Hypersonic fever: France enters the INVINCIBLE gliders game, but does it have what it takes?

Hypersonic fever: France enters the INVINCIBLE gliders game, but does it have what it takes?
The French Defense Ministry says it’s embarked on its own hypersonic glider quest, promising to test a prototype missile shield-piercing device in 2021, after Russia and China tested their gliders and the US began developing one.

The question now is whether Paris is able to deliver on the ambitious –and potentially costly– military project, as questions have been raised whether it would even have a plane to lift off such a weapon.

“We have decided to issue a contract for a hypersonic glider demonstrator,” Defense Minister Florence Parly said late in January, unveiling the V-MaX (Experimental Maneuvering Vehicle) project. 

Many countries are acquiring them and we have the know-how to develop them. We could no longer afford to wait.

The hypersonic weaponry systems have been truly a hot thing among the major powers lately, with several of them successfully testing such devices or, at least, embarking on research and development programs.

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Last March, Russia unveiled a whole range of entirely new weapons, including two hypersonic devices, the Kinzhal air-launched missile and the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle. The first system, said to be capable of flying at least 10 times faster than sound, has been already deployed to the Russian Air Force. The Avangard, capable of reaching a whopping Mach 27 speed, was successfully tested late last year. The system is launched atop an inter-continental ballistic missile and serves as a delivery vehicle for a nuclear warhead.

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China has also carried out a series of successful tests on a hypersonic glider vehicle since 2014. The device is said to be capable of reaching speeds up to Mach 10. The United States, for its part, admitted that it has been dragging behind the two military powers, and hastily launched a program to design such weaponry of its own. At the same time, the US embarked on studying the feasibility of space-based interceptor systems in an attempt to counter foreign weapon systems – which, as of now, are widely believed to be invincible against conventional missile-defense systems.

What exactly might a French hypersonic glider be?

The promised three-year deadline to test-fly the French hypersonic glider is, in fact, an extremely short term facing the developers. The very nature of the upcoming device still remains a mystery.

Given the fact that France discontinued its ground-based nuclear forces in 1990s, it can be assumed that the “demonstrator” will likely be an air-launched device. France surely has some experience in building fast missiles – its main nuclear tipped air-to-surface cruise missile, the ASMP, is capable of flying up to Mach 3. To be deemed hypersonic, the new device must be capable of flying at least five times the speed of sound.

Earlier, the French Directorate General of Armaments (DGA) admitted that the country had “relatively little experience” in the hypersonic field. The Secretariat for National Defense and Security (SGDSN) for its part warned in 2017 that the first homegrown device would likely be lacking “in terms of payload, flight time and precision” – in all the key aspects, basically.

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But if the new device is indeed an air-launched missile, it remains an open question which plane would be able to carry it. The main French jets, the Dassault Rafale and Mirage 2000, are unlikely to be capable of carrying something as bulky as a Russian Kinzhal. This means the designers will either have to come up with something more sleek or France will have to develop a new plane as well as the glider.

“Regarding the capabilities of the fifth republic to create hypersonic weaponry – France has all the technology,” Mikhail Khodarenok, a Russian military expert, told RT, adding that the whole question is about the amount of time the country would actually spend designing it.

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The efforts of France –alongside Germany and Spain– to develop a sixth gen fighter jet clearly show their capabilities, Khodarenok stressed, stating that “it's as complicated an objective as hypersonic” vehicles. The upcoming plane, however, is in the distant future, as its demonstrator is expected to be ready in mid-2020s and fielded no sooner than 2040.

Why does France need it?

Apart from the openly stated desire to get the shiny toy other big boys are keen on, the likely answer is to bolster its ageing nuclear arsenal. As France’s nuclear warheads are fitted either to air-launched cruise missiles or submarine-based ballistic ones, Paris is likely seeking to prop up the first component, Khodarenok believes.

“France seeks to utilize hypersonic missiles as the carriers of its nuclear weaponry. Paris’ arsenal of weapons of mass destruction is rather small and the desire to give it some shades of invincibility is evident,” the expert stated.

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