Hypersonic Defence

DefenceSynergia (DS) has seen Dr James Bosbotinis’ most recent report for Defence IQ into Hypersonic Defence. It is a comprehensive report that covers a highly complex area of capability and threat in clear and understandable terms. In UK defence terms it puts into public view many of the emerging issues that DS has been warning about for several years, not least to House of Commons Select Committee for Defence. 

The Chairman of the Defence Committee, Mr Tobias Ellwood, took time out to virtually meet with DS recently and listen to our concerns regarding the nature, the threat and the initiatives that might be required to defeat the threat, posed by Hypersonic weapons. DS understands that the Defence Committee now have Hypersonic Weapons inserted into their current inquiry programme. 


This report on Hypersonic Defence by Dr Bosbotinis is an excellent and detailed aide memoire on the subject covering the ground from a brief explanation of the physics behind Hypersonic flight; the various air vehicles currently in use; the principle nations most involved; and future potential developments. The report then goes on to describe the Threat hypersonic missiles pose, the difficulties involved with identifying, tracking, targeting and destroying the various types (exo or endo- atmospheric) in a ‘kill chain’ but also the difficulties and technical challenges that developing these air vehicles entails in new and exotic materials to overcome the major forces and heat profiles generated by flight above  Mach 5 (approximately a mile a second). Missiles are by their aerodynamic nature low observables to conventional radars in the line of travel, although much less so to bistatic systems.


Given the known difficulties that current endo-atmospheric sensor and defence systems must overcome to successfully detect, track, target and kill hypersonic weapons DS agrees with a  conclusion of Dr Bosbotinis and his sources that this puts much more focus on a Low Earth Orbit satellite constellation equipped with a range of sensors, notably Infra Red (IR). We also agree, as the report covers and concludes, that Artificial Intelligence (AI) maybe the key to overcoming the rapid reaction to action times involved in the hypersonic kill chain. DS also believes the inclusion of Inverse Synthetic Aperture Radar, perhaps in a bi/multi-static mode, in satellites could add an imaging dimension that would assist AI detection and tracking, although this will remain speculative until more is known about final design of a future defensive network. Until such a robust ISTAR network is in place, the aggressor will have plausible deniability of launch and attack, and hence DS believes UK priority effort should be collaboratively through AUKUS and with Japan develop and deploy such a network, then to follow on with kill chain effectors. UK’s limited defence budget would not, in DS’s view, be best served by developing hypersonic weapons in a national programme.


DS briefed the Chairman of the Defence Committee to expect UK to form joint multi-national R&D programmes to develop Hypersonic technology – probably, we thought with the USA, Australia and Japan; a point also reinforced by Dr Bosbotinis in his excellent paper. The USA has been in the Hypersonic weapons development business far longer than UK but UK has many engineering strengths in, for example, hypersonic propulsion, AI and sensors that should be prime territory for collaborative ventures.


The bottom line, as General Sir Richard Barrons told the Defence Committee quite recently is that the UK currently has no Anti-Ballistic-Missile defence at all let alone a way of identifying, tracking, locking on and destroying exo or endo-atmospheric Hypersonic missiles! Therefore, Dr Bosbotinis concludes his report with these words: “As Russia’s extensive use of long-range missiles, including the Kinzhal, in Ukraine vividly demonstrates, air and missile defence is of fundamental importance. The possession of credible air and missile defences, as part of a wider military posture, will be critical to deterrence, and should war breakout, to the defeat of an adversary.”  

DS recommends this excellent report which requires the widest circulation – please access the full report HERE