The United States announced Friday it has successfully tested an unarmed prototype of a hypersonic missile, a nuclear-capable weapon that could accelerate the arms race between superpowers.
The Pentagon said a test glide vehicle flew at hypersonic speeds — more than five times the speed of sound, or Mach 5 — to a designated impact point. The test followed the first joint US Army and Navy flight experiment in October 2017, when the prototype missile demonstrated it could glide in the direction of a target at hypersonic speed.
“Today we validated our design and are now ready to move to the next phase towards fielding a hypersonic strike capability,” Vice Admiral Johnny Wolfe said in a statement.
Hypersonic weapons can take missile warfare, particularly nuclear warfare, to a new — and, for many, frightening — level.
They can travel much faster than current nuclear-capable ballistic and cruise missiles at low altitudes, can switch direction in flight and do not follow a predictable arc like conventional missiles, making them much harder to track and intercept.
Even as conventionally armed, non-nuclear weapons, they are viewed by analysts as raising the danger of conflict, because an adversary might not know how they are armed when launched.
The Pentagon is pressing to catch up with rivals Moscow and Beijing in the race to develop hypersonics, even as it recognizes they could dangerously raise the risks of a nuclear conflict, as countries struggle to build defenses against them.
In its fiscal 2021 budget the US Defense Department requested $3.2 billion for hypersonic programs, up from $2.6 billion in the current year. The goal is a deployable hypersonic capability by 2023, though that could be difficult.
“Delivering hypersonic weapons is one of the department’s highest technical research and engineering priorities,” the Pentagon said.