Deciphering the Mechanics of Hypersonic Missiles: A Look at North Korea’s Tests

Hypersonic missiles are a new type of weapon that can fly faster and more unpredictably than conventional missiles. They are designed to evade and overcome existing missile defence systems, giving an advantage to the countries that possess them. Here is a brief explanation of how they work and why they are important.

What makes a missile hypersonic?

A missile is considered hypersonic if it can travel at more than five times the speed of sound, or about 6,200 km per hour (3,850 mph). This is much faster than most ballistic missiles, which can reach speeds of about 3,000 km per hour (1,860 mph).

However, speed is not the only factor that makes hypersonic missiles different. They can also manoeuvre in flight, changing their direction and altitude to avoid detection and interception. This makes them harder to track and counter by existing radar and missile defence systems, which are designed to deal with predictable ballistic trajectories.

How do hypersonic missiles fly?

There are two main types of hypersonic missiles: hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs) and hypersonic cruise missiles (HCMs).

HGVs are launched by rockets into the upper atmosphere, where they detach and glide towards their targets at high speeds. They can fly at low altitudes, making them difficult to spot by satellites and radars. They can also change their course and angle of attack, making them unpredictable and agile.

HCMs are powered by air-breathing engines that allow them to sustain flight through the atmosphere like conventional cruise missiles. They can take off from land, sea or air platforms, and fly at high altitudes, making them stealthy and versatile. They can also adjust their speed and direction, making them adaptable and flexible.

Who is developing hypersonic missiles?

Several countries have been developing hypersonic weapons in recent years, as part of a new arms race for the next generation of missile systems.

China launched a rocket carrying a hypersonic glide vehicle that flew through space in 2021, circling the globe before cruising down toward its target. This was seen as a major breakthrough in China’s hypersonic programme, which aims to achieve global strike capability.

Russia successfully tested a Tsirkon (Zircon) hypersonic cruise missile in 2021, which President Vladimir Putin touted as part of a new generation of missile systems. The missile can reportedly fly at speeds of up to 9,000 km per hour (5,590 mph), and hit targets up to 1,000 km (620 miles) away.

The United States said in September 2021 that it had tested an air-breathing hypersonic weapon for the first time since 2013. The weapon is part of a broader effort by the US to develop hypersonic capabilities across all domains: land, sea, air and space.

North Korea has also claimed that it successfully tested a new hypersonic missile called Hwasong-8 on Tuesday. The missile is said to be a solid-fuel hypersonic missile with intermediate range, featuring a conical manoeuvrable reentry vehicle warhead. The missile can launch a warhead that travels partially into orbit, then reenters the atmosphere and glides towards its target.

Why are hypersonic missiles important?

Hypersonic missiles are important because they could change the balance of power and the nature of warfare in the future. They could give an edge to the countries that possess them, as they could potentially overcome the existing missile defence systems of their adversaries. They could also increase the risk of miscalculation and escalation in a crisis, as they could reduce the time for decision-making and diplomacy.

Hypersonic missiles pose challenges for international security and stability, as there is no clear legal framework or norm to regulate or prohibit them. They could also trigger an arms race among other countries that seek to develop or acquire their own hypersonic capabilities.

The international community needs to engage with the hypersonic actors and address their security concerns, while also urging them to refrain from further provocations and return to dialogue. The US and its allies need to enhance their missile defence and deterrence capabilities, while also pursuing arms control and confidence-building measures with other hypersonic actors. The world needs to prevent a new hypersonic missile crisis from spiralling out of control.

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