As recently confirmed in a debate at the Brookings Institute by the Commandant of the United States Marine Corps, General Robert Neller, “there are military areas in which the United States maintains a technological advantage [over Russia and China], others in which there is substantial parity, and others in which the United States is lagging behind, revealing a technological gap with its peer competitors.”
The last point applies to weapons systems designed to operate at hypersonic speed. Let us start with the simple and pragmatic definition offered by The National Interest of hypersonic vehicles and weapons:
A hypersonic vehicle is one that moves through the atmosphere at a minimum speed of five times that of sound, or Mach 5. A hypersonic cruise missile travels continuously through the air employing a special high-powered engine. A hypersonic glide vehicle [HGV] is launched into space atop a ballistic missile, after which it maneuvers through the upper reaches of the atmosphere until it dives towards its target. Both vehicle types can carry either conventional or nuclear weapons.
As we can see, we are speaking here about technological developments that require money and scientific structures of the highest level to achieve such significant and complex results. The difficulty of implementing systems of such complexity is very well explained by Defense Review:
One of DR’s primary questions about the Russian and Chinese HAA/HGV [Hypersonic Attack Aircraft/Hypersonic Glide Vehicle] tech is whether or not the vehicles generate a plasma field/shield around it that can effectively camouflage the vehicle and/or disrupt an incoming high-powered laser beam, and thus avoid both detection and destruction during its flight. Russian scientists and military aircraft designers/developers have been experimenting with plasma field generation tech since the late 1970’s, so one would think they’re pretty far along by now. Oh, and let’s not forget China’s recent development of a new ultra-thin, lightweight “tunable” UHF microwave radar-absorbing stealth/cloaking material for both manned and unmanned combat aircraft and warships. The hits just seem to keep on coming. Its enough to drive a military defense analyst to drink.
Another area of complexity concerns the communication between the hypersonic flight carrier and and its land-based components, especially if the re-entry vehicle is to be maneuvered remotely.
The fundamental component in performing a hypersonic flight naturally lies in the engines, used to reach speeds higher than Mach 7. There are ongoing studies by all of these countries concerning scramjet engines, essential for the purposes of producing hypersonic weapons. By employing a scramjet engine, and mixing it with other technologies (jet engine or ramjet), one would enable the aircraft and missiles to reach hypersonic speeds, as Beijing’s Power Machinery Research Institute explains:
The turbo-aided rocket-augmented ram/scramjet engine (TRRE), which uses rocket augmentation to aid the transition into the supersonic and hypersonic flight regimes, could be...