Putting the word ‘hypersonic’ in front of any noun, be it glider, gun or golf club, sounds a little threatening. Add the People’s Republic of China to the mix, and suddenly we all have reason to be worried. Or do we?
Last week, China conducted its fourth successful test of the Wu-15 hypersonic strike vehicle, which has the capability to carry nuclear warheads. Not only can the Wu-15 reach speeds far above Mach 5 (aka one mile per second), but it can deploy missiles so quickly that U.S. missile defenses will be too slow to shoot them down.
While this is indeed alarming, consider that the United States has had hypersonic technology since 1949. Consider that hypersonic speeds are so incredibly fast that only a handful of have the resources to build the technology, let alone people qualified to fly them. Also, consider that test conditions for new technology rarely compare to real flight situations with, you know, weather and stuff.
Amid the hysteria surrounding hypersonic everything, Vice put it best:
People have had the ability to make things go at hypersonic speeds for a long time, but they can’t steer the vehicle or generate thrust. The fourth and most recent Chinese test isn’t important because the vehicle is traveling at hypersonic speeds, it’s the fact that they were able to steer it during hypersonic flight. But the ability to carry out maneuvers at hypersonic speeds in a test scenario is a long way off from having a working hypersonic weapon. In the end, hypersonic speeds are possible. The part about doing anything useful with that speed is still a ways off.