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What are hypersonic missiles

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Over the weekend, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that it had launched some hypersonic missiles on Ukrainian targets, causing a notable reaction from the entire international community: hypersonic missiles are new generation weapons, available to a few military powers , known because they are capable of at least five times the speed of sound while maintaining high maneuverability. Their use in Ukraine would be one of the first in a real war context, outside of missile tests and exercises.

The Russian Defense Ministry did a first announcement on Saturday, when he said he had used a “Kinzhal” type hypersonic missile to hit a weapons depot in the Ivano-Frankivsk region of western Ukraine. On Sunday, he announced that he had used more to hit a fuel depot near the southern city of Mykolaiv and other targets. It is difficult to independently confirm the Russian government’s claims, but US intelligence members have told the media to have had confirmation of the use by Russian forces of these missiles.

Hypersonic missiles have been talked about a lot recently, because these weapons are considered the most important novelty of the last decades of development of missile technology for military purposes, and according to some experts could lead to a new arms race. At the moment, the only countries to have conducted tests on hypersonic missiles are the United States, China, North Korea and of course Russia (the United States, however, is quite behind in development). Various other military powers such as India, France and the UK are working on projects for the construction of hypersonic missiles.

Hypersonic missiles have various advantages over traditional missiles.

For several decades now, missiles for hitting a target at a great distance can be of two types. First of all, cruise missiles, which travel along a horizontal trajectory, parallel to the ground: they are small and slow but they are exceptionally easy to maneuver, and for this reason it is very difficult to intercept them. They are also very precise: you can let a cruise missile enter the window of a house, if you want. Cruise missiles are used to hit specific targets hundreds of miles away.

Otherwise there are the ballistic ones, huge missiles that are fired beyond the atmosphere and which, using gravity, fall on the target through a parabolic trajectory. Ballistic missiles are very fast when they hit the target but very inaccurate: they can miss it by a few hundred meters. They are quite easy for enemies to detect, but once launched they are nearly impossible to stop: when they begin their descent, ballistic missiles reach exceptional speeds and can strike thousands of miles away. Poor accuracy is also not a big problem, because ballistic missiles are primarily intended for launching nuclear warheads, which have a very large devastation radius.

The new hypersonic missiles are expected to combine the best of both worlds: to be as maneuverable and accurate as cruise missiles while at the same time having the speed and enormous destructive capacity of ballistic missiles.

To be defined as “hypersonic”, a missile must reach a speed at least five times that of sound (more than “Mach 5”, therefore, as they say in the jargon, being “Mach 1” the speed of sound): then travel at least 1.6 kilometers per second, a speed at which the air begins to behave differently. And this is the distinction that leads to speak of “hypersonic speed” (and not simply “supersonic”, like the speeds between Mach 1 and Mach 5). Many of the recent missiles actually go much faster than that, often reaching speeds of up to Mach 20.

Hypersonic missiles currently under development or construction are of two types. First of all, there are hypersonic cruise missiles, that is cruise missiles that are often launched from a military jet in flight, and which are equipped with a special engine capable of carrying them to hypersonic speeds.

The Kinzhal missiles used by Russian forces in Ukraine are of this type, and are in fact dropped by fighter-bombers. They can carry both conventional explosives, as in the case of the bombings of recent days, and possibly nuclear warheads.

The second type of hypersonic missiles are the so-called “hypersonic glide vehicles” (HGVs), which are the most interesting and worrying missiles.

Like ballistic missiles, HGVs are fired in a near-vertical trajectory, carried on conventional rockets. But while ballistic missiles make very high parabolic trajectories, which take them over 1,000 kilometers from the ground, the HGVs detach from the rocket much earlier, 40-100 kilometers from the ground. At that point, taking advantage of the aerodynamics, the HGVs can glide at hypersonic speed towards the target. The huge advantage over ballistic missiles is that HGVs are maneuverable: a ballistic missile once launched has a practically fixed and easily predictable trajectory. An HGV, on the other hand, can be maneuvered while gliding: it can discard to avoid interception systems and radar and it can change trajectory up to a few seconds before impact. It is not possible to predict where it will fall and this makes it almost impossible to intercept it.

It is rather complicated to understand why Russia wanted to use hypersonic missiles in Ukraine. Although Ukraine’s anti-missile defenses are quite robust, Russia has shown that it can destroy various targets using traditional, more established and cheaper artillery.

It is possible that the specific targets hit by hypersonic missiles were particularly well defended, and therefore Russia wanted to use the new weapons to hit them, because they are virtually impossible for any anti-missile system to stop.

Another possibility, perhaps more likely, is that Russia wanted to launch these next-generation missiles – and then widely publicize their use – to remind both Ukraine and the West that, despite the problems encountered in these first weeks invasion, still has a modern army, and that in its arsenal there are high-tech weapons with high destructive potential that have not yet been really used in the course of the conflict in Ukraine.

Pavel Felgenhauer, a military analyst, he said to Euronews that the hoped-for effect in the use of ballistic missiles is above all psychological: “In fact, the situation on the ground does not change, but it certainly has an effect in terms of psychological propaganda, to frighten everyone”.