Rolls-Royce, Reaction Engines and BAE Systems have been given £10million by the Ministry of Defence to research, design and develop “high-Mach advanced propulsion systems”. Hypersonic missiles are missiles which can travel faster than Mach 5. Mach 1 is the speed of sound – 767mph – and anything travelling faster than that would break the sound barrier, creating an audible sonic boom. Mach 2 is double that and so on.
Mach 5 missiles can travel at a staggering 3,836mph – more than six times the speed of a standard passenger jet.
A British Mach 5 missile could travel from the UK to Moscow, roughly 1,500 miles away, in less than half an hour.
The reason they are able to travel so fast is partly because they can reach the top of the Earth’s atmosphere, where they encounter less air resistance.
They also use supersonic combustion ramjet (SCRAMJET). Much like jet engines, SCRAMJETs drawer in air and compress it to burn fuel. Unlike jets, SCRAMJETs have no moving parts and rely on the hypersonic speed of the craft to compress air within the motor.
The UK however is someway behind other major military forces from around the globe in terms of its hypersonic capabilities.
Russia’s Avangard hypersonic weapons have the ability to travel at an astonishing Mach 27 – more than 20,000 miles per hour.
These weapons, which Vladmir Putin said strike “like a meteorite, like a fireball”, can easily travel to the other side of the world in a matter of minutes.
China’s DF-ZF or DH-17 can travel at Mach 10.
The US was concerned by the news that China and Russia were leading the field in terms of hypersonic weaponry, especially seeing as President Putin presented an animation of the Avangard which was apparently launching towards Florida, so has fast-tracked its hypersonic program to be ready for 2023.
By creating missiles which can travel that fast, experts believe it changes the face of war.
Rear Admiral Simon Henley of the Royal Aeronautical Society told the Telegraph: “The existence of hypersonic weapons on one side of a conflict without suitable countermeasures on the other side will significantly alter the balance of power.
“Their availability will change how war is conducted – noting that there is a level of sophistication and complexity to operating such weapon systems which will limit the number of nations with the capability to field them.”
Another benefit of hypersonic missiles is that they are virtually impossible to defend against.
Because they move at such breakneck speeds, there is currently no technology which will help a country defend itself.
Last year, Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of US Strategic Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee: “We don’t have any defence that could deny the employment of such a weapon against us.
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“Both Russia and China are aggressively pursuing hypersonic capabilities. We’ve watched them test those capabilities.”
Mr Henley said technology is currently being developed: “Countering hypersonic weapons requires improvements in detection, tracking and getting a firing solution, and destroying the weapon.
“Work is being accelerated in all three areas, with new technologies being developed in each area. Technology using Directed Energy weapons and other novel technologies are being developed which will improve the ability to counter such weapons.”
The initiative is part of the Tempest project, which could be completed in the 2030s.
The Tempest is a futuristic fighter jet currently being designed by Britain in the hopes of replacing the ageing Typhoon, also known as the Eurofighter.
The Tempest will be fitted with laser and hypersonic weapons and will be joined in battle by a team of drone-like, semi-autonomous “wingmen”.
When operational, the hyper-advanced Tempest will boast capabilities far beyond any jet ever built so far.
It will be able to flown unmanned, as will feature a fearsome range of weapons, including the aforementioned “wingmen”.
Upon awarding the contract to Rolls Royce and its technology partners, the UK’s Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier, said the project could be completed within two years.
Sir Stephen said: “As part of the technologies being developed in parallel with Project Tempest, I am delighted to reveal that in concert with Rolls-Royce, Reaction Engines and BAE Systems, we are developing hypersonic propulsion systems, which will be designed and tested over the next two years, paving the way for the UK to become a centre of excellence in this technology and contribute to meeting future UK Defence needs.”
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