An Anglo-French collaboration has bagged a contract to develop the second hypersonic interceptor that can neutralise Russia’s hypersonic missiles as part of a Western effort to counteract Moscow’s efforts to create new technology.
According to reports, the defensive system could be deployed across Europe to intercept missiles that travel at velocities of 11,000 kilometres per hour (about 9 Mach) and are incapable of intercepting by existing means. The hypersonic interceptor must have sophisticated sensors, efficient actuators for high manoeuvrability, and endoatmospheric. This implies that its range must be within the atmosphere or less than 1,000 kilometres above the surface of the Earth. And it must be able to “counter threats beyond 2035,” according to the EU requirements.
The HYDIS hypersonic interceptor is being created by a team managed by MBDA, partially owned by the British BAE Systems. MBDA has entered into preliminary agreements with France, Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands to develop a prototype system over the next three years. The agreement was inked on June 19 during the Le Bourget Air Show in Paris. Finland, Estonia, Sweden, Denmark, Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Austria, Spain and Belgium have expressed their desire to join the project.
Hypersonic carriers attain speeds of at least 5 Mach (6,125 km/h), or five times the speed of sound. In addition to being extremely rapid, their flight trajectory is unpredictable, making them difficult to track.
The introduction of new, and in some cases disruptive, weapons systems into combat has been a major factor in the instability of the balance of military power. This is the case with Russia’s hypersonic missiles, such as the Avangard, which, according to Moscow, soars at Mach 20 and can reach Mach 27 (27 times the speed of sound) or more than 33,000 kilometres per hour. Therefore, detecting, monitoring, shooting down, and stopping it from causing damage is extremely difficult.
Vladimir Putin described the 3M22 “Zircon” anti-ship missile as “invincible” in 2018. This missile is in the Russian armament. Last year, the Russian military tested it on a naval vessel.
Naval ships are considered vulnerable to attack, mainly when multiple armament types are employed simultaneously. This poses a significant threat to the aircraft carriers used by the West to demonstrate its global dominance.
Qinetiq and Cohort PLC, two British companies, are also working on a solution; Qinetiq is exploring using a laser weapon named “Dragonfire” to intercept and destroy incoming missiles. Cohort PLC has a Trainable Decoy Launcher System to counter the threat posed by hypersonic and multimode seeker heads, developed with assistance from Cohort companies Chess and MASS. In a 2017 press release, the company discussed automated Electronic Warfare (EW) responses to protect ships from hypersonics.
European Hypersonic Defence Projects – HYDEF and HYDIS
In November 2019, the European Commission designated MBDA to coordinate the TWISTER project (Timely Warning and Interception with Space-based Theatre surveillance), which was selected under the Permanent Structured Cooperation [PESCO] to lay the groundwork for a defence system against hypersonic threats based on an endo-atmospheric multi-role interceptor.
Then, two years later, the European Commission selected the German company OHB to head the development of a space-based early-warning component for the ODIN’S EYE project (multinational Development Initiative for a Space-based Missile Early Warning Architecture).
The European Union (EU) launched the EU HYDEF project (European Hypersonic Defence Interceptor) in July 2022 to resume the TWISTER project’s work. The coordination of this programme, which was funded with 100 million euros, was entrusted to the Spanish firm SENER Aeroespacial, which has limited expertise in air defence in general and hypersonics in particular.
There are thirteen European companies and institutions and six Spanish: Escribano E&M, GMV, and Sener Aerospace, which make up the SMS alliance, also known as the Spanish Missile System. The project coordinator’s credentials demonstrate more than twenty years of experience in the missile field.
Sener Aerospace is the design authority for the actuator control system of the high-speed and manoeuvrable Iris-T and Meteor air-to-air missiles, as well as the KEPD 350 Taurus air-to-ground cruise missile, the RBS-70 NG short-range surface-to-air missile of the Swedish manufacturer Saab, and the NSM anti-ship missile of the Norwegian Kongsberg.
The company, led by Angel Escribano, is developing vision technologies in the visible and infrared spectrums as well as guidance and navigation systems for smart munitions, while GMV’s defence division, led by Manuel Peréz Cortés, is contributing its robotics, simulation, and critical software technologies, which are essential for missile guidance, navigation, and control. Instalaza, the National Institute of Aerospace Technology (INTA), and Navantia provide complementary technological capabilities and decades of experience developing, testing, and certifying defence products.
Germany’s Diehl, which specialises in missile development; Sweden’s Ruag Space, which focuses on aerostructures; Norway’s Nammo, which focuses on propulsion; two Polish institutes, the Air Force Technology Institute and the Lukasiewicz Research Network Aviation Institute; Belgium’s National Aerospace Construction Company (SONACA); and the Czech engineering company LK, make up the remaining seven. Each entity’s contribution to the undertaking is described in detail.
From Sener Aerospace’s perspective, the merit rests in the quality of its candidature, the rigour of its documentary approach, and the strength of its technical offer, all of which merited a much higher evaluation than the alternatives presented.
The hypersonic interceptor project of Sener Aerospace had competed against and surpassed that of the consortium of companies headed by MBDA France. The MBDA Aquila project did not persuade Brussels, so it was rejected in the first call for proposals from the European Defence Fund.
However, France, the only European nation developing hypersonic weapons (the ASN4G missile and the V-MAX glider) and possessing extensive experience with ballistic missiles, was excluded from the HYDEF project. Initially, Spain, Germany (with Diehl Defence), Belgium, Norway (a non-EU member), Poland, the Czech Republic, and Sweden were slated to participate in the initiative. Also excluded was Italy, which had some experience with the Franco-Italian SAMP/T (Surface-to-Air Missile Platform/Terrestrial) system. The European Sky Shield does not include France or Italy either.
So MBDA didn’t want to leave it at that, and the case was taken to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU).
In a paper released by the Official Journal of the European Union in January 2023, MBDA said that the Commission made several clear mistakes in evaluating the HYDIS proposal. They said that the European executive had ignored the idea of the design phase and rejected the HYDIS plan based on clearly irrelevant things during this phase.
The Commission turned down the HYDIS plan mainly because it didn’t have enough information about some parts. But according to the concept of good administration, the Commission had to find out all the facts, even if that meant asking the person who requested more information. This is especially true when the future security of Member States and Union citizens is at stake. The Commission could have asked for the information and received it. Instead, the Commission’s lack of action and failure to gather essential facts led to a breach of the principle of good administration, argued MBDA.
Clearly, the suit had the required effect, and MBDA has gotten back on its feet and will now lead a second European project called HYDIS. The group discussed the idea at the International Paris Air Show at Le Bourget. With 80 million euros from Europe, the HYDIS project builds on what was learned from the Aquila interception project. More importantly, it brings together 19 partners and more than 30 subcontractors from 14 European countries, including France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Germany, which keeps a stake in both programmes.
The consortium members are military groups, universities, SMEs, and mid-cap companies. They all have strong and well-known expertise in the technologies and critical areas needed to study a new interceptor like this, MBDA said.
Currently, two European defence projects against hypersonic missiles are ongoing. Eventually, They will converge, or the superior solution will be selected as the dominant one. The competition between these initiatives will likely determine the future direction of European hypersonic defence capabilities.
Meanwhile, on June 14, the state-of-the-art hypersonic missile interceptor known as “Sky Sonic” from the Israeli company RAFAEL Advanced Defence Systems Ltd was unveiled for the first time at the Paris Air Show.