The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has selected Boeing on 11 September 2023, under its Glide Breaker programme, to develop and test technologies for a hypersonic interceptor prototype.

“Hypersonic vehicles are among the most dangerous and rapidly evolving threats facing national security,” said Gil Griffin, executive director of Boeing Phantom Works Advanced Weapons. “We’re focusing on the technological understanding needed to further develop our nation’s counter-hypersonic capabilities and defend from future threats.”

Under Glide Breaker, DARPA will inform the design and development of future hypersonic interceptors. This future missile technology destroys threats that travel at least five times the speed of sound (Mach 5) in the upper atmosphere during what is known as the “glide phase” of flight.

“This phase of the Glide Breaker programme will determine how factors like hypersonic airflow and firing jet thrusters to guide the vehicle affect system performance at extreme speed and altitude in a representative digital environment,” said Griffin. “We’re operating on the cutting edge of what’s possible in terms of intercepting an extremely fast object in an incredibly dynamic environment.”

The current stage of hypersonic development

Increasing multi-polarity (particularly the war in Ukraine) have driven intense investment in hypersonics by countries such as Russia, China, and the US. The reported use of hypersonic missiles in Ukraine – such as the ‘Kinzhal’ missile – represents the first time the weapons have been deployed operationally.

While hypersonics have been generating fears of escalating global competition for weaponry that has the potential to render current defences inadequate, the reality is that the technology remains at a formative stage.

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Since May this year, the US Department of Defense (DoD) announced that it has awarded three contracts that strengthen the supply chains for hypersonic systems, a key capability concern for the US government, as it seeks to maintain its competitive military advantage over China and Russia.

Under these contracts, General Electric and Northrop Grumman are both increasing the capacity for the production of high and ultra-high temperature composites (U/HTC) – materials with a high melting point in the face of extreme heat intensity at speeds of Mach 5 and higher.

Contrariwise, the US Navy has recently fast-tracked the development of its Conventional Prompt Strike weapon system – a hypersonic missile launcher – to be trialed onboard its Zumwalt-class destroyers.

While the DoD are still in the process of developing and trialing the impact of these advanced missile technologies, global defence efforts to develop any sort of countermeasure such as Boeing’s future interceptor will certainly take time to develop effectively for fielding; even while the incentive of geopolitical competition may well push boundaries faster.