Hypersonic missiles (that travel at speeds greater than Mach 5) are a highly technical new class of weapon. They may carry nuclear weapons and could, potentially, defy current missile defence systems by manoeuvring at extremely high speeds. However, they are very complex and are likely to be expensive to develop and produce.

Russia, China and the US all appear to be making substantial progress in developing hypersonic missiles. The Governments of the UK, US and Australia announced in April 2022 that they will cooperate to develop hypersonic and counter-hypersonic capabilities through the AUKUS partnership.

This POSTnote will explain what hypersonic missiles are, the technical challenges to developing them, and summarise publicly available information about nations’ current capabilities. It will also discuss the challenges that they create for existing missile defence systems and look at progress towards developing counter-hypersonic missile capabilities.

Work on this briefing has commenced.

To contribute expertise or literature, please e-mail Emily Noone.

Image: C-HGB launch by U.S. Pacific Fleet, under CC BY-NC 2.0

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