DARPA Signs Contract with Northrop Grumman to Develop Hypersonic Weapons Interceptors for American Air Defense – Who is the Concern?

  • Currently, the only weapon that is capable of shooting down the Hypersonic systems is a laser gun.
  • The project is expected to be completed by January 2021.
  • Non-maneuvering Hypersonic weapons fly on a ballistic trajectory, and on counter courses, which are easily shot down by supersonic missiles.

DARPA signed a contract with Northrop Grumman valued at $13 million to develop Hypersonic weapons interceptors for American air defense. Currently, the only weapon that is capable of shooting down the Hypersonic systems is a laser gun. With the speed of the light pulse, the gun fires at the current location of the target and the light pulse with a 99.9% probability hits the target, since compared to the speed of light the hypersonic missile is standing still. However, there are not enough powerful lasers that are capable of delivering such results. It is in the development phase and clearly it seems Northrop Grumman is involved in the testing of such lasers.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is an agency of the United States Department of Defense responsible for the development of emerging technologies for use by the military. Northrop Grumman Corporation is an American global aerospace and defense technology company. With over 85,000 employees and an annual revenue in excess of $30 billion, it is one of the world’s largest weapons manufacturers and military technology providers.

It is expected the project will be completed by January 2021. The development of a countermeasure to Hypersonic weapons is being conducted as part of the Glide Breaker program initiated by DARPA in 2018. DARPA showed off concept art of the interceptor portion of Glide Breaker for the first time at its D60 Symposium (which honors the organization’s 60th anniversary) in September 2018. The agency’s Tactical Technology Office previously hosted a gathering to explain the project and its requirements to interested parties in July 2018.

Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed in December, 2019 that Russia is the leader in the Hypersonic weapons arena. His statement coincided with the announcement of the Avangard Hypersonic glide vehicle which took close to three decades to be developed. It is designed be on top of the  intercontinental ballistic missile.

The Avangard, previously known as Objekt 4202, Yu-71 and Yu-74, is a Russian hypersonic glide vehicle that can be carried as a MIRV payload by the UR-100UTTKh, R-36M2 and RS-28 Sarmat heavy ICBMs. It can deliver both nuclear and conventional payloads.

Non-maneuvering Hypersonic weapons fly on a ballistic trajectory, and on counter courses, and are easily shot down by supersonic missiles, as for instance the Aegis or THAAD systems armed with SM-3 missiles.

The Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System is a United States Department of Defense Missile Defense Agency program developed to provide missile defense against short to intermediate-range ballistic missiles. It is part of the United States national missile defense strategy. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), formerly Theater High Altitude Area Defense, is an American anti-ballistic missile defense system designed to shoot down short-, medium-, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in their terminal phase (descent or reentry) by intercepting with a hit-to-kill approach.  The RIM-161 Standard Missile 3 is a ship-based missile system used by the United States Navy to intercept short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles as a part of Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System.

Russia has Dagger and Zircon, which are maneuvering hypersonic missiles, as well as the vanguard maneuvering Hypersonic blocks of Intercontinental weapons.

The Kh-47M2 Kinzhal (“dagger”) is a Russian nuclear-capable air-launched ballistic missile. The first operational unit armed with the Hypersonic Kinzhal missiles was formed in Southern Military District of Russia in December 2017.  Zircon is believed to be a maneuvering, winged Hypersonic cruise missile with a lift-generating center body. A booster stage with solid-fuel engines accelerates it to supersonic speeds, after which a scramjet motor with liquid-fuel (Decilin) in the second stage accelerates it to Hypersonic speeds.

These weapons have not been shot down by anyone because there are no Hypersonic anti-missiles. Hypothetically speaking, if there were Hypersonic anti-missile weapons, the computer technology of the control system alone  does not have time to process this rapidly changing information at such speeds.

There are also issues with the Hypersonic rockets due to the slow down within the dense layers of the atmosphere; it heats up to a critical temperature when such speed is involved. Hence, any deviation will cause the rocket problems as it changes the trajectory needed to hit the target. Additionally the plasma stealth sending the signal is not fully resolved on Zircon. Plasma stealth is a proposed process to use ionized gas (plasma) to reduce the radar cross-section (RCS) of an aircraft. Interactions between electromagnetic radiation and ionized gas have been extensively studied for many purposes, including concealing aircraft from radar as stealth technology. Various methods might plausibly be able to form a layer or cloud of plasma around a vehicle to deflect or absorb radar, from simpler electrostatic or radio frequency discharges to more complex laser discharges. It is theoretically possible to reduce RCS in this way, but it may be very difficult to do so in practice. The SS-N-33 missile has been reported to make use of plasma stealth.

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Christina Kitova

I spent most of my professional life in finance, insurance risk management litigation.

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