The Hypersonic Arms Race

 The Hypersonic Arms Race

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China made the news recently for sending a potentially nuclear capable “hypersonic” craft around the world and then slamming into its target, only missing by a couple dozen miles. The widely reported story made waves, and spawned lots of talk of a new arms race and cold war as tensions over trade, Taiwan, and covid are at all-time highs. In this episode the focus will be the new Hypersonic Arms Race.


Aside from being really fast, you might ask what the big deal is, because we’ve been sending things into space for a long time, and nuclear weapons are no exception. 


Two major reasons, the obvious one is speed. A faster object means a faster result and makes it harder to defend against. 


ICBM Trajetories and Defense

And the second reason has to do specifically with defending, the crazy speed allows for a flatter trajectory of sorts that makes them much harder to shoot down than a conventional Intercontinental Ballistic Missile which has a high arcing trajectory. And just like that you’ve defeated virtually every missile defense system on the planet.


If you’ve ever shot clay pigeons with a shotgun you can understand this. The loftier the clay pigeon, the easier it is to shoot, but if someone throws one very horizontal, and say across your body it is much harder to hit.


It isn’t a new idea. In fact, in an earlier episode called The Nazis Secret Space Weapons, I talk about a forgotten Nazi weapon called the Silber Vogel (Silver Bird) pioneered by Eugene Sanger for the Nazi’s Amerika Bomber program. Before the war had even really begun Hitler had his eyes set on North America. But America was simply to-far for a loaded plane from Germany to strike, and not just be shot down. They considered launching more conventional designs from mid-Atlantic islands like the Azores. The Messerschmitt Me-264, FockeWulf FW-300 and the 6 engine Ta-400, Junkers Ju-390, and the Heinkel He-277 were all entered-into the competition. 

"Silver Bird" Bomber


The Silverbird was entirely different. It was much closer to something like the X37B, DARPAS Hypersoar and Falcon project, and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip2, and now China’s mysterious new weapon system. 


Silverbird was a novel hybrid of a lifting body and a rocket that weighed 10tons when empty. And could carry up to 8000lbs of bombs.  It would be launched by a rocket engine off-of a rail system. After being flung into the air, its own rockets would ignite and send it into the edges of space at a max speed thought to be in-excess of Mach 17. But how do you aim and anticipate things at such high speeds and altitudes? Even today with all-of our technology, we still struggle to make things moving this fast hit their targets. The Nazis thought pilots could use the stars to navigate and determine when to drop payload, which was presented as an advantage, atmospheric bombers at the time cold be thwarted by weather or heavy air defenses. No such obstacles existed for the Silver Bird and its unoccluded view of the stars. From this altitude and speed, the Silver Bird could strike anywhere on the planet in a matter of minutes. 

By the time it all came together, it was too late. Nazi Germany was failing to keep pace with the raw manufacturing power of the United States and Britain. And the decision was made that the Silverbird was to different, and too risky to sink serious resources into. The Silver Bird never made it past the concept or mockup stage, and a few small-scale tests of various rocket designs. It was ultimately shelved, and Sanger moved on to another desperation project, the Sk-14 Fighter plane. Which was just a Ramjet engine with a pilot laying, yes laying on top. The idea wasn’t completely different from the Silver Bird, at least from a basic layman perspective. The plane would be launched from the ground by rocket boosters, until the ramjet engine could take over and achieve crazy speeds at untouchable altitudes in 1944-1945.  But the SK14 was never fully built either.Škoda-Kauba_P14


After WW2 the aerospace industry would of course take massive leaps forward. Jet engines and space programs became the new pursuits, and missiles began replacing guns and bombs as the most feared weapons of war and the USA and the USSR set off on a decade’s long arms race.

Project Pluto

Project Pluto was a US government program that sought to develop a nuclear-powered ramjet engine. The Idea was that air enters the engine at the front, is heated by the reactor, expands, and is blasted out the back. The Project Pluto craft would be capable of crazy speeds, and potentially staying airborne for months at a time. At least two functional nuclear ramjets were built and tested. Tory IIA and Tory IIC respectively. Tory IIC was ran for five minutes on a railcar proving that the concept was valid. But unlike today, the design was considered to provocative, and the Americans didn’t want the soviets imitating them and producing a similar weapon for which there was no defense…


At about the same time, the Soviet Union was working on its “Fractional Orbital Bombardment System”. The idea was not that dissimilar from China’s modern test. The goal was to insert a warhead at a very specific very low orbit, and very high speed that could evade detection by the US. And it was built, and it would have worked. If not for the advent of early warning satellites that could detect the launches themselves. The Fractional Orbital Bombardment System was also viewed by the soviets to some extent as a dangerous weapon that could push the arms race into unknown territory.

FOBS trajectories

Amid all this, are planes like the SR71 whose Top Speed is perhaps still unmatched. There was also of course the American Space Shuttle and the Soviet Buran. And very likely, an SR72 in the works at Lockheed. Then missiles like the Russian S400 that can exceed Mach 5 and outrun virtually anything else that we know of. 


Well almost anything. In the 2000s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA began studying something called the Hypersoar. Which in concept is strikingly similar to the Nazi Silver Bird. A manned craft that would skip along the outer edge of the atmosphere and in theory achieve speeds up to Mach 12 and be anywhere in the world in a little over an hour delivering people or payload. Pics and links of all this stuff will be at


Falcon Hypersonic Test Vehicle

Hypersoar ultimately ended up inside DARPAs Falcon Project.  Falcon being a hypersonic craft initially launched via rocket before kicking off its own engines. It has flown at least twice, with each flight ending, intentionally, in the ocean.


Part of the Falcon project includes secret craft referred to as the X41 and another called the HTV3X Blackswift.

One also must wonder what the Space Force is doing with the X37B, a miniature looking space shuttle that is capable of long duration orbits and carrying a payload. It’s easy to forget how fast things move in space… Boeing manufactured and tested the X51 hypersonic missile in 2010, Lockheed and Raytheon have their own in the works as well.


If you ask me the SR72 is the American endgame here. All indications are that something like it is being built and may be very near flight ready. Something that can take off from a runway or at least have a ground-based origin, fly around the world at ridiculous speeds, and wreak havoc. According to Lockheed it will be flying around sometime between 2023 and 2025.

And that leads us back to the China story. 


For decades America has been the top superpower. Especially since the fall of the Soviet Union. And while America has obviously tested a variety of superfast weapon and transport systems, we certainly haven’t done so very publicly. So, when reports came out that in August 2021 China had successfully tested such a vehicle, there was a sense of panic in the American Defense Industry.


And with all that is happening in the world, maybe rightly so. 


But ...

China denies that test had anything to with weapons testing but was rather a test of a new space vehicle that is in development. Could the American Military industrial Complex be making a relative non-story into a story? After All China only spends about half what we do on defense. What triggered the alarm more than anything was that this new Chinese vehicle seems to have been able maneuver itself on reentry in ways we haven’t quite achieved, and clearly, they now have the manufacturing capability to match our once bleeding edge. Remember for a minute that the Russian Fractional Orbital Bombardment System became less relevant once satellites could track them. Well, satellites have a much harder time tracking vehicles like these. 

Chinese Hypersonic Missiles

But It’s not quite the Sputnik moment some alarmists have made it out to be, at least according to Robert Bakos, co-owner of Innoveering a Hypersonic Vehicle Propulsion company, as stated in Space News article titled China’s hypersonic vehicle test a ‘significant demonstration’ of space technology” published October 22nd, 2021. And his main reasoning is that China’s nuclear threat to the US is nothing new. China is also capable of putting satellites, people, and whole space stations in orbit now as well. 

Americas time alone at the top is over one way or another. 

What do you think? Did China launch a new weapon to rival those of the Americans? Or is the American Military Industrial Complex just holding its hands out for more money? Both?


That’s all for this episode, be sure to check out the link in the description for refences to all the cool things mentioned in this episode and some pictures of the craft in question!


Cya Next Time