The supposed miracle weapon that China proudly presented to the public in October 2019 looks inconspicuous: a pointed white nose, a slender body painted in matte green, and a pair of wings. Visually somehow a combination of a wind tunnel model and an oversized kite. But the weapon, which was brought 16 times at the parade on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, has great power. It must travel toward its targets at ten times the speed of sound, at more than 12,000 kilometers per hour: extremely fast, agile, and indomitable. At least that is the promise.
This post is from Issue 4/2020 of the MIT Technology Review.
DF-ZF, as the Chinese called their arrow-shaped projectile, is the so-called hypersonic weapon – a new, supposedly revolutionary type of weapon. Not only does the People’s Republic of China want to be at the forefront in this field, but Russia also added its first hypersonic missile to its arsenal at the end of December 2019. Meanwhile, the United States is investing several billion dollars to catch up with weapons technology. According to the advertisements at least, the hypersonic car has ignited a new and expensive arms race.
Weapons rushing toward their target at supersonic speeds—more than five times the speed of sound—is basically nothing new. Every ICBM travels at a similar speed. However, one thing distinguishes the new weapons from their more traditional relatives: When they return to Earth from space, the nuclear warheads of ICBMs are on the so-called ballistic trajectory — similar to a stone that someone threw into the air.
This article is from Technology Review 4/2020. The magazine will be available from March 19, 2020 in stores and directly from the Hays Store. Highlights from the magazine:
Thus the additional route of their journey can be calculated in advance; Enemy missile defense has a good chance of shooting down the attackers. On the other hand, new hypersonic weapons can be controlled – at least to a limited extent. Similar to much slower cruise missiles, they can suddenly change course. Therefore Hyperbarrage weapons are considered unpredictable. At the same time, it is so fast that the enemy’s missile defenses cannot respond to its maneuvers.
The DF-ZF, China’s flagship matte green weapon, does so without its own engine — just like the Avangard, the much larger Russian counterpart, which is said to have been officially handed over to troops at the end of December 2019. “Like a meteor, like a ball of fire,” a weapon The future” will soon fall on its goals, as promised by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Weapons on a ballistic trajectory, almost in space
Avangard and DF-ZF belong to a class that military experts refer to as hypersonic gliders: in order to perform their tasks, weapons must first be launched with a conventional missile and raised to height and speed – in the case of Avangard up to 27 times the speed of sound. At this stage of flight, the five-meter Russian glider hardly differs from the warhead of an ICBM. He, too, is initially traveling on a ballistic trajectory that leads him nearly into space.
However, once the plane detaches from its rocket, returns to Earth and feels the end of the atmosphere, its behavior changes. Similar to rocks thrown into a lake at a low angle and bouncing off the surface of the water, flattened Avangards can surf through Earth’s atmosphere. It regains its height a little, descends, reaches the denser layers of the atmosphere, jumps there again, and finally, controlled by its small tail units, aims at the target. The glider remains invisible to enemy satellites and radar systems designed to detect and intercept ballistic missiles above the atmosphere. It is extremely fast and maneuverable for ground-based missile defense.
However, all this seems easier than it actually is. So far, none of the magic bullets have proven useful. Two problems in particular stand out: On the other hand, racing through the atmosphere at more than five times the speed of sound creates enormous friction. Missiles inevitably heat up, and their surfaces reach 2000 degrees Celsius. Therefore, highly resistant materials such as ceramics or nickel-chromium alloys are essential.
However, gliders expand and their shapes and thus their flight characteristics change. In addition, a bubble of plasma forms around hypersonic weapons. While this hot ionized gas absorbs some of the radar waves, making the gliders difficult to locate, it also changes the aerodynamics. Already small rudder decks find it more difficult to initiate trajectory changes.
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