Working Hypersonic Cruise Missiles: MBDA Provides an Update


By Pierre Tran

Paris – There appears to be no problem in setting up flight tests of a French technology demonstrator for a hypersonic cruise missile in the U.S., the executive chairman of European missile company MBDA said April 6.

“I am not aware of any particular problem,” Eric Béranger said on the margins of a press conference, when asked why a test flight of the demonstrator, dubbed Lea, had yet to be made.

Hypersonic missiles – weapons which fly at Mach 5 and above – have hit headlines around the world, with Australia, the U.K. and U.S. saying they will cooperate on the high tech weapons through the trilateral AUKUS alliance.

“We also committed today to commence new trilateral cooperation on hypersonics and counter-hypersonics, and electronic warfare capabilities, as well as to expand information sharing and to deepen cooperation on defense innovation,” the partner nations said April 5 in a joint statement.

That extension of Western cooperation followed Russia’s March 19 statement of the first combat use of the air-launched hypersonic cruise missile, dubbed Kinzhal or Dagger, in the assault on Ukraine. The Russians released a video of that airstrike and Moscow also released Russian television reporting in December 2021 of a naval launch of a Zircon hypersonic cruise missile, with British tabloid dailies showing March 14 the video on their websites.

Béranger said he had read media reports of the AUKUS statement, and while he could not comment on the contents, it was clear MBDA has been working on hypersonic technology for “decades.”

“This is a capability where we are extremely competent,” he said. “You know that we are developing something which is hypersonic. And so in terms of technical capability, MBDA doesn’t have anything to envy anybody.”

MBDA has been working with Onera, he said, and is working on a program for a fourth generation air-launched, nuclear-tipped missile, with the project name ASN4G. Onera is the French research agency for civil and military technology. The planned hypersonic, scramjet air-launched nuclear missile would fit on a planned next generation fighter, replacing the supersonic ASMP-A atomic weapon carried on the Rafale fighter jet.

The flight test of Lea had been due to take place at a U.S. air base on the East coast in a few months, an Onera executive said last July. The French project name Lea comes from the Russian phrase for “flight test vehicle,” a RAND report on non-proliferation of hypersonic missiles said in 2017.

“Our research suggests that France could play a key role in organizing the international community for such (non-proliferation) controls, the report said.

French flight tests of Lea had been planned in Russia in 2014-15, the report said, and it was not clear whether those tests had been conducted. Full-scale wind tunnel tests to Mach 6 were conducted on Lea in 2012.

Flight tests of Lea had been planned on a Russian Tupolev Tu-22 M3 “Backfire” bomber to test the missile at Mach 4-8, Onera and MBDA said in a 2009 Nato research note. That planned flight test would have used a booster based on the Russian Raduga AS4 missile.

The NATO research note appeared a year after the Russian 2008 invasion of Georgia ordered by president Vladimir Putin.

The planned Lea flight tests in Russia in 2014-15 would have taken place around the time of Putin’s ordering annexation of the Ukrainian Crimea peninsula, and backing Russian separatist movements seizing control in the Donbass region, eastern Ukraine.

Western allies have been criticized for failing to act earlier against Moscow, amid extensive news coverage of summary execution, torture, and harsh treatment of Ukrainian civilians by occupying Russian troops.

The Ukrainian services have forced a Russian retreat from the north, with a redeployment back to the east of the partially occupied country. France 24 television channel ran a check of “truth or fake” on a video released by the Russian defense ministry claiming to be the Kinzahl hypersonic missile strike of the Deliatyn underground ammunition dump in western Ukraine.

With the help of satellite imagery, the television reporter showed the Russian video was the replay of an airstrike the week before, against a farmhouse some 1,000 km away in the east of Ukraine, not the munitions storage site.

In French projects on hypersonic weapons, ArianeGroup was flight testing a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) in a “proof-of-concept for a future deep-strike weapon,” Aviation Week Aerospace Daily & Defense Report said Dec. 21. That hypersonic demonstrator was part of the Experimental Maneuvering Vehicle (V-Max) program announced in 2019.

The demonstrator was being tested in Onera’s S4 wind tunnel, the report said, and the planned hypersonic weapon would be armed with a conventional warhead. ArianeGroup builds space launchers and is a joint venture between Airbus and Safran.

The State of the U.S. Efforts

An official U.S. report on research on hypersonic missiles for American forces said test flight facilities were struggling to meet deadlines.

The General Accountability Office published March 22, 2022 a report on work on hypersonic weapons, based on a January report which contained classified information. The 54-page report pointed up aggressive schedules, with program officials and documents admitting the timetable for delivering operational hypersonic missiles was “ambitious.”

Those timetables depended on other programs, and “will be difficult to achieve,” the report said. Logistical difficulties for test flights were among the problems, leading the defense department to explore “international partnerships that could provide access to overland flight ranges.”

Australia has the Woomera test range, South Australia, where the U.K. conducted in 2013 and 2014 test flights of the Taranis demonstrator for an unmanned combat aerial vehicle. The Queensland authorities said in November a test flight range for drones was open for business.

Some $15 billion has been earmarked for fiscal years 2015 through 2024, to fund 70 projects to develop U.S. hypersonic weapons and related technology, the GAO said, with the defense department accounting for most of the funds. The Pentagon works with the department of energy and Nasa.

There were difficulties on test flights on the hypersonic air-launched weapon, which put pressure on deadlines for an operational deployment.

“We found in June 2020 that the Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon program experienced a cascading delay of all four of its planned flight tests, which put additional pressure on the program’s plans to achieve an operational capability by the end of fiscal year 2022,” the report said.

The Pentagon needed to tighten program management to avoid wasting money.

“Without clear leadership roles, responsibilities, and authorities, DOD (department of defense) is at risk of impeding its progress toward delivering hypersonic weapon capabilities and opening up the potential for conflict and wasted resources as decisions over larger investments are made in the future,” the GAO said. The defense department agreed with the recommendation for closer management.

The featured photo is of Eric Béranger at the April 6, 2022 press conference. Credit: MBDA

And on the MBDA website, Eric Béranger is quoted at the press conference as follows:

“Our mission is crystal clear – to support the sovereignty and peaceful prosperity of our nations by delivering the essential military capabilities that they need.

In these troubled times and in such a fast-moving environment, sovereignty and the capacity to adapt are the priorities for our industry.

In 2021, MBDA managed to continue to deliver on its mission with great commitment and for this I want to thank the tireless team spirit and resilience of everyone in MBDA. Now more than ever, we see how vital defence is for our society”.