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A New High-Speed Arms Race

James Acton, Independent Military Review

November 21, 2014

 

Clear evidence has recently emerged that a new arms race in ultra-fast, long-range weapons may be brewing. In August, both the United States and China tested “boost-glide” weapons within 18 days of one another. Meanwhile, statements from senior Russian leaders, including President Putin, suggest that Russia is interested in joining the competition.

A boost-glide weapon is launched like a normal ballistic missile. However, rather than arcing high above the earth, it re-enters the atmosphere quickly before deploying a glider. This glider, which is unpowered, can travel for huge distances—potentially many thousands of kilometers—at hypersonic speeds (at least five times faster than the speed of sound). Boost-glide weapons were first imagined in the 1930s. However, the technology is so challenging that the first successful test of a long-range system did not take place until 2011 when the U.S. Advanced Hypersonic Weapon flew for 3,800 km.

 The U.S. Department of Defense tested the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon again in August 2014. The weapon was launched from Alaska and was intended to reach a target in the Pacific Ocean more than 6,000 km away—but the test was terminated within four seconds. Because the problem was related to the booster, this failure reveals nothing about the capability of the glider itself. It seems likely that, following an investigation, this test will be re-run—although there has not been an official announcement to this effect.

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