Australia is investing heavily in modern warships with advanced missile defences which actually may not work against hypersonic missiles now being fielded by Russia and China. What may prove more effective are the next generation of hypersonic projectiles fired by shipboard railguns plus directed energy weapons.
A new report entitled Coming Ready or Not by Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) Senior Fellow, Dr Andrew Davies says that, after a long gestation, hypersonic technology – missiles travelling fast than Mach 5 – had now matured to the point where multiple new weapon systems were likely to be fielded by several major powers in the next few years.
That includes Russia, China, and the US, while there are also research programs underway in France, India, Japan, and Germany.
Dr Davies said tactical hypersonic weapons – actually stand-off strike weapons – could render existing ship defensive systems largely ineffective.
“Hypersonic weapons potentially constitute a significant challenge to ship-borne missile defence systems such as the Aegis combat system/Standard Missile combination found on US Navy and allied vessels, including Australia’s surface combatants,” he said. “Hypersonic strike will make an already fraught surface environment even more dangerous for surface combatants.”
As well, hypersonic missiles could be equipped with nuclear warheads. In fact, while ICBMs are technically hypersonic weapons, emerging systems are classed as hypersonic glide weapons as their mission performed primarily within the atmosphere.
Though billed as manoeuvrable, actual manoeuvrability of a hypersonic missile is limited, making them most effective against static land or slow moving targets, such as ships. But for targeting large vessels, such as an aircraft carrier, that may be enough.
“In the time it takes a Mach 8 weapon to travel 100 kilometres, a surface target travelling at 20 knots travels only 430 metres,” Dr Davies said.
The ADF has launched a joint program with the US to develop an air-launched hypersonic missile, which Dr Davies said could create a long-range strike capability not seen since retirement of the F-111 strike aircraft in 2010.
“The potential downside to these developments is that the very substantial investment being made by the government in building warships with missile defence systems designed to deal with previous weapon generation threats, could be substantially devalued by emerging hypersonic threats,” he said.