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US tests Raytheon hypersonic weapon, as China unveils military drones

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The US has tested an air-breathing hypersonic weapon capable of speeds faster than five times the speed of sound, marking the first successful test of the class of weapon since 2013, the Pentagon said on Monday. Meanwhile, China is preparing to unveil new high-performance military drones and a Moon rocket at an air show in the country.

The test by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) took place as the US and its global rivals quicken their pace to build hypersonic weapons - the next generation of arms that rob adversaries of reaction time and traditional defeat mechanisms.

In July this year, Russia said it had successfully tested a Tsirkon (Zircon) hypersonic cruise missile, a weapon President Vladimir Putin has touted as part of a new generation of missile systems without equal in the world.

The US' free flight test of its Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) occurred last week, DARPA said in a statement.

"This brings us one step closer to transitioning HAWC to a programme of record that offers next generation capability to the US military," said Andrew Knoedler, HAWC programme manager in DARPA's Tactical Technology Office. There is no target date for that transition, but Knoedler told Reuters, "We are readying our next vehicles and working toward additional flight tests later in the year."

Hypersonic weapons travel in the upper atmosphere at speeds of more than five times the speed of sound - around 6,200km (3,850 miles) per hour.

"The missile, built by Raytheon Technologies, was released from an aircraft seconds before its Northrop Grumman scramjet (supersonic combustion ramjet) engine kicked on," DARPA said.

Wes Kremer, president of Raytheon's Missiles & Defense business unit, said: "The DoD (Department of Defense) has identified hypersonic weapons and counter-hypersonic capabilities as the highest technical priorities for our nation's security.

"The United States, and our allies, must have the ability to deter the use of these weapons and the capabilities to defeat them," he added.

Tom Karako, an analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, told Reuters: "Investments in hypersonic strike have begun to pay dividends, answering the progress already made by the likes of Russia and China".

In 2019, Raytheon teamed up with Northrop Grumman to develop and produce engines for hypersonic weapons. Northrop's scramjet engine technology uses the vehicle's high speed to forcibly compress incoming air before combustion to enable sustained flight at hypersonic speeds.

"The HAWC vehicle operates best in an oxygen-rich atmosphere, where speed and manoeuvrability make it difficult to detect in a timely way. It could strike targets much more quickly than subsonic missiles and has significant kinetic energy even without high explosives," DARPA said.

Dan Olson, vice president of Northrop Grumman's Weapon Systems Division, said that "decades of learning advanced manufacturing techniques and industry partnerships helped us define what is now possible."

Meanwhile in China, a military drone said to be able to cruise for 20 hours at 50,000ft is among warplanes, missiles and other weapons technology being shown in public for the first time at the country’s biggest air show.

The Chinese space programme also plans to unveil a rocket for crewed space flight capable of carrying a 25-tonne payload to lunar orbit at the 13th China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition in Zhuhai, in the southern Guangdong province, an official newspaper said. The event, which runs until Sunday, was postponed from late 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The ruling Communist Party is pouring billions of pounds into developing fighter jets, stealth technology, drones and other hardware for its military wing, the People’s Liberation Army, as it presses its claims over disputed seas and other territory.

Powered by two turbofan engines, the CH-6 drone can carry early warning radar, air-to-ground missiles and other weapons, according to its manufacturer, the China Academy of Aerospace Science, a subsidiary of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation.

The newspaper, Global Times - which is published by the ruling party - said the CH-6 is aimed at “high-end arms and dual-use markets” but gave no indication as to which governments the company might try to sell it to.

The China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology plans to unveil a “next-generation manned carrier rocket and a heavy-lift launch vehicle”, the Global Times said. It said the 2,000-tonne, three-stage rocket would “support China’s manned lunar probes.”

Also at the air show, the PLA’s air force planned to display a J-16D electronic warfare aircraft for the first time, according to the official China News Service.

China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp displayed an array of new missiles for the first time. The China Academy of Aerospace Science also plans to show a mini-attack drone, the CH-817. It said the 800-gramme drone can be used by soldiers or can be released from a bigger drone.

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