What are hypersonic missiles and why is the west developing them amid Russia’s war in Ukraine?

Australia, UK and US to collaborate on rapid rockets after Moscow claims to be firing its own in Ukraine

Joe Sommerlad
Wednesday 06 April 2022 12:19
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Moment Russian hypersonic missile ‘destroys Ukrainian weapons warehouse’

Australia, the UK and US, together known as the Aukus nations, have announced that they plan to expand their military pact to collaborate on the development of hypersonic missiles and anti-hypersonic weapons.

Scott Morrison, Boris Johnson and Joe Biden issued a joint statement on Tuesday saying their countries would “commence new trilateral cooperation on hypersonics and counter-hypersonics, and electronic warfare capabilities, as well as to expand information sharing and to deepen co-operation on defence innovation”.

“These initiatives will add to our existing efforts to deepen cooperation on cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and additional undersea capabilities.”

The Aukus deal was initially signed last September to concentrate on nuclear submarine development with a wary eye on potential Chinese aggression in the Pacific, but focus has now shifted towards the threat posed by Vladimir Putin after Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February.

“In light of Russia’s unprovoked, unjustified, and unlawful invasion of Ukraine, we reiterated our unwavering commitment to an international system that respects human rights, the rule of law, and the peaceful resolution of disputes free from coercion,” the leaders said.

Russia’s defence ministry has already said its forces have fired hypersonic ballistic missiles in the conflict, claiming to have destroyed a fuel depot in the Black Sea city of Mykolaiv and an underground ammunition store in western Ivano-Frankivsk.

Ukraine has confirmed that those targets were struck but did not specify what weapons were used.

Hypersonic missiles, like the Kinzhal (Dagger) rockets allegedly being deployed by the Russian Air Force, are thought to represent the next generation of arms because they can travel at exceptionally high velocities – up to ten times the speed of sound, which is around 8,000mph.

By comparison, a subsonic cruise missile like the US Air Force’s Tomahawk rocket moves at a relatively sluggish 550mph.

Kinzhals are typically carried by MiG-31K fighter jets and can hit targets as far away as 1,250 miles, their speed, mid-flight manoeuvrability and ability to fly at low altitudes making them difficult to track using radar on the ground and therefore near-impossible to stop.

Perhaps most alarmingly, the Kinzhal can carry a nuclear warhead as well as a conventional explosive, a strategy it has been feared Russia could resort to as its war in Ukraine becomes more desperate and drawn-out than expected due to the heroic resistance put up by the locals.

The extent of the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, however, has argued that the weapons will make little difference on the ground and that their true value is “giving a certain psychological and propaganda effect”. In other words, inspiring terror.

Mr Putin has boasted of Russia’s investment in such “invincible” weaponry, justifying doing so as a response to what he considers to be Nato military expansion on his country’s doorstep in Eastern Europe.

The US and China are said to be working on their own versions, as are the navies of Britain and France, which are understood to have been collaborating on one known as Perseus since 2011, although it is not expected to enter service for another eight years.

The Independent has a proud history of campaigning for the rights of the most vulnerable, and we first ran our Refugees Welcome campaign during the war in Syria in 2015. Now, as we renew our campaign and launch this petition in the wake of the unfolding Ukrainian crisis, we are calling on the government to go further and faster to ensure help is delivered. To find out more about our Refugees Welcome campaign, click here. To sign the petition click here. If you would like to donate then please click here for our GoFundMe page.

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