supersonic missile

This 2010 file photo shows rival Boeing's X-51A WaveRider hypersonic vehicle under a B-52 bomber.
Hypersonic missiles that can fly at many times the speed of sound have received a near $1 billion (£710 million) funding boost in the US to compete with rival nations' efforts.

The Pentagon has pushed through development of the highly manoeuvrable weapons, which are designed to outpace detection and defensive capabilities.

It follows repeated warnings from senior officials about rapid advances by China and Russia, who have unveiled their own versions in recent months.

Arsenals of the ultra-fast intercontinental weapons could also be equipped with nuclear warheads with the capability of delivering devastating strikes across the planet.

The contract has been awarded to Lockheed Martin, based in Bethesda, Maryland, to design and develop a hypersonic missile that can be launched from a warplane.

In a statement, the Pentagon said Lockheed will receive up to $928 million (£661 million) to build a new, non-nuclear missile it is calling the '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,' the statement read.

On Thursday, Mike Griffin, the Pentagon's new defense undersecretary for research and engineering, said China had built 'a pretty mature system' for a hypersonic missile to strike from thousands of kilometres (miles) away.

'We will, with today's defensive systems, not see these things coming,' Mr Griffin said.

Hypersonic weapons can beat regular anti-missile defences as they are designed to switch direction in flight.

They also do not follow a predictable ballistic arc like conventional missiles, making them much harder to track and intercept.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in February claimed to have developed a new type of hypersonic missile that is impervious to any Western shield.

Gary Pennett, director of operations at the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), recently said enemy hypersonic weapons - which could be launched from planes, ships or submarines - would create a 'significant' gap in US sensor and missile interceptor capabilities.

The MDA has asked for $120 million (£85 million) to develop hypersonic missile defenses, a big increase from the $75 million (£53 million) in fiscal 2018.

According to reports, China developed and last year tested a new type of hypersonic missile called the DF-17.

The DF-17 is a ballistic missile equipped with a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV), which is said to be capable of achieving speeds of up to 7,680 miles per hour (12,360 kph) - or 10 times the speed of sound.

In tests conducted in November 2017, the missile's payload flew roughly 870 miles (1,400km) in about 11 minutes with the HGV, though intelligence experts suspect it could one day achieve over 1,500 miles (2,500 km).

Russia too is believed to be developing its own hypersonic weapon called the Zircon.

The Zircon cruise missile travels between 3,800mph (6,115kph) and 4,600mph (7,400kph) - five to six times the speed of sound - and puts Russia 'half a decade' ahead of the US'.

This makes it faster than any anti-missile system, including those that are expected to appear in the next two decades.

According to Russian news agency Tass, it is to go into serial production this year.

Though the Pentagon is warning about hypersonics, the United States has been developing the technology for years.

The Air Force says its X-51A Waverider cruise missile, tested in 2012, could travel at speeds faster than Mach 6 (4,603mph / 7,408kph).

That's more than one mile a second, and future iterations are expected to go much faster.

Part of the reason China has been able to advance its hypersonic missile programs is that it is not subject to anti-missile treaties signed between the United States and Russia.

The 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty banned short- and intermediate-range ground-launched missiles.