The US Air Force is awarding almost $1 billion (£700m) to Lockheed Martin to develop a hypersonic missile as it tries to keep up with recent strides made by Russia and China in building ever faster weapons.
Moscow last month claimed the lead in the race to develop missiles that can travel at many times the speed of sound. Its defence ministry revealed video footage of its plane-launched Kinzhal missile, which is reportedly capable of accelerating to ten times the speed of sound.
American officials have also expressed concern that China was building missiles that could outrace or outfox its existing defence and interceptor systems.
Now the Pentagon says Lockheed is to receive up to $929 million to design and build a “hypersonic conventional strike weapon”.
“This contract provides for the design, development, engineering, systems integration, test, logistics planning, and aircraft integration support of all the elements of a hypersonic, conventional, air-launched, stand-off weapon,” it said in a statement.
Not only can they outrun efforts to shoot them down, but they can be manoeuvred in-flight unlike ballistic missiles that follow parabolic trajectories.
Last month, Vladimir Putin claimed that Russia had tested a new generation of nuclear weapons that were invulnerable to US missile defences.
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His rhetoric was backed up days later when the defence ministry released footage of a Kinzhal – Russian for “dagger” – missile being launched from a Mig-31 fighter jet.
Earlier this week, Mike Griffin, the Pentagon’s new defence undersecretary for research and engineering told Congress that China had also pulled ahead of the US in hypersonic technologies.
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“Our adversaries are presenting us today with a renewed challenge of a sophisticated, evolving threat,” he told the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.
“We are in turn preparing to meet that challenge and to restore the technical overmatch of the United States armed forces that we have traditionally held.”
He has repeatedly warned that time is running out for the US to maintain its technological dominance over enemies.