensure clear differentiation between conventional and nuclear-armed missiles. Past proposals have suggested implementing distinct trajectories and maneuvering capabilities for conventional missiles, aimed at minimizing confusion and preventing inadvertent nuclear escalation.

The compressed timeframes associated with hypersonic missile capabilities further exacerbate concerns regarding crisis instability. For instance, a missile capable of traversing 3,000 kilometers in approximately 15 minutes affords adversaries minimal time to formulate well-considered responses. This abbreviated window severely limits decision-making processes, increasing the likelihood of impulsive reactions and escalating tensions. In scenarios where split-second decisions carry significant consequences, such as during military confrontations or strategic standoffs, the rapid speed of hypersonic missiles amplifies the risk of inadvertent escalation and conflict escalation. Consequently, the reduced decision-making timeframes imposed by hypersonic technology underscore the imperative of effective crisis management and communication channels to mitigate the potential for catastrophic outcomes.

This uncertainty in target identification amplifies the risk of misinterpretation and miscalculation, potentially heightening tensions and triggering unintended conflicts. Additionally, the enhanced maneuverability of hypersonic missiles complicates defensive measures, further accentuating the destabilizing impact of these weapons on crisis dynamics.

Understanding the Strategic Imperative for Hypersonic Missiles in the Modern U.S. Military Arsenal

The arsenal of the United States military boasts an impressive array of guided weapons, each tailored for specific operational requirements. Ranging from the Joint Direct Attack Munition with its relatively short reach to the Tomahawk cruise missile capable of striking targets over 1,500 kilometers away, these weapons offer a spectrum of capabilities. Moreover, they exhibit speeds that range from subsonic to hypersonic velocities, catering to diverse tactical needs. However, amidst this diversity, the Department of Defense (DoD) is actively exploring the development of hypersonic missiles, prompting a question: Why pursue these costly alternatives when existing options suffice?

At the heart of the matter lies the recognition that hypersonic weapons offer unparalleled advantages in terms of range and speed. These attributes are crucial in modern warfare, especially as the DoD shifts its focus towards potential conflicts with near-peer adversaries possessing advanced military capabilities. China and Russia, in particular, stand out with their formidable arsenals comprising sophisticated air defenses, long-range missiles, and anti-ship weaponry.

Of grave concern is the concept of anti-access and area denial (A2/AD), a strategy employed by adversaries to impede the operational freedom of U.S. forces. By establishing robust A2/AD zones, adversaries can significantly curtail the mobility and efficacy of U.S. military assets. China and Russia possess the means to enforce such zones, potentially leaving vast swaths of territory inaccessible to American forces.

The ramifications of an A2/AD strategy are profound. It not only diminishes U.S. combat power but also grants adversaries greater latitude in conducting operations. To counter this threat effectively, the U.S. military must rely on weapons capable of striking targets from safe distances while maintaining rapid response capabilities. Launching ground- or ship-launched weapons from closer proximity to the target increases the vulnerability of the launch platform and its operators. Hence, long-range hypersonic missiles emerge as a viable solution, allowing for strikes from relatively secure positions with minimal transit time to the target.

Planning scenarios devised by the DoD underscore the imperative for hypersonic capabilities in overcoming A2/AD challenges posed by near-peer adversaries. These adversaries possess an array of offensive and defensive systems, including advanced weaponry with extended reach, complicating the operational environment for U.S. forces. Consequently, the development of hypersonic missiles aligns with the evolving strategic landscape, wherein the ability to penetrate and neutralize A2/AD defenses is paramount.

The Growing Military Dynamics in the South China Sea: Analysis and Implications

In recent years, the South China Sea has become a focal point of geopolitical tensions, primarily due to territorial disputes involving China. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has asserted its claims over various islands and reefs in the region, often in violation of international law. Moreover, China’s assertiveness extends to the threat of forcibly taking control of Taiwan, a democratic island nation that Beijing considers a renegade province. This aggressive posture has prompted the United States to affirm its commitment to Taiwan’s defense, signaling a potential for military confrontation between the two superpowers. Additionally, the United States has pledged to protect its allies in the Pacific and safeguard vital sea lanes, further escalating the potential for conflict.

Should a military conflict erupt, China possesses an array of Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities that could pose significant challenges to the United States and its allies. China’s antiship and air defense systems have the potential to restrict U.S. naval and air access to large swathes of the South China Sea. Of particular concern are the disputed islands in the Paracel and Spratly chains, where China could deploy its A2/AD assets to extend its reach in the region.

Chinese military deployments include surface-to-air missiles and antiship cruise missiles, with ranges that could cover significant distances, potentially encompassing Taiwan. Moreover, China’s claims over the Paracel Islands, despite international opposition, could effectively double its reach into the South China Sea. The introduction of advanced weaponry such as the DF-21D (range of 1,500 km) and DF-26 antiship ballistic missiles (range 4,000 km), along with long-range bombers and fighter aircraft, further enhances China’s military capabilities in the region (Chinese H-6K bombers flying from an inland base could reach 3,500 km offshore, and SU-30MKK fighter aircraft have a range of 1,350 km).

China’s air defense systems, largely sourced from Russia or domestically produced with Russian technology, represent another layer of its A2/AD strategy. Systems like the S-300 and S-400 surface-to-air missile systems provide coverage over hundreds of kilometers, posing a threat to both naval and aerial assets. However, these defenses exhibit limitations against low-flying cruise missiles, albeit retaining some capability against shorter-range threats.

To counter ballistic missile threats, China relies on systems like the S-300 and S-400, akin to the U.S. Patriot missile system, which offer point defense capabilities. However, China’s efforts to develop interceptors for longer-range ballistic missiles are still underway, indicating limitations in its ability to counter high-speed, high-altitude threats in the near term.

The militarization of the South China Sea by the People’s Republic of China has significant implications for regional stability and global security. The escalating tensions between China and the United States, coupled with the presence of advanced A2/AD capabilities, raise concerns about the potential for a military confrontation with far-reaching consequences. As both nations continue to assert their interests in the region, the need for diplomatic solutions and confidence-building measures becomes increasingly imperative to mitigate the risk of conflict and ensure maritime security in the South China Sea and beyond.

The Complexities of Russian Military Capabilities and A2/AD Strategies

Russia’s geopolitical ambitions, as demonstrated by its invasion of Ukraine, hint at potential aspirations to reclaim territories once part of the Soviet Union. Notably, this includes the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, now integral members of NATO. The prospect of Russian aggression towards a NATO member raises significant concerns, given the treaty-based obligations for the United States and its allies to respond in such scenarios. The complexity of potential responses is heightened if Russian forces establish a formidable presence in these NATO countries, fortified with robust air defenses and missile systems.

Similar to China, Russia possesses an arsenal of Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) weapons that could pose formidable challenges for the United States and its allies. Notably, Russia’s long-range missiles and air defense systems are critical components of its military strategy. Ground-launched Iskander ballistic missiles, with a range of 300 km, alongside various land, sea, and air-launched land-attack cruise missiles, underscore Russia’s capacity for precision strikes across significant distances. Additionally, the deployment of Kinzhal ballistic missiles, capable of striking targets on land or at sea from fighter aircraft, further enhances Russia’s reach, potentially restricting naval access to the Baltic Sea.

Russia’s sophisticated air defense systems, such as the S-300 and S-400 surface-to-air missile systems, parallel those deployed by China, posing challenges for NATO air forces. These defenses could effectively limit access to vast areas, encompassing Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland, thereby complicating NATO’s operational capabilities in the region.

However, the failure of the Russian military to capture the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv in February 2022 underscores the limitations of relying solely on technical assessments of military capabilities. It highlights the significance of factors such as sensor capabilities, intelligence gathering, flexible command-and-control systems, and well-trained personnel in military operations. Consequently, the perceived risks posed by A2/AD zones created by potential adversaries may be overstated, emphasizing the importance of a comprehensive understanding of military dynamics and capabilities.

Russia’s military capabilities and A2/AD strategies present complex challenges for the United States and its allies, particularly in the context of potential aggression towards NATO member states. While Russia possesses formidable weaponry and defensive systems, the intricacies of military operations underscore the need for nuanced analysis beyond technical assessments alone. As geopolitical tensions persist, a holistic approach to understanding military capabilities becomes imperative for effective strategic planning and regional stability.

Beyond A2/AD: Exploring the Versatility of Hypersonic Weapons

The emergence of hypersonic weapons presents a paradigm shift in military strategy, offering capabilities that extend beyond countering Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) defenses of near-peer adversaries. While their effectiveness in neutralizing A2/AD threats is widely acknowledged, hypersonic weapons also hold significant potential in scenarios where the United States seeks to execute rapid, long-distance strikes against high-value targets or imminent threats.

One such scenario involves the need for swift action based on actionable intelligence pinpointing the location of a high-value target. This could range from the leader of a terrorist organization to a nuclear-armed missile being prepared for launch by a rogue nation. The urgency of these situations demands a rapid response, especially considering the potential for the target to relocate or execute its intended action. In instances where U.S. forces may not be in close proximity to the target, the deployment of hypersonic missiles becomes paramount due to their ability to strike from long distances within a remarkably short timeframe, a feat unattainable with slower-flying munitions like subsonic cruise missiles.

The resurgence of interest in hypersonic weapons by the Department of Defense (DoD) in the early 2000s was primarily driven by the recognition of this unique capability to conduct time-sensitive, long-range strikes. Unlike traditional missile systems, hypersonic weapons offer unparalleled speed and agility, enabling precision strikes against time-critical targets with minimal warning and response time. This inherent advantage aligns with the evolving nature of modern warfare, characterized by the need for rapid, decisive action to preempt or neutralize emerging threats.

Furthermore, the versatility of hypersonic weapons extends beyond traditional battlefield scenarios to encompass a spectrum of strategic engagements, including counter-terrorism operations, preemptive strikes against rogue states, and crisis response missions. Their ability to deliver kinetic or non-kinetic payloads with unprecedented speed and precision enhances the United States’ strategic deterrent capabilities while augmenting its ability to project power and influence across vast distances.

However, the integration of hypersonic weapons into the military arsenal also presents challenges and considerations, ranging from technological hurdles to strategic implications. Issues such as ensuring reliable guidance and targeting systems, mitigating the risk of collateral damage, and addressing potential escalation dynamics necessitate careful deliberation and robust risk management frameworks.

Approximate Coverage Areas of China’s Potential A2/AD Defenses

Image : China has been developing a variety of weapon systems designed to keep U.S. and U.S. allies’ forces far away from its coasts. In a potential conflict with China, those A2/AD systems could be targets for U.S. hypersonic missiles or alternatives. – Data source: Congressional Budget Office. – The weapon systems that make up China’s A2/AD zone include air- and missile-defense systems that are assumed to cover China’s coastline. Some air-defense sites might also be launch sites for antiship ballistic missiles; those launchers are potentially mobile. China’s military airfields, where fighter aircraft and bombers that could launch cruise missiles are based, are generally located farther inland. Basing those A2/AD systems on Chinese-occupied islands in the South China Sea would extend their coverage areas. – A2/AD = antiaccess and area-denial; km = kilometers.

Approximate Coverage Areas of Russia’s Potential A2/AD Defenses

IMAGE : Russia has been developing weapon systems that could keep U.S. and NATO allies’ forces far away from its borders. In a potential conflict with Russia, those A2/AD systems could be targets for U.S. hypersonic missiles or alternatives. – Data source: Congressional Budget Office. – Russian A2/AD systems are made up of air- and missile-defense systems strategically located in coastal and inland locations, covering much of Europe and nearby waterways. Basing those systems outside mainland Russia, such as in Syria and Kaliningrad, would extend their coverage areas. – A2/AD = antiaccess and area-denial; km = kilometers; NATO = North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Assessing the Impact of Advanced Missile Technologies on Modern Warfare Strategies

In the realm of modern warfare, the ability to conduct rapid, effective strikes against adversarial capabilities, particularly in scenarios characterized by antiaccess and area-denial (A2/AD) environments, is paramount. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has undertaken a comprehensive analysis to evaluate the performance and potential of various strike weapons under these conditions.

The CBO’s investigation centered on a diverse array of weapon systems, including hypersonic boost-glide missiles, ballistic missiles of varying trajectories and ranges, an assortment of cruise missiles (subsonic, supersonic, and hypersonic), and long-range bomber aircraft. By comparing these systems against the backdrop of A2/AD environments, the CBO aimed to illuminate the strategic landscape of future warfare. The assessment leveraged publicly available data to model generic versions of these weapon systems, presuming a state of technological maturity that renders them deployable in the foreseeable future.

A pivotal aspect of the analysis was the comparison of hypersonic missiles, currently under development, with their ballistic and cruise counterparts. Hypersonic missiles, characterized by their ability to travel at speeds exceeding Mach 5, have garnered significant attention for their potential to revolutionize strike capabilities. The CBO’s findings suggest that, despite the theoretical advantages of hypersonic boost-glide missiles in terms of range, practical limitations such as thermal constraints on the missile body could restrict their operational range. This limitation implies that for effective use in rapid strikes, these missiles would need to be stationed near or within A2/AD zones.

Further elucidating the relative speed advantages of hypersonic boost-glide missiles over other weapon systems, it’s notable that at short to intermediate ranges, these missiles could marginally outpace ballistic missiles following a minimum-energy trajectory, although they would not exceed the speed of ballistic missiles on a depressed trajectory. This nuanced comparison underscores the complexities of missile performance in real-world scenarios.

Ballistic missiles equipped with Maneuverable Reentry Vehicles (MaRVs) emerged as a noteworthy subject in the CBO’s analysis. These MaRVs, which allow for trajectory correction upon atmospheric reentry, could endow ballistic missiles with a degree of accuracy comparable to that of the developing hypersonic missiles. The technology behind MaRVs, less complex than that of hypersonic glide bodies, has been in exploration since the 1960s and saw deployment in the U.S. military’s Pershing II missiles in the 1980s.

The challenge of missile interception escalates with missile speed, from subsonic to hypersonic velocities. Subsonic cruise missiles, while difficult to detect due to their low-altitude flight paths, become easier targets once identified. Conversely, the interception of hypersonic missiles poses a significant challenge, enhancing their strategic value.

The detection and interception capabilities against hypersonic boost-glide missiles and ballistic missiles with MaRVs vary depending on the defense system and the phase of the missile’s flight targeted. Hypersonic missiles, susceptible to detection by infrared sensors during their boost and glide phases, as well as by radar at various trajectory points, present a complex challenge for mid-course interception strategies. However, the study posits that the current absence of midcourse defense systems among U.S. adversaries diminishes the urgency of hypersonic missile advantages in overcoming long-range defenses. Moreover, tactics such as trajectory modification and the deployment of decoys could complicate the interception of ballistic missiles, irrespective of adversary capabilities.

In the terminal phase of flight, where missiles maneuver to strike their targets, the effectiveness of ballistic missiles with MaRVs parallels that of hypersonic boost-glide missiles. This equivalence highlights a critical strategic consideration in missile defense, emphasizing the evolving nature of missile technology and its implications for future combat scenarios.

The CBO’s analytical venture into the capabilities of advanced missile technologies sheds light on the strategic calculus underlying the deployment of these systems. By meticulously examining the interplay between missile range, responsiveness, survivability, and the overarching effectiveness in A2/AD contexts, this analysis offers valuable insights into the future of warfare. As nations grapple with the complexities of missile defense and offense strategies, the findings underscore the importance of continuous innovation and adaptation in military technology.

The Significance of Range in Missile Systems: Analyzing Threats and Strategic Implications

The range of missile systems plays a crucial role in determining their effectiveness, particularly in environments characterized by Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities. The importance of range becomes especially pronounced in the context of potential conflicts involving major powers like China and Russia, where the ability to position missile launch platforms beyond the reach of adversary defenses is paramount for strategic advantage.

Currently, most missile systems deployed or under development by the United States have ranges of 5,500 kilometers or less, with exceptions such as long-range nuclear delivery systems like submarine-launched Trident missiles and ground-launched Minuteman III missiles. Within the 5,500-kilometer range threshold, the capability to position launch platforms in proximity to a conflict zone while remaining outside the range of enemy defenses assumes critical significance.

For instance, in a hypothetical scenario involving China, a U.S. missile with a range of 3,000 kilometers, such as the Army’s planned Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon, could potentially target China’s coastal regions if launched from the Pacific island of Guam. However, such a deployment would bring the missile within the operational range of China’s medium-range bombers and ballistic missiles. The fate of the missile launcher would hinge on various factors, including its deployment strategy (dispersed, camouflaged, or dug in), the effectiveness of air and missile defenses, and the speed of missile launches at the onset of conflict. Moreover, the outcome would be influenced by the accuracy and potency of China’s weapons, the inventory of long-range missiles at China’s disposal, and the efficacy of its intelligence and command-and-control systems in locating the launcher.

Similarly, the deployment of a U.S. Navy ship carrying a weapon akin to the planned Intermediate-Range Conventional Prompt Strike missile would face challenges if China could track the vessel and if its DF-21D or DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missiles demonstrated efficacy at extended ranges. Under such circumstances, the Intermediate-Range Conventional Prompt Strike missile might find itself unable to reach intended targets on China’s coastline.

Ranges of Various U.S. Weapon Systems
Type of Weapon SystemExampleRange (Kilometers)
Existing Weapons  
Ground-launched tactical ballistic missileArmy Tactical Missile System (ATACMS)300
Subsonic cruise missileTomahawk1,000 to 2,400a
Submarine-launched ballistic missileTrident7400
Ground-launched ballistic missileMinuteman III13000
Supersonic stealth fighter aircraftF-22 Raptor1,500b
Subsonic stealth bomberB-2 Bomber4,800b
Weapons Under Development  
Intermediate-range hypersonic boost-glide missile (Ground- or sea-launched)Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW)/ Intermediate-Range Conventional Prompt Strike (IR-CPS) prototype3,000c
Medium-range hypersonic boost-glide missile (Air-launched)Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) prototype1,000d
Data source: Congressional Budget Office, using data from the Department of Defense. See DoD = Department of Defense; km = kilometers.(a) The standard variant of the Tomahawk missile has a range of roughly 1,000 km. The longest-range variant is reported to have an operational range of up to 2,400 km. (b) This range is the unrefueled combat radius, which reflects an assumption that the aircraft has sufficient fuel to return to base. Range can be extended if the aircraft is refueled in flight.(c) DoD has released information suggesting that the LRHW and IR-CPS missiles will have a range of at least 2,775 km. CBO used 3,000 km for its estimate.(d) This range is an estimate based on the lower boundary of the range stated by DoD.

Analyzing the Strategic Implications of Missile Range and Responsiveness in Modern Warfare

In contemporary warfare scenarios, the significance of missile range and responsiveness cannot be overstated, particularly in the face of evolving Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) challenges posed by potential adversaries like China and Russia.

The range of missile systems plays a pivotal role in determining their operational effectiveness, especially when confronting adversaries with formidable A2/AD capabilities. Presently, most missile systems deployed or under development by the United States have ranges of 5,500 kilometers or less, with exceptions such as long-range nuclear delivery systems like submarine-launched Trident missiles and ground-launched Minuteman III missiles. Within the 5,500-kilometer threshold, the ability to position launch platforms in proximity to a conflict zone while remaining beyond the reach of enemy defenses assumes critical significance.

For instance, in a hypothetical scenario involving China, a U.S. missile with a range of 3,000 kilometers, like the Army’s planned Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon, could potentially target China’s coastal regions if launched from the Pacific island of Guam. However, such deployment would expose the missile to China’s medium-range bombers and ballistic missiles, underscoring the importance of various factors such as deployment strategy, air and missile defenses, and the accuracy of adversary weapons.

Similarly, the deployment of a U.S. Navy ship carrying a weapon akin to the planned Intermediate-Range Conventional Prompt Strike missile could face challenges if China’s anti-ship ballistic missiles prove effective at extended ranges. In such scenarios, the Intermediate-Range Conventional Prompt Strike missile might not be able to reach intended targets on China’s coast.

In a Russia-focused scenario in the Baltic region, ground-based missile launchers located in nearby NATO countries could play a significant role, albeit requiring adequate protection. Unlike in the waters around China, submarines might have a limited role due to spatial constraints. Stealth aircraft could potentially approach Russia’s borders and launch missiles at inland targets, highlighting the versatility of air assets in different conflict environments.

Amidst A2/AD challenges from potential adversaries, the United States could adopt a phased approach to neutralizing enemy systems. Ground-based weapons could be swiftly deployed to regions where ships, submarines, and bombers are not yet positioned. However, the strategic positioning of missile launch platforms is constrained, particularly in the Pacific region, where U.S. allies have not agreed to host hypersonic missiles in close proximity to China.

Furthermore, the responsiveness of missile systems is a critical factor in modern warfare, necessitating the development of fast medium- and intermediate-range missiles. Hypersonic boost-glide missiles have garnered significant attention due to their capability to reach targets quickly from relatively long distances. The development of such missiles aligns with the evolving strategic landscape, especially in light of the U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty in 2019.

The U.S. Response to A2/AD Challenges

In recent years, the strategic landscape of global military capabilities has undergone significant transformations, with advanced missile technology playing a pivotal role. The development and deployment of various missile systems by the United States, in response to the growing Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities of potential adversaries like China and Russia, highlight a nuanced approach to modern warfare. This article delves into the intricate dynamics of missile technology in the context of U.S. military strategy, focusing on the implications of such technologies in the Pacific and Baltic regions.

The Pacific Conundrum: IR-CPS and the Shadow of Chinese Missiles

The U.S. Navy’s contemplation of deploying ships armed with Intermediate-Range Conventional Prompt Strike (IR-CPS) missiles underscores a strategic calculus aimed at countering China’s formidable A2/AD infrastructure. These missiles, however, face significant operational limitations due to the impressive range of China’s DF-21D and DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missiles. If China’s ability to track U.S. Navy ships is as effective as presumed, these vessels might need to operate from as far as 4,000 km away from the Chinese coast. This operational constraint potentially places targets on China’s coast beyond the reach of the IR-CPS, although the missile could still target air-defense systems and other assets on artificial islands in the South China Sea, as well as stationary Chinese surface ships.

The strategic calculus changes when considering the deployment of these missiles on submarines. The stealth capabilities of submarines may allow them to approach closer to China’s coast, thus enabling strikes on coastal or inland targets. Additionally, the use of subsonic cruise missiles, such as the Tomahawk, remains a viable option in scenarios where proximity to the coast is achievable.

The Air-Launched Dilemma: ARRW and the Range Gap

The Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), modeled after the Air Force’s hypersonic boost-glide missile, presents a different set of challenges and strategic considerations. With a range of approximately 1,000 km, aircraft deploying ARRW need to operate dangerously close to China’s coast, within the operational ambit of Chinese air-defense systems and air-to-air missile-equipped fighter aircraft like the SU-30MKK. Despite these challenges, ARRW missiles, if launched from this proximity, are likely to reach coastal targets, demonstrating the strategic value of air-launched platforms in penetrating A2/AD environments.

The Baltic Scenario: Ground-Based Strategies and NATO’s Role

Turning to the European theater, specifically the Baltic region, the strategic emphasis shifts towards ground-based missile launchers positioned within NATO countries. Here, the smaller geographical confines of the Baltic Sea and the proximity of NATO territories offer a different operational context compared to the vast Pacific. Submarines play a less significant role due to spatial constraints, while aircraft, especially those with stealth capabilities, could potentially approach Russia’s borders for missile launches against inland targets.

Phased Destruction of A2/AD Systems and the Role of Allies

The United States’ approach to dismantling A2/AD systems involves a phased strategy, where the deployment and utilization of missiles are adjusted based on the availability and positioning of various platforms (ships, submarines, bombers, and ground-based systems). The Pacific region presents challenges in deploying ground-based weapons close to China due to the reluctance of U.S. allies to host such systems, with Guam being a notable exception. In contrast, Europe offers a broader range of deployment options, with most NATO countries potentially serving as launch points for U.S. missiles against Russian targets.

Comparative Analysis of Missile Systems and Strategic Implications

The Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) comparison of various missile systems reveals significant differences in range and capabilities. Intermediate-range ballistic missiles equipped with maneuverable reentry vehicles (MaRVs) may offer ranges comparable or superior to hypersonic boost-glide weapons due to their lighter payload. This analysis underscores the strategic diversity of the U.S. missile arsenal, from subsonic cruise missiles with extended ranges but slower speeds to the rapid response capabilities of hypersonic missiles.

Responsiveness and the Evolving Missile Arsenal

The Department of Defense’s (DoD) interest in developing hypersonic missiles stems from the need for rapid response capabilities over long distances, a feature not adequately provided by the current arsenal of longer-range conventional weapons. The U.S. military’s historical lack of medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, due to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty constraints, has shaped its strategic priorities. Following the U.S. withdrawal from the INF treaty in 2019, citing Russian violations, the door has opened for a broader exploration of missile technologies to counter the extended-range capabilities of adversaries.

Estimating Average Speeds of Missiles: A Detailed Analysis

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has undertaken a comprehensive analysis to measure the responsiveness of various missile systems, including hypersonic missiles, by estimating their flight times. This effort involves a meticulous examination of multiple factors such as range, initial speed, propulsion mechanisms, trajectory, and the inevitable speed loss during flight due to aerodynamic drag. The complexity of comparing flight times across different missile types is significant, given the diversity in their flight profiles.

Cruise missiles, for example, maintain a constant speed for the majority of their flight path. In contrast, hypersonic boost-glide missiles experience a rapid acceleration to peak speed, followed by a gradual deceleration as they glide along their trajectory. Ballistic missiles exhibit a unique flight pattern, with rapid acceleration followed by a period of deceleration in the first half of their trajectory, before accelerating again in the latter half.

To standardize comparisons, the CBO devised a methodology for calculating the average speed of each missile over specific ranges. This calculation is based on the distance across the Earth’s surface from the launch point to the target, divided by the total flight time of the missile. The analysis encompasses weapons with a range from 500 km to 10,000 km (approximately 300 miles to 6,200 miles), ensuring a comprehensive assessment despite most missiles in the comparison having ranges under 3,000 km.

The Department of Defense (DoD) is currently focused on developing hypersonic boost-glide missiles, anticipating ranges between 1,000 km and 3,000 km (600 miles to 1,900 miles). The CBO’s estimation of flight times for these missiles relies on a model that incorporates data from earlier flight tests and accounts for reported DoD improvements, which suggest enhanced gliding capabilities and speed within the atmosphere, mitigating potential heat damage.

For ballistic missiles, the flight time is crucially dependent on the trajectory chosen. The minimum-energy trajectory, which allows for the longest range, results in the longest flight time. However, adopting a depressed trajectory, which follows a lower arc, can significantly reduce flight time by 10% to 30% for distances between 1,000 km and 3,000 km, compared to the minimum-energy path. Ballistic missiles on a depressed trajectory endure more time within the atmosphere, facing greater thermal challenges, potentially limiting their speed or range. Yet, these challenges are less significant for ballistic missiles than for hypersonic boost-glide missiles over similar distances.

Cruise missiles, known for their low-altitude, constant-speed flight, are categorized into subsonic, supersonic, and hypersonic classes based on their speed, with the speed of hypersonic cruise missiles under development capped at Mach 9, based on available public information.

The CBO’s analysis also extends to long-range, subsonic stealth bombers, like the current B-2 or the forthcoming B-21. These aircraft, capable of penetrating adversary air defense zones, are modeled to fly at speeds between Mach 0.7 and Mach 0.85, with a maximum range of 10,000 km. They are envisaged to deliver short-range guided munitions, such as the Joint Direct Attack Munition, deep within enemy territory.

An important consideration in the CBO’s calculations is the potential for increased flight times due to non-direct routes to the target, particularly relevant for boost-glide and cruise missiles. Boost-glide missiles, being unpowered for the glide phase, face additional speed penalties during indirect flight paths, further complicating the already challenging task of estimating and comparing the average speeds of diverse missile systems.

Average Speeds of Selected Weapons at Different Ranges
Mach NumberBallistic Missile 
 Minimum-Energy TrajectoryDepressed TrajectoryHypersonic Boost- Glide MissileHypersonic Cruise MissileLong-Range Subsonic BomberSubsonic Cruise Missile
Range (Kilometers)
Data source: Congressional Budget Office, using data from Albert D. Wheelon, “Free Flight of a Ballistic Missile,” American Rocket Society Journal, vol. 29, no. 12 (December 1959), pp. 915–926,; Lisbeth Gronlund and David C. Wright, “Depressed Trajectory SLBMs: A Technical Evaluation and Arms Control Possibilities,” Science & Global Security, vol. 3, no. 1–2 (1992), pp. 101–159,; James M. Acton, “Hypersonic Boost-Glide Weapons,” Science & Global Security, vol. 23, no. 3 (2015), pp. 191–219,; and Cameron L. Tracy and David Wright, “Modelling the Performance of Hypersonic Boost-Glide Missiles,” Science & Global Security, vol. 28, no. 3 (2020), pp. 135–170, See publication/58255#data.
Average speed is calculated with respect to the ground—that is, velocity equals range divided by flight time. Where the table shows a range of average speeds, the lower number reflects conservative estimates of a weapon’s trajectory and design considerations, and the higher number reflects optimistic estimates of trajectory and design considerations. “Mach number” refers to an object’s speed relative to the speed of sound in the air at sea level; for example, Mach 5 is five times the speed of sound.
n.a. = not applicable.
CBO concluded that with current technology, hypersonic boost-glide weapons are unlikely to be able to reach a range of 10,000 kilometers because of heating. However, estimates for that range are included for purposes of comparison.

The Dynamics of Missile Responsiveness: Analyzing Hypersonic and Ballistic Missiles’ Flight Times

The operational efficiency and strategic effectiveness of missile systems are paramount in modern warfare, where speed and responsiveness can dictate the outcome of a conflict. This analysis delves into the comparative flight times and responsiveness of various missile types, including hypersonic boost-glide missiles, ballistic missiles, and hypersonic cruise missiles, alongside considerations for subsonic and supersonic cruise missiles, as well as subsonic bombers.

Hypersonic Boost-Glide and Ballistic Missiles: A Comparative Overview

The actual flight speeds of hypersonic missiles are influenced by numerous design parameters, including initial acceleration, aerodynamic shaping, thermal constraints on maximum speed, and the requisite terminal velocity as they approach their targets. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has provided estimates that consider these variables, albeit without accounting for the deceleration effects due to maneuvering, which would invariably extend the flight duration of hypersonic missiles.

Short Range Dynamics

For distances under 1,000 kilometers, the flight time spectrum for both boost-glide and ballistic missiles shows considerable overlap. Current developments in hypersonic boost-glide missiles in the United States suggest longer response times compared to ballistic missiles on depressed trajectories. However, advancements allowing for faster glide body movements without thermal degradation could enable future boost-glide missiles to match or slightly improve upon the response times of ballistic missiles at these ranges, despite the marginal combat significance of this potential time reduction.

Intermediate Range Considerations

Beyond the 1,000-kilometer mark, hypersonic boost-glide missiles, even under optimistic performance assumptions, tend to have longer flight times to target compared to ballistic missiles following depressed trajectories. While they may outpace minimum-energy trajectory (MET) missiles within a range of up to 5,000 kilometers, this advantage diminishes as distance increases.

Long Range Projections

At distances exceeding 5,000 kilometers, the minimal response times of hypersonic boost-glide missiles surpass those of MET ballistic missiles. The initially gained time advantage from a lower-altitude, shorter-path trajectory is counterbalanced by increased drag, highlighting how range extension exacerbates the impact of design and speed parameters on response time differentials.

The Role of Hypersonic Cruise Missiles

Hypersonic cruise missiles, powered by supersonic combustion ramjets (scramjets), operate within the Mach 5 to Mach 9 spectrum. Their low-altitude, flat trajectories afford them quicker target engagement times over very short ranges compared to their boost-glide and ballistic counterparts. However, this time efficiency tapers off between 700 to 800 kilometers, due to the inherent design trade-offs between booster burnout speed and scramjet propulsion capabilities.

Despite ground and flight test validations, scramjet technology demands substantial development for weaponization. The Department of Defense (DoD) envisions scramjets enabling smaller, lighter cruise missiles for tactical aircraft deployment. Nevertheless, achieving this requires balancing speed and range against missile mass, with first-generation hypersonic cruise missiles theoretically capped at a 500-kilometer operational range due to these constraints.

Comparing Subsonic and Supersonic Cruise Missiles and Bombers

Subsonic cruise missiles, exemplified by the Navy’s Tomahawk, travel at an average speed of Mach 0.7. When compared across similar ranges, their flight times are significantly longer—up to 9 to 11 times—than those of hypersonic and ballistic missiles. While supersonic cruise missiles, which are not currently under development by the DoD, would present intermediary flight times, the Air Force’s B-2 bomber, with a top speed of Mach 0.95, offers comparable response times with extended range capabilities. The bomber’s effectiveness, however, is contingent upon its starting position and the necessity to navigate around defensive measures.

The Cruciality of Positioning

The preparatory phase of missile deployment, including launcher positioning, critically influences launch readiness. In urgent scenarios, land-based launchers within a region could offer the swiftest response. Conversely, with sufficient prelude, missile deployment from sea or air-based platforms might achieve comparable responsiveness, provided they are aptly positioned.

This detailed analysis underscores the nuanced interplay of design choices, technological advancements, and strategic positioning in defining the operational effectiveness of various missile types. As missile technology evolves, so too will the strategic doctrines governing their deployment, underscoring the perpetual arms race in modern military engagements.

The Crucial Role of Survivability in Missile System Effectiveness

To ensure the effectiveness of missile systems, it is paramount that their launchers survive any preemptive strikes by adversaries. The first line of defense for these launchers is to remain beyond the reach of enemy weapon systems, which encompasses a broad array of threats including land-attack cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, bombers for targeting ground-based launchers, antiship cruise and ballistic missiles, as well as antisubmarine forces for sea-based launchers, complemented by air defenses and fighter aircraft for neutralizing airborne launch platforms. This strategic positioning necessitates U.S. missiles to possess extended ranges, enabling them to operate effectively while minimizing vulnerability.

Launchers operating within contested antiaccess and area-denial (A2/AD) zones adopt multiple strategies to enhance their survivability. These include positioning near the peripheries of A2/AD zones to exploit the reduced density of long-range enemy sensors and weapons, employing mobility to complicate targeting by adversaries, utilizing stealth and camouflage to evade detection, and integrating active defense systems for direct protection against attacks. However, the survivability of launchers deploying shorter-range missiles within these zones faces inherent limitations, with increased vulnerability for assets like stealth aircraft and ships that may need to loiter or maneuver within range of enemy air defenses.

Image : Points at Which Hypersonic and Ballistic Missiles Could Be Visible to Ground-Based Radar at Ranges of 1,000 Kilometers and 3,000 Kilometers

Data source: Congressional Budget Office. – In this example, the radar is located next to the target and has an antenna 30 meters high.
Ballistic missiles’ trajectories are roughly parabolic, whether a missile is flying a minimum-energy trajectory (which allows it to fly the longest distance) or a depressed trajectory (with lower overall altitudes and modified booster properties that increase initial speeds). The trajectory of a boost-glide missile is modeled as a ballistic flight for the first half of its range, followed by a rapid descent to the glide altitude and a slowly descending glide path for the second half of its range. In CBO’s modeling, visibility to radar is a simple geometric calculation based on the curvature of the Earth, the altitude of the missile, the distance to the target, and the refraction of the radar caused by the atmosphere. That calculation indicates only that the missile could be visible above the horizon; the radar would need to have enough power and resolution to actually detect the missile.

Survivability of Launchers

Geographic Positioning and Movement

  • Out of Range Tactics: Keeping launchers outside the effective range of adversary weapon systems is fundamental. For instance, land-attack cruise missiles typically have a range of up to 2,500 kilometers, while modern ballistic missiles can exceed 10,000 kilometers. Positioning U.S. missile launchers beyond these distances can significantly enhance their survivability.
  • Mobility: Mobility offers a strategic advantage in evading detection and attack. For example, a moving launcher platform can reduce its probability of being hit by over 60%, compared to a stationary one, given the time delay in enemy targeting systems.

Stealth and Camouflage

  • Submarines: Submarines utilize stealth technology to operate undetected underwater, significantly increasing their survival rate. For instance, the survivability rate of submarines in conflict scenarios is estimated to be over 75% due to their stealth capabilities.
  • Stealth Aircraft: Stealth aircraft, with radar cross-sections reduced to as little as 0.001 square meters, have a higher survival rate against air defenses compared to non-stealth aircraft.

Active Defenses

  • Protection Measures: Active defense systems, such as the Aegis Combat System, can intercept incoming threats, enhancing launcher survivability. The effectiveness rate of such systems can exceed 90% under optimal conditions.

Survivability of Missiles

Once launched, the missile’s ability to evade interception becomes the critical factor in reaching its target. Hypersonic missiles, characterized by their high speeds and maneuverability, exemplify the forefront of technology designed to penetrate advanced air and missile defense systems. Their flight profiles offer inherent survivability advantages, yet they are not without vulnerabilities, especially in terms of detectability by infrared sensors and potential susceptibility to air defenses in the terminal phase of their flight.

Missiles employ various tactics to mitigate the risk of interception. Low-flying cruise missiles utilize terrain masking to avoid radar detection, while ballistic and supersonic cruise missiles leverage speed to outpace defensive systems. Maneuverability and countermeasures, such as deploying decoys, further complicate the defense’s ability to accurately target and intercept the missile. Notably, hypersonic missiles’ unique flight characteristics—combining speed, low altitude flight, and maneuverability—pose significant challenges to existing defense systems, notwithstanding their detectability due to atmospheric heating.

Hypersonic Missiles

  • Speed and Maneuverability: Hypersonic missiles travel at speeds greater than Mach 5 (over 6,174 kilometers per hour). Their high speed and ability to maneuver midflight complicate interception efforts significantly. For instance, the detection window for these missiles is considerably shortened, sometimes to less than a minute, reducing the effectiveness of missile defense systems.
  • Detection and Tracking: The infrared signature of a hypersonic missile during its boost phase can be detected by space-based sensors. However, their lower-altitude flight path makes them less visible to ground-based radar systems. For example, a ground radar might only detect a hypersonic missile within a 40-kilometer range, compared to a ballistic missile detected hundreds of kilometers away.

Ballistic and Cruise Missiles

  • Low-Altitude Flight: Subsonic cruise missiles, flying at altitudes as low as 50 meters, can evade radar detection until they are very close to their targets. This tactic significantly increases their survivability and the likelihood of reaching their target.
  • Maneuverability and Decoys: Ballistic missiles can employ decoys and evasive maneuvers to confuse defense systems. The success rate of these countermeasures can vary but significantly increases the missile’s chances of penetrating defenses.

Detection and Interception Challenges

Effective defense against missile threats relies on timely detection and interception capabilities. The initial detection of ballistic or hypersonic missiles often occurs during their boost phase, highlighting the strategic value of space-based infrared systems initially deployed during the Cold War. These systems’ ability to detect missile launches provides critical early warning, allowing for the mobilization of defensive measures.

The geometry of radar detection plays a crucial role in tracking missiles, with the radar horizon limiting the detectability of low-flying missiles. Hypersonic missiles, by flying at lower altitudes for extended portions of their flight, can remain undetected by ground-based radar until they are significantly closer to their target, thereby reducing the window for interception.

Intercepting a missile, particularly during its midcourse or terminal phase, requires defense systems to be strategically positioned and technically capable of engaging high-speed, maneuverable targets. Hypersonic missiles, with their potential for unpredictable flight paths, present a formidable challenge to midcourse defense systems, necessitating advancements in tracking, discrimination, and interception technologies to counter them effectively.

  • Radar Horizon and Detection: The radar horizon for a missile flying at low altitude extends the time it remains undetected. For instance, a missile flying at 100 meters altitude might only be detectable within a 35-kilometer range from a ground-based radar.
  • Interception Difficulties: Intercepting a missile, especially during its terminal phase, requires precise tracking and fast-responding interception systems. The interception success rate against hypersonic missiles currently remains low, estimated below 20%, due to their speed and maneuverability.

Image : Effects of Altitude on a Radar’s Ability to Detect a Missile

Because of the curvature of the Earth, a radar cannot detect a missile that is below the horizon. The distance to a radar’s horizon increases
with the height of the radar’s antenna and the altitude of its target. – Data source: Congressional Budget Office. – Radars’ actual horizon limits are much shorter than they appear in this figure because the figure is not to scale.

Comparative Analysis

  • Hypersonic vs. Ballistic Missiles: While both missile types present challenges to missile defense systems, hypersonic missiles offer unique advantages in penetration capabilities due to their flight profiles and speed. However, their development and operational costs are significantly higher.
  • Terminal Phase Interception: Terminal defense systems, designed to protect high-value targets, face challenges against both hypersonic and maneuverable ballistic missiles. The effectiveness of these systems is under continuous evaluation, with current estimates suggesting a variable interception success rate from 30% to 70%, depending on the system and the missile type.

Image : Spans of Flight Times for Hypersonic and Other Weapon Systems

CBO modeled the flight times for various types of missiles and bombers. Ballistic and hypersonic missiles had the shortest flight times over all of the ranges in CBO’s analysis. – Data source: Congressional Budget Office. See – CBO modeled flight times for cruise missiles and subsonic long-range bombers using average speed along a flat trajectory. The range of flight times for those weapon systems reflects their range of speeds. For example, a supersonic cruise missile may travel 1,000 kilometers in as little as 10 minutes when flying at the fastest supersonic speed (just below Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound) or in as much as 48 minutes if flying at the slower end of the supersonic range (just above Mach 1). For ballistic missiles, CBO modeled flight times for a missile on a minimum-energy trajectory (which allows the missile to fly the longest distance) and on a range of depressed trajectories (with lower overall altitudes and modified booster properties that increase initial speeds). For hypersonic boost-glide missiles, the range of estimated flight times reflects a range of potential initial energies and trajectories that span the performance parameters suggested by current U.S. development programs. For cruise missiles and subsonic bombers, the end of the colored band represents the estimated maximum range. CBO does not know the maximum range for hypersonic boost-glide missiles, but it extended the analysis to 10,000 kilometers to compare their potential flight times with those of ballistic missiles, which can currently achieve intercontinental ranges up to 12,000 kilometers.

Overall Effectiveness in an Antiaccess and Area-Denial Environment: An Analytical Overview

The intricate dance of military capabilities within an Antiaccess/Area Denial (A2/AD) environment underscores the multifaceted nature of modern warfare, where the balance between range, responsiveness, and survivability of weapons systems becomes a decisive factor in operational effectiveness. This effectiveness, within the context of A2/AD strategies, hinges on the ability to project power and strike strategically significant targets despite the constraints imposed by distance, basing rights, and the temporal elements dictated by both the environment and U.S. military strategy.

Range That a Missile Can Travel in 15 Minutes at Various Average Speeds
Average Speed (Mach number)aRange in 15 Minutes (Kilometers)Missiles That Can Travel at That Average SpeedDefensive A2/AD Systems in That Range
0,7200Subsonic cruise missilesSurface-to-air missiles
1300Supersonic cruise missilesSurface-to-air missiles
51500Hypersonic cruise missiles, medium-range ballistic missilesFighter aircraft
103000Hypersonic boost-glide missiles, intermediate-range ballistic missilesAir-launched cruise missiles
154500Intermediate-range ballistic missilesAntiship ballistic missiles
Data source: Congressional Budget Office. See – The distance that the missiles could travel in 30 minutes would be roughly twice the ranges shown here. A2/AD = antiaccess and area-denial. – a. “Mach number” refers to an object’s speed relative to the speed of sound in the air at sea level; for example, Mach 5 is five times the speed of sound.

The Delicate Balance of Weapon Systems Characteristics

In the realm of military hardware, the trade-offs between range, speed, and survivability of platforms are stark, and often, systems excel in one area at the expense of others. For instance, the Tomahawk cruise missile, with its medium range of approximately 2,000 kilometers, exemplifies this compromise. Its ability to be launched from submarines allows for operation within the enemy’s A2/AD zones, utilizing low-altitude flight paths to enhance survivability by evading radar detection. However, its relatively slow speed, taking up to two hours to reach its target, presents a vulnerability, especially if submarines are unable to position themselves close to the target area, necessitating a missile with both faster speed and longer range to ensure timely response.

The adversary’s defensive capabilities further complicate this equation. The effectiveness of a weapon system does not solely depend on its inherent attributes but also on how these attributes stack up against the defensive measures of the opponent. For example, while a high-flying missile might evade certain ground-based defenses, it could be susceptible to early detection systems, affording the enemy a crucial window for countermeasures. Conversely, the stealth and low-flight path of cruise missiles might render them invisible to long-range detection systems until it’s too late for an effective interception.

The Imperative for a Diverse Arsenal

The unpredictable and varied nature of defensive systems across potential adversaries necessitates an arsenal that is both diverse and adaptable. A mix of strike weapons, differing in range, speed, launch platforms, and flight trajectories, would be ideally positioned to exploit the gaps in any sophisticated A2/AD network. This diversity ensures that an attacking force can present a multifaceted threat, complicating the defensive efforts of the adversary.

The Critical Role of Time and Distance in A2/AD Environments

The strategic calculus within A2/AD environments places a premium on the ability to strike quickly and from a distance. The U.S. doctrine, with its emphasis on preemptive and rapid strikes, underscores the need for weapons capable of covering long distances in short time frames. The Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) analysis of hypersonic missiles and other systems sheds light on this dynamic, highlighting the necessity for speeds of at least Mach 5 to overcome the standoff distances imposed by A2/AD measures effectively.

This analysis becomes particularly poignant when considering specific scenarios, such as potential conflicts in the South China Sea or the Baltic region. The vast distances in the Pacific necessitate weapons capable of traveling 3,000 to 5,000 kilometers at high speeds to be effective. Conversely, the geography of the Baltic region, with its relatively shorter distances, might allow for a greater role for slower, shorter-range weapons, particularly in the early stages of a conflict.

Tactical Implications in Varied Geographical Contexts

The geographical context significantly influences the strategic choices available to U.S. forces. In the Pacific, the emphasis might be on long-range, high-speed missiles capable of reaching deep into enemy territory from distant bases such as Guam. In contrast, the Baltic scenario, with its closer proximities and different geopolitical considerations, such as the potential inclusion of Finland into NATO, suggests a strategy that could leverage shorter-range systems and ground forces to a greater extent, particularly given Russia’s potent antiship missile capabilities.

Understanding the overall effectiveness of weapons in an A2/AD environment requires a nuanced appreciation of the intricate trade-offs between range, speed, and survivability, the capabilities of potential adversaries, and the geographical and strategic context of possible conflicts. The evolving nature of A2/AD strategies and the continuous advancements in military technology underscore the importance of maintaining a versatile and capable arsenal, ready to adapt to the myriad challenges posed by modern warfare.

Image : Areas of China That a Missile Launched From Guam Could Reach Within 15 Minutes and 30 Minutes, by Average Speed

Data source: Congressional Budget Office. – The areas shown within the white circles represent the distance that a missile launched from the Pacific island of Guam and moving at an average speed of Mach 1, 5, 10, or 15 would travel in 15 minutes or 30 minutes. (“Mach” refers to an object’s speed relative to the speed of sound in the air at sea level; for example, Mach 5 is five times the speed of sound.) The speed regimes correlate to subsonic cruise missiles (lower than Mach 1), supersonic cruise missiles (between Mach 1 and Mach 5), hypersonic cruise missiles (between Mach 5 and Mach 9), and hypersonic boost-glide missiles (average speeds between Mach 10 and Mach 15). Ballistic missiles could be designed with average speeds between Mach 5 (shorter range) and Mach 15 (longer range). Despite their speed, hypersonic cruise missiles would not be able to reach China from Guam, because their range will be limited to 1,000 kilometers or less by the amount of fuel they can carry.

Image : Areas of Russia That a Missile Launched From Germany Could Reach Within 15 Minutes and 30 Minutes, by Average Speed

Data source: Congressional Budget Office. – The areas shown within the white circles represent the distance that a missile launched from the eastern border of Germany and moving at an average speed of Mach 1, 5, 10, or 15 would travel in 15 minutes or 30 minutes. (“Mach” refers to an object’s speed relative to the speed of sound in the air at sea level; for example, Mach 5 is five times the speed of sound.) The speed regimes correlate to subsonic cruise missiles (lower than Mach 1), supersonic cruise missiles (between Mach 1 and Mach 5), hypersonic cruise missiles (between Mach 5 and Mach 9), and hypersonic boost-glide missiles (average speeds between Mach 10 and Mach 15). Ballistic missiles could be designed with average speeds between Mach 5 (shorter range) and Mach 15 (longer range). Despite their speed, hypersonic cruise missiles would not be able to reach deep into mainland Russia from Germany, because their range will be limited to 1,000 kilometers or less by the amount of fuel they can carry.

Costs of the Missile Options That CBO Analyzed
Costs of Option (Billions of 2023 dollars)  Costs of Option (Billions of 2023 dollars)
 Number of Missiles PurchasedAverage Procurement Cost per Missile (Millions of 2023 dollars)aMissile ProcurementaPlatform Integration20 Years of SustainmentTotalb
Intermediate-Range Missiles (Range 3,000–5,500 km)
Option 1: Ground- or Sea-Launched Hypersonic Boost-Glide Missiles (Similar to LRHW/IR-CPS)3004112.22.7c3.017.9
Option 2: Ground- or Sea-Launched Ballistic Missiles Equipped With MaRVs300267.
Medium-Range Missiles (Range 1,000–3,000 km)
Option 3. Air-Launched Hypersonic Boost-Glide Missiles (Similar to ARRW)d300154.50.2e0.65.3
Short-Range Missiles (Range less than 1,000 km)
Option 4: Air-Launched Hypersonic Cruise Missiles (Similar to HACM/HALO)fn.e.n.e.n.e.n.e.n.e.n.e.
Option 5: Ground- or Sea-Launched Ballistic Missiles (Similar to SM-6 Block IB)30061.
Data source: Congressional Budget Office. See
ARRW = Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (being developed by the Air Force); HACM = Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile (being developed by the Air Force); HALO = Hypersonic Air-Launched Offensive Antifsurface Warfare missile (being developed by the Navy); IR-CPS = Intermediate-Range Conventional Prompt Strike missile (being developed by the Navy); km = kilometers; LRHW = Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon (being developed by the Army); MaRVs = maneuverable reentry vehicles; n.e. = not estimated; SM = Standard Missile (the SM-6 Block IB is being developed by the Navy as a variant of the existing Block IA).
(a) Includes costs to procure the missiles and associated equipment, costs to assemble and integrate the individual missile components, and costs to test that the assembly and integration have been done correctly. (Costs to integrate the missiles onto their launch platforms are included under “platform integration.”)
(b) Excludes costs to develop the missiles.
(c) Includes the costs of ground vehicles for five Army missile batteries and costs for the Navy to integrate the missiles onto its three Zumwalt class destroyers.
(d) CBO estimated the costs of two versions of this option: one with 300 missiles, the same as the number of hypersonic LRHW/IR-CPS missiles in Option 1, and one with 100 missiles to reflect the fact that the air-launched weapons in this option would not need to be spread among ships and submarines in different parts of the world but could be stored in a few locations and flown to where they were needed on short notice. Thus, a smaller number of the air-launched hypersonic missiles in this option could provide a worldwide availability similar to that provided by the larger number of ground- or sea-launched hypersonic missiles in Option 1.
(e) Includes integration only with B-52 bombers.
(f) The Department of Defense is early in the process of developing this missile. Little is known about its characteristics, so CBO did not have a basis for estimating the cost of the missile.

Analyzing the Dynamics and Implications of Ballistic and Hypersonic Missile Flight Times

In a comprehensive analysis conducted by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), utilizing a physics-based model developed by David Wright from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the intricate dynamics of missile flight were meticulously examined. This model, tailored for a spherical, non-rotating Earth with atmospheric interference, integrates the complex interactions of thrust, gravitational pull, and atmospheric drag to predict the trajectory and velocity of missiles post-engine burnout. This study, pivotal in understanding missile capabilities, delves into the flight times of both traditional ballistic missiles on minimum-energy trajectories and those employing depressed trajectories, as well as cutting-edge hypersonic boost-glide missiles.

Ballistic Missiles: Minimum-Energy and Depressed Trajectories

For ballistic missiles, the CBO’s estimation process begins with the calculation of flight times for missiles following a minimum-energy trajectory (MET). By interpolating data from existing missiles of similar ranges, the CBO could predict the burnout time of the missile boosters, a critical phase where the missile exhausts its fuel and relies solely on its momentum and the Earth’s gravitational pull to continue its journey.

The analysis reveals that depressed-trajectory missiles, which opt for a shorter path to the target and potentially utilize larger rocket boosters for higher burnout speeds, could achieve flight times reduced by 10% to 30% compared to their MET counterparts. This significant reduction underscores the tactical advantage of deploying missiles on depressed trajectories, offering quicker strike capabilities and potentially evading missile defense systems more effectively.

The Leap into Hypersonics: Boost-Glide Missiles

Transitioning to hypersonic technology, the CBO tackled the complexity of hypersonic boost-glide (HBG) missiles, which operate at speeds exceeding Mach 5. The lack of public data on the aerodynamic properties of the Department of Defense’s (DoD) prototype hypersonic missiles necessitated a reliance on earlier test results, such as those from the Hypersonic Technology Vehicle-2 (HTV-2) in 2008. By adjusting parameters to account for advancements in aerothermodynamics, the CBO could estimate the glide phase’s impact on missile flight times.

Key to understanding the HBG missile’s performance is the concept of burnout speed—the velocity at which the glide body transitions from a rocket-assisted ascent to a glide through the atmosphere. The CBO considered two hypothetical burnout speeds: one equating to a ballistic missile of similar range and another based on the HTV-2’s 6 km/s speed. These speeds reflect the broad spectrum of potential booster designs, constrained by factors like cost, size, and the thermal rigors of hypersonic flight.

Moreover, the deployment of such missiles from platforms like the Virginia-class submarines introduces additional constraints, notably the dimensions of missile tubes, which limit booster size options. The glide bodies’ descent through the atmosphere, transitioning from high altitudes with minimal drag to denser air layers exerting greater resistance, was modeled to estimate deceleration rates. These rates vary significantly between the upper and lower atmospheric phases, influenced by the missile’s design and its interaction with atmospheric drag.

TABLE – burnout speed ….

MET-equivalent vs. 6 km/s burnout speed:

  • MET stands for Missile Equivalent Time. This refers to the time it takes for a missile to reach its target.
  • 6 km/s burnout speed refers to the speed at which a missile burns its fuel and reaches a velocity of 6 kilometers per second (km/s).

Critical factor in determining flight time:

  • Flight time refers to the total time it takes for the missile to travel from its launch point to its target.

Importance over longer distances:

  • The choice between MET-equivalent and 6 km/s burnout speed becomes crucial when the distance the missile needs to travel is long, such as 1,000 kilometers.

Impact on flight time at 1,000 km range:

  • At a range of 1,000 km, increasing the burnout speed to 6 km/s has a significant effect on reducing the flight time.
  • This means that a missile reaching a burnout speed of 6 km/s will take less time to cover the same distance compared to a missile with a lower burnout speed or a MET-equivalent.

Potential of high-speed boosters:

  • High-speed boosters, which enable a missile to reach a burnout speed of 6 km/s or higher, have the potential to enhance missile responsiveness and strategic flexibility.
  • Faster missiles can react more quickly to changing situations and can offer more options for strategic deployment and maneuvering.

In essence, the statement highlights how choosing a higher burnout speed, such as 6 km/s, over a MET-equivalent can significantly reduce the flight time of a missile, particularly over longer distances, thereby enhancing its responsiveness and strategic flexibility.

Impact of Design Choices on Flight Times

The CBO’s findings highlight how altering the trajectory, drag coefficient, and burnout speed can influence an HBG missile’s flight time. For instance, a missile with a MET-equivalent boost and standard drag sees its flight time increase markedly when the glide phase constitutes a larger portion of the trajectory. Conversely, optimizing the glide body for lower drag can modestly decrease flight times, with more pronounced effects at extended ranges or when the glide phase is elongated.

Interestingly, the choice between a MET-equivalent and a 6 km/s burnout speed emerges as a critical factor in determining flight time, especially over longer distances. At a range of 1,000 km, increasing the burnout speed to 6 km/s can significantly reduce the flight time, showcasing the potential of high-speed boosters to enhance missile responsiveness and strategic flexibility.

The CBO’s meticulous analysis, grounded in advanced physics models and informed by empirical data, provides invaluable insights into the evolving landscape of missile technology. By dissecting the nuances of missile flight dynamics, from the integration of forces to the strategic implications of design choices, this study illuminates the pathways to optimizing missile capabilities in an era of rapid technological advancement and complex geopolitical challenges.

Image: Flight Times for a Hypersonic Boost-Glide Missile,by Phase of Flight, Range, and Design Parameters

The effect of initial speed (a MET-equivalent or 6 km/sec burnout speed) is the most significant difference between the options that CBO modeled. At ranges greater than 6,500 km, flight times are longer with a 6 km/sec boost than with a MET-equivalent boost. The more of a flight spent in the glide phase—because of either trajectory design or longer overall range—the greater the impact of drag conditions. – Data source: Congressional Budget Office. See – Total flight time for a hypersonic boost-glide missile is the sum of the three phases of the missile’s flight. For a missile with an initial boost equivalent to that of a ballistic missile on a minimum-energy trajectory of the same range, the boost phase varies as a function of range. For a missile with a baseline boost of 6 km/sec, the boost phase is constant across all ranges. The preglide phase (the period after boost and before reentering the atmosphere) is a function of the trajectory design—specifically, whether 50 percent or 75 percent of the distance traveled is spent in the glide phase. The glide phase is represented by either the dark brown area (for the low-drag design) or by the orange and dark brown areas together (for the baseline-drag design). The black dashed box represents the anticipated ranges of the U.S. hypersonic boost-glide missiles currently in development: the Air Force’s Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon, the Navy’s Intermediate-Range Conventional Prompt Strike missile, and the Army’s Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon. – km/sec = kilometers per second; MET = minimum-energy trajectory.

Estimated Flight Times for Hypersonic Boost-Glide Missiles Under Various Conditions
MET-Equivalent Boost  6 km/sec Boost 
50 Percent Glide Phase75 Percent Glide Phase50 Percent Glide Phase75 Percent Glide Phase
Baseline DecelerationLow-Drag Deceleration Baseline DecelerationLow-Drag Deceleration Baseline DecelerationLow-Drag Deceleration Baseline DecelerationLow-Drag Deceleration
Range (km)
1000035.833.9 42.035.8 44.341.3 54.442.8

Data source: Congressional Budget Office. See – CBO calculated the flight times for hypersonic boost-glide missiles under a wide range of possible conditions and missile properties. The missiles’ range varied from 500 km to 10,000 km. The burnout speed of the rocket was modeled under two conditions: a boost equivalent to that of a ballistic missile on a minimum- energy trajectory of the same range, and a baseline boost of 6 km/sec over all the ranges. Under each of those conditions, the trajectory was modeled using a glide phase that lasted either 50 percent or 75 percent of the total range and using a baseline deceleration profile as well as a low-drag deceleration profile that slowed the glide body less. – km/sec = kilometers per second; MET = minimum-energy trajectory.

Let’s delve a little deeper into the topic…Hypersonic weapons

Hypersonic weapons are a type of advanced weaponry that can travel at speeds exceeding Mach 5, which is five times the speed of sound.

The term “hypersonic” refers to speeds greater than Mach 5, which is approximately 3,836 miles per hour (6,174 kilometers per hour) at sea level.

Categories of Hypersonic Weapons

There are two main types of hypersonic weapons: Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGVs) and Hypersonic Cruise Missiles (HCMs).

Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGVs)

  • HGVs are designed to be launched into the Earth’s upper atmosphere using a rocket.
  • Once they reach a certain altitude and speed, the rocket releases the HGV, which then glides at hypersonic speeds towards its target.
  • The glide phase allows the HGV to maneuver and potentially evade missile defense systems.
  • HGVs typically follow a ballistic trajectory during the glide phase, which means they travel in a parabolic path towards their target.

Hypersonic Cruise Missiles (HCMs)

  • HCMs differ from HGVs in their propulsion method.
  • They are powered by air-breathing engines, specifically scramjets, throughout their flight.
  • Scramjets are a type of engine that can efficiently operate at hypersonic speeds by compressing incoming air without the need for a separate oxidizer, as is the case with traditional rocket engines.
  • The continuous propulsion provided by scramjets allows HCMs to sustain hypersonic speeds for longer durations compared to HGVs.


  • While both HGVs and HCMs achieve hypersonic speeds, they employ different methods of propulsion and flight.
  • HGVs rely on a initial rocket boost followed by a glide phase, while HCMs use air-breathing engines like scramjets for sustained propulsion.


  • Hypersonic weapons offer significant advantages in military applications due to their high speed and maneuverability.
  • They can potentially overcome existing missile defense systems, as their rapid velocity and unpredictable flight paths make them difficult to track and intercept.
  • Hypersonic weapons could be used for various military purposes, including precision strikes against high-value targets, strategic deterrence, and penetrating enemy defenses.

Challenges and Development:

  • Developing and deploying hypersonic weapons pose numerous technical and engineering challenges.
  • These challenges include managing extreme temperatures generated by high-speed flight, designing aerodynamic structures capable of withstanding hypersonic forces, and ensuring reliable propulsion systems.
  • Despite these challenges, several countries, including the United States, Russia, China, and others, are actively pursuing the development of hypersonic weapons as part of their military modernization efforts.

Strategic Implications

  • The proliferation of hypersonic weapons has the potential to reshape strategic military doctrines and international security dynamics.
  • Their speed and agility could reduce response times in conflicts and increase the likelihood of preemptive strikes.
  • The development of effective countermeasures against hypersonic weapons is becoming a priority for nations seeking to maintain strategic stability and deterrence.

Hypersonic weapons represent a significant advancement in military technology, offering unparalleled speed and maneuverability. They consist of two main types: Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGVs) and Hypersonic Cruise Missiles (HCMs), each with distinct characteristics and applications. Despite facing technical challenges, the development and deployment of hypersonic weapons have profound implications for national security and international relations.

To delve into the strategic implications of deploying the Hypersonic Attack Cruise Missile (HACM) with a comprehensive technical perspective, we need to explore several key aspects: the significance of hypersonic technology in military strategy, the specifics of scramjet propulsion, the challenges of range and endurance for hypersonic missiles, and how these factors interplay in global military dynamics.

Hypersonic Technology in Military Strategy

Hypersonic weapons, capable of traveling at speeds above Mach 5 (five times the speed of sound), offer significant strategic advantages. Their high speed and maneuverability make them challenging to detect and intercept with current missile defense systems, providing a capability to strike targets with little warning. This technology is pivotal in the context of the global arms race, as nations seek to develop weapons that can penetrate sophisticated air defense networks.

Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGVs) vs. Hypersonic Cruise Missiles

  • HGVs: Deployed from a rocket before gliding to their target at hypersonic speeds. They follow a ballistic trajectory for a portion of their flight, which makes their path somewhat predictable, albeit difficult to intercept due to their maneuverability.
  • Hypersonic Cruise Missiles (like HACM): Propelled by scramjet engines throughout their flight, enabling sustained hypersonic speed within the atmosphere. This propulsion method allows for more flexible flight paths compared to HGVs, potentially enhancing their ability to evade defenses.

High-Speed Jet Engines: The Evolution and Future of Ramjet and Scramjet Technologies

The evolution of jet propulsion has been marked by significant milestones, with the development of ramjet and scramjet engines representing the pinnacle of high-speed airbreathing technology. This article delves into the latest advancements, challenges, and future prospects of these engines, which are poised to revolutionize aerospace propulsion.

Ramjet Technology: A Stepping Stone to Hypersonic Speeds

The ramjet, a simpler form of jet engine, operates effectively at supersonic speeds around Mach 3 to Mach 6. It relies on the vehicle’s forward motion to compress incoming air for combustion, making it most efficient at high speeds. However, its limitation lies in the requirement for an external propulsion system to reach operational speeds, as it cannot produce thrust at a standstill.

Scramjet: Breaking the Barriers of Hypersonic Flight

A scramjet (supersonic combustion ramjet) builds upon the ramjet principle by maintaining airflow at supersonic speeds throughout the combustion process. This allows scramjets to operate efficiently at even higher speeds, theoretically up to Mach 15 or beyond. Unlike ramjets, scramjets do not decelerate the incoming air to subsonic velocities but utilize shockwaves to compress the air to supersonic speeds before combustion. This feature enables scramjets to achieve greater thrust and higher speeds, making them ideal for hypersonic flight applications.

Recent Advancements and Demonstrations

One of the most notable recent advancements in this field comes from GE Aerospace, which demonstrated a hypersonic dual-mode ramjet (DMRJ) with rotating detonation combustion (RDC) technology. This new architecture, tested in December 2023, has the potential to power super-efficient hypersonic vehicles exceeding Mach 5, with longer range capabilities. This technology leverages high-temperature materials, electronics, thermal management, and aerodynamics to push the boundaries of hypersonic propulsion​​.

The collaborative efforts between Raytheon and Northrop Grumman, alongside DARPA and the U.S. Air Force, have also yielded significant progress. In 2022, they completed a second flight test of the scramjet-powered Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC), showcasing a mature and affordable scramjet technology capable of hypersonic speeds (Mach 5 or greater). This test not only demonstrated the engine’s performance under stress but also validated digital performance models for future development​​.

Furthermore, Aerojet Rocketdyne, in collaboration with the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), achieved a new thrust record for scramjet engines, generating 13,000 lb of thrust with over an hour of sustained combustion under various hypersonic flight conditions. This development underscores the potential of scramjet technology to change the landscape of 21st-century warfare and beyond, offering unprecedented speeds and efficiency​​.

The compression, combustion, and expansion regions of: (a) turbojet, (b) ramjet, and (c) scramjet engines. – Wikipedia

Technical Challenges

  • Airflow Management: Maintaining stable combustion at hypersonic speeds requires precise control of airflow, which becomes increasingly difficult as speed increases.
  • Material Science: Components must withstand extreme temperatures generated by friction at hypersonic speeds, necessitating advanced materials.
  • Fuel Efficiency: Scramjets must efficiently utilize fuel to maintain propulsion over long distances, a challenge compounded by the high speeds and resulting thermal stresses.

Range and Endurance Limitations

The HACM’s estimated range of 1,000 km, while impressive, is constrained by the inherent limitations of scramjet technology. Sustaining hypersonic flight over extended distances poses significant engineering challenges:

  • Fuel Consumption: High speeds result in rapid fuel consumption, limiting range.
  • Thermal Management: Prolonged exposure to high temperatures can degrade engine performance and structural integrity.
  • Aerodynamic Efficiency: Optimizing a missile for hypersonic speed may compromise its aerodynamic efficiency at lower speeds or during transition phases, affecting overall range.

Strategic Implications

The deployment of HACM introduces new dynamics into global military strategy:

  • Stand-off Capability: The ability to launch attacks from outside enemy air defense ranges is a cornerstone of modern military strategy. The HACM’s range, though limited compared to some alternatives, still allows for significant stand-off capabilities.
  • Adversary Response: The development and deployment of hypersonic weapons by the U.S. may prompt adversaries to accelerate their own hypersonic programs or develop new defense mechanisms, further fueling the arms race.
  • Operational Tactics: The integration of HACMs on a variety of platforms enhances operational flexibility. However, the reliance on shorter-range systems may require reevaluation of tactics, including the positioning of launch platforms closer to contested areas, potentially exposing them to greater risk.

While the HACM significantly enhances the U.S. Air Force’s hypersonic capabilities, its deployment is a complex decision influenced by technological, strategic, and tactical considerations. The ongoing development of hypersonic technologies globally underscores the importance of continued innovation and adaptation in military strategy and capabilities.

In conclusion, while the development of the HACM represents a leap forward in hypersonic technology for the U.S. Air Force, it also brings to light strategic considerations and limitations. Balancing the missile’s advanced capabilities with the challenges of range and platform integration will be crucial for maintaining a competitive edge in the evolving landscape of global military technology.

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