Wednesday, Dec 1, 2021

Long range hypersonic missiles

The hype around hypersonic missiles (the big ones, not the tank killers) implies or directly supposes that hypersonic missiles are an important..


The hype around hypersonic missiles (the big ones, not the tank killers) implies or directly supposes that hypersonic missiles are an important innovation once in service. 

 This requires that

  1. air-breathing cruise missiles either could not do the job for want of sufficient energy or would not penetrate defences
  2. relatively normal (quasi-)ballistic missiles would not penetrate defences

Some hypersonic missiles might possibly have a range advantage over ballistic ones, but this is hardly a game-changer. A bigger yet still simpler ballistic missile could reach just as far.

Failure due to insufficient energy is unlikely. Cruise missiles can use a shaped charge precursor to penetrate very thick reinforced concrete objects and they can also use a shaped charge to insert an explosive warhead as a shot into the hole. This precursor shaped charge approach is by now ancient (WW2-era) technology, mass-produced for portable bunker-busting munitions and I suspect that a driver behind procurement of cruise missiles with such warheads isn't just military bunkers (munition depots and hardened aircraft shelters mostly), but also the destruction of bridge pillars. 

This largely leaves the possibility that the air defence technology progress since the 1970's may have defeated subsonic terrain-following cruise missiles even if they're designed for radar stealth. The ballistic missile defence obsession since the 1980's (and especially since 1991) may furthermore have produced enough technological progress to defeat (quasi-)ballistic missiles.

This is not a binary issue, though. The existence of effective defences doesn't mean that an attacking missile wouldn't accomplish its mission. The costs, quantity, location and readiness are still hugely important factors.

So let's look at readiness.

I very, very strongly suppose that a large missile salvo at the beginning of a war would hit its targets to the limit of the technical reliability of the attacking missile systems. The defences would simply not be deployed and ready. Such a strategic surprise attack could easily be done even with slow cruise missiles. They might need 90 minutes to the last target, but that wouldn't matter much. Hardly any defences of a surprised country or alliance would activate properly within 90 minutes. Almost no fighters are equipped with actual air combat missiles in peacetime, for example. Air defence battery radars and air defence fire control cabins are parked in barracks; they're targets, not defences.

A surprise attack on NATO could take out the majority of European air power and just about every important bridge, about half of the European warships and hundreds of other high value targets. This wouldn't even be expensive; maybe € 2 bn of investment.

Such an aggressor would thus not expect to face much BMD capability for days, either. Only after maybe a week or two he'd face some BMD clusters that would protect certain critical areas (very likely large airbases, maybe a capital or a bridge). Normal air defences might by then protect military bridging over certain rivers, a port and a main supply route.

Would the ability to overcome these few BMD clusters with hypersonic missiles make much of a difference? I doubt it very much. The effect of a couple more hits on the conflict would be very small and a saturation attack of other missiles would very likely succeed even against deployed defences.

Hypersonic missiles may be interesting to bolster nuclear deterrence in face of BMD, and they might be relevant to carrier-centric naval warfare scenarios, but I see very little reason for any elevated relevance in European land warfare.

(This is merely a personal opinion, of course. I have no insider knowledge about technical capabilities of hypersonic missiles or air defences/BMD. Then again, my reasoning doesn't require either as critical input.)





[email protected]



By: [email protected]
Title: Hypersonic missiles of long range
Sourced From:
Published Date: Tue, 16 Nov 2021 23:30:00 +0000

Read More