Imagine a hypersonic vehicle that whooshes through the sky at 20 times the speed of sound and may or may not have a nuclear warhead on board. No, this is not a movie scene.
Such a weapon, codename Avangard, does exist, and is currently being developed by the Russian military to ride an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) into space and zoom back down at speeds up to Mach 20. Even scarier is that it could be looming overhead sooner than you think. Last week, U.S. intelligence sources recently told CNBC that this thing has not only been successfully tested several times (which is terrifying enough) but could actually be wielded against an enemy by 2020.
But how close is it to being fully operational? The Russians have already bypassed one obstacle.
"Designing a successful propulsion system at Mach 10 or above is extraordinarily challenging," University of Notre Dame assistant professor of aerospace engineering Thomas Juliano told Space.com. "By putting the glider on top of an ICBM, you avoid the need to design a successful hypersonic air-breathing engine."
Waveriders can reach such incredible speeds because these hypersonic aircraft use another means of propulsion to accelerate them before they can actually take off. They get even more lift from their wedge-shaped fuselages and streamlined silhouette, designed to ride the shockwave their carrier aircraft generates as it zooms upward and out of the atmosphere on a parabolic trajectory. When it is released by its carrier at the top of that parabola, the waverider will plummet through the atmosphere toward inevitable doom.
The USAF X-51 Scramjet operates similarly if you factor out the missile and nuclear warhead, but both U.S. attempts to create a vehicle like Avangard crashed and burned.
Avangard’s effectiveness and capabilities are still unclear. Its objective is to outsmart U.S. missile defense systems, which really only work in space. They don’t do well with intercepting anything that plunges back into the atmosphere at speeds that intense. The Pentagon is considering sending up satellites that would detect weapons in the upper atmosphere, but that technology is also nebulous.
Before you start marathoning Doomsday Preppers, getting the design right could prove to be a issue for Russia, even though the claims floating around say it can maneuver through almost anything. The shockwave surfed by a waverider can make it difficult to control. Air rushing over the vehicle can really get in the way if its airfoils need to be adjusted, and the slightest shift could have massive consequences.
"It has to be precise,” Juliano said. “It has to operate quickly and it's a much harder environment to predict."
For now, the best chance we have against Avangard is our technology keeping up with it.