Russia jump-starts hypersonic flight research

A hypersonic flying laboratory proposed by TsIAM and LII institutes during the 2000s. Click red arrows to rotate model. Copyright © 2009, 2013 Anatoly Zak


In early 2010s, Russia appeared to be accelerating development of hypersonic vehicles capable of flying four or five times faster than the speed of sound. First and foremost this cutting-edge field of aerospace promises to advance military missiles, however the same technology has the potential to revolutionize the future of aircraft and space transportation.

In 2009, the Russian Ministry of Defense reportedly resumed funding for research into these exotic systems, however three years later the nation significantly lagged behind the United States in hypersonic weapons, Vice Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said during his visit to MKB Raduga specialized in tactical missiles. He called for boosting the status of hypersonic development programs to the highest priority level.

Rogozin's words had a seemingly remarkable effect, because only a few months after the speech, the Izvestiya daily reported that the prototype of an unidentified supersonic vehicle had undergone so-called "throw" tests at the Akhtubinsk State Flight Research Center sometime in 2012.

According to the newspaper, the hypersonic vehicle was dropped from a carrier aircraft and then fired its engine for a short period of time without attaining the speed of sound. (It should be noted that the term "throw test" usually implies an unpowered flight.) Sources quoted by the paper, promised another, full-speed flight test of the hypersonic missile in Akhtubinsk in July or August 2013. (621) The Akhtubinsk site is essentially an extension of the historic rocket-testing and launch range near Kapustin Yar on the Volga River.

The term "hypersonic" is usually applied to flight at speeds of Mach 4 and faster, where Mach is a speed of sound. Depending on the altitude, the speed of sound can vary. At speeds of Mach 4 and 5, vehicles experience a sharp increase in temperatures of their skin and face more complex aerodynamic processes unseen at lower speeds. Last but not least, accelerating and sustaining the vehicle at hypersonic speeds requires complex multi-mode propulsion systems.

The resolution of enormous technical challenges long facing flight at speeds of Mach 5 and beyond would allow to build more advanced cruise missiles, but also to develop new-generation of launch vehicles, super-fast suborbital aircraft and, possibly, manned space planes capable of reaching orbit after a horizontal takeoff from a runway. Proponents of the technology believe that it would drastically cut the cost of access to orbit, when compared to the use of traditional rockets.

Origin of Russian hypersonic research

Work in the field of hypersonic vehicles first flourished in the USSR during the development of ballistic missiles. To understand the behavior of rockets and their warheads during the atmospheric phase of the flight, design bureaus turned to the Central Aviation and Hydro-dynamics Institute, TsAGI, with its huge wind tunnels in the town of Zhukovsky, south of Moscow. Upon conquering most technical problems of missiles, in August 1962, TsAGI started research in the field of space planes. In 1966, the institute joined forces with the Mikoyan design bureau, developer of the famous MiG fighter jets, to develop the Spiral space plane.

In the 1970s, TsAGI focused its research on hypersonic aircraft and cruise missiles that were intended to achieve sustained and stable flight in the atmosphere at this enormous speed. Along with problems of aerodynamics, the need for a new type of propulsion came to the forefront. By the end of the 1970s, TsAGI and its sister institute, TsIAM, already started considering hybrid engines, capable of changing their propulsion modes as the vehicle accelerated and climbed through the atmosphere.

In May 1978, TsAGI joined forces with the department of mechanics and control problems of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. Along with the Military and Technical Council of the Ministry of Defense, aviation specialists held conferences on the problems of hypersonic flight in 1979 and 1984. Still, with huge technical problems to overcome, most of the projects remained in purely experimental stage. (318)

In the post-Soviet period, Russian aviation research organizations, such as TsAGI, Flight Research Institute, LII, and TsIAM demonstrated a number of experimental prototypes for testing critical principles of hypersonic flight. In early 1998, a modified anti-aircraft rocket launched the so-called Kholod scramjet vehicle to a speed of Mach 6. Its 58L engine burining liquid hydrogen was developed at the KBKhA design bureau in the city of Voronezh.

Practical developments

Along with fundamental research and experimental work, the Soviet rocket industry embarked on a number of relatively small-scale weapons projects, which tackled problems of sustained hypersonic flight in the Earth atmosphere.

The design bureau led by Vladimir Chelomei considered various projects of hypersonic vehicles in conjunction with development of the UR-200 ballistic missile. An experimental vehicle designed to test principles of hypersonic flight was reportedly tested but the program was discontinued in 1965. By the 21st century, Chelomei's bureau, now known as NPO Mashinostroenia reportedly worked on a hypersonic vehicle known as 4202.

In 1997, MKB Raduga based in Dubna, unveiled the GELA Kh-90 supersonic vehicle, which became known in the West as AS-19 Koala. This large cruise missile was designed to be dropped from a modified Tu-160M aircraft and then cover 3,000 kilometers at hypersonic speed. It could reportedly release two nuclear warheads capable of hitting targets as far as 100 kilometers from the point of separation from their "mothership." There were apparently plans to deploy Kh-90 as a replacement for the operational Kh-55 cruise missile, however the project was reportedly stalled by financial problems as early as 1992.

Yet, in the first decade of the 21century, both national and Western media reported testing in Russia of maneuverable hypersonic warheads carried by the Topol-M ballistic missile. Little is known about these systems, however, Russian military officials have continued referring to highly maneuverable vehicles serving as upper stages of newest ballistic missiles. They are reportedly capable of avoiding enemy's anti-missile defenses thanks to their ability to maneuver widely during their descent. It is unclear whether these devices are gliders using the aerodynamic forces to maneuver, or they have a propulsion system.

Work at NPO Energomash and KBKhA

In June 2013, NPO Energomash announced that it was conducting preliminary studies (known in Russia as NIR) of a small hypersonic ramjet engine with a thrust of 500 kilograms and enabling to develop a speed of more than Mach 5. The company's representative said that such engines could be assembled in clusters and have a "wide range of applications."

In August of the same year, KBKhA design bureau also confirmed that it had been working on a hypersonic ramjet engine.


Russian research institutions involved in hypersonic research:

Field of research
Zhukovsky TsAGI
Aerodynamics shape, thermal protection, propulsion
Baranov TsIAM
Gromov LII
KB Khimmash (KBKhA)
Keldysh center
Air-breathing and liquid propellant hybrid engine


Russian experimental hypersonic vehicles:

Firing duration
Mach 2-9
18-35 kilometers
8 meters
3,800 kilograms
50 seconds
Aircraft dropped, hydrogen-fueled scramjet engine
Mach 15
70 kilometers
8 meters
2,200 kilograms
20-50 seconds
Rocket-launched, hydrogen-fueled three-mode scramjet engine
Mach 6
27 kilometers
3 meters
550-600 kilograms
Hydrocarbon-based fueled ramjet prototype for high-altitude test stand tests



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Writing and photography by Anatoly Zak; Last update: February 21, 2021

Page editor: Alain Chabot; Last edit: January 18, 2013

All rights reserved


insider content


The ER-3 experimental missile developed in 1954 and designed to reach Mach 3. Credit: LII


The ER-5 experimental missile developed in 1958 and designed to reach Mach 5. Credit: LII


The ER-8 experimental missile developed in 1960 and designed to reach Mach 8. Credit: LII


The ER-10 experimental missile developed in 1962 and designed to reach Mach 10. Credit: LII


An experimental space plane developed at Myasishev design bureau on the launch pad.


An early hypersonic vehicle proposed at Chelomei's design bureau which was undergoing testing until 1965. Credit: NPO Mash


The Kholod experiment tested a scramjet engine at a speed around Mach 6 in 1998.


The 2,200-kilogram, eight-meter long GLL-8 (GLL-VK) hypersonic vehicle was designed to reach Mach 14-15 at an altitude of 70 kilometers. It would be equipped with a three-mode scramjet engine burning between 20 and 50 seconds with a thrust of 12 kN after its launch on a Rockot booster. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak

GLL stand


An experimental hypersonic vehicle designed for tests at Mach 6 at an altitude of 27 kilometers. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak


A wind tunnel prototype of a hypersonic vehicle. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak