In January 2019, Florence Parly, then Minister of the Armed Forces, announced that the Directorate General of Armaments [DGA] was going to notify a contract relating to developing a hypersonic glider demonstrator called V-Max (Véhicule Manoeuvrant Experimental).
“We have decided to conclude a contract for the creation of a hypersonic glider running mock-up demonstrator,” Florence Parly, then Minister of the Armed Forces, said. She said the hypersonic glider being created should be able to fly at a speed of more than 6 thousand km / h (5 Mach numbers). She said the first test flight is scheduled for the period until the end of 2021.
Many countries are now being equipped with such weapons. France cannot afford to wait,” Parley said. At that time, three of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council were already implementing their own hypersonic weapons programs: the United States, Russia and China.
At the time, Russia was preparing to deploy the Avangard system, consisting of a hypersonic glider powered by an RS-18/SS-19 intercontinental ballistic missile. China had taken the same path with the DF-17 (or Wu-14), apparently operational today. The same goes for the United States, with the “C-HGB” (Common Hypersonic Glide Body) program, which is still under development.
The V-MAX glider, which was announced by the French Minister of Defense Florence Parly, was a project much less ambitious in terms of speed. But it was still very fast.
The V-MaX project
Hypersonic weapons do not replace intercontinental strategic missiles. Rather, hypersonic units are used as the payload in intercontinental missiles. They fool air defence systems by altering their trajectory and altitude in the layers of the atmosphere, and hypersonic missiles are extremely difficult to intercept since it is impossible to forecast their trajectory and which target they will hit. It is especially dangerous from a short distance since there will be little time to respond.
The French hypersonic glider developed in the early stages of the programme would be mounted on a guided or unguided missile. France was already developing hypersonic propulsion systems as part of the improvement of its nuclear weapons arsenal – the modernization of the ASMP medium-range missile and the creation of its hypersonic version – the fourth-generation aviation nuclear missile ASN4G.
In March 2021, Joël Barre, then Direction générale de l’Armement (DGA), wrote in the newspaper ‘Les Échos’ that the V-Max project would be carried out by ArianeGroup, based on the Office’s research national body for aerospace studies and research [ONERA]. He said the glide vehicle would be sent by a sounding rocket; the unpropelled glider must then bounce off the layers of the atmosphere at a speed greater than Mach 5 before specifying the technological progress to be made.
It is necessary “to master the manoeuvrability at very high speed in layers of the lower atmosphere requires to invent a new guidance system and to find new materials resistant to heat, which poses immense challenges”, he wrote.
A similar old project
According to Zone Militaire, in the 1960s, France hoped to create a hypersonic glider as part of the “VERAS” programme (Experimental vehicle for aerothermodynamic and structural research). It was initiated by the Department of Research and Testing Resources (DRME). It was a project of the Ministry of Armaments (DMA, forerunner of the modern DGA), with help from ONERA.
In 1965, the DRME notified the Nord-Aviation company to conduct a study to produce this hypersonic glider. Other companies and laboratories were involved, including Carbonne Lorraine, Pechiney, the National Institute of Applied Sciences (INSA), the University of Poitiers and the Toulouse Aerospace Test Center (CEAT).
This hypersonic glider, weighing roughly a tonne, was to be powered by a Diamant A (or Emerald) rocket. Engineers at the time picked a niobium alloy combining titanium, vanadium, and zirconium to survive the intense heat inherent in hypersonic flight. Pechiney created it under the name P333.
In 1967, the findings of the feasibility study for this programme were presented to the Ministry of the Armed Forces. The VERAS was officially introduced in 1968 and shown at the Paris Air Show the following year before being scrapped in 1971, only months before its first flight at the Landes Test Center.
The VERAS project was initiated immediately after the cancellation of the “Minerve” programme, which planned to build a nuclear-capable aeroballistic missile – the Matra 600 – for Bréguet’s Br.1180 supersonic, twin-engine bomber. Russia (with the Kinjal hypersonic aeroballistic vehicle) and China have since adopted this concept (H-AS-X-13, carried by the H-6N bomber).
The future of French hypersonic missile projects
In addition to the V-MAX, France is also developing the ASTREE project, which should result in a mixed ramjet, i.e. an engine capable of successively carrying out subsonic and supersonic combustion to achieve hypersonic speed. This engine will be used for the hypervelocity missile ASN4G, which will replace the ASMP-A (for Air-Sol Moyenne Portée – Amélioré) of the Strategic Air Forces by 2035.