France Conducts Maiden Test of Hypersonic Glider

France has conducted a maiden test of a prototype hypersonic glider, the country’s defense procurement agency said, as it seeks to develop new missile technology capable of evading the most sophisticated air defenses. The agency said a sounding rocket carrying the VMAX hypersonic glider launched Monday from the Biscarosse missile test site on the Bay of Biscay, southwestern France. The agency said that its flight test, on a very demanding long-range trajectory, represented an unprecedented technical challenge that will shape the future of France’s national hypervelocity roadmap.

Hypersonic gliders, unpowered maneuverable vehicles that can fly at speeds greater than five times the speed of sound, have been under study among major nuclear powers for several years. The VMAX program, run since 2019 by Ariane Group, aims to develop a hypersonic glider demonstrator capable of carrying either a conventional or a nuclear warhead.

The weapon combines hypersonic speed with high maneuverability, allowing it to follow unpredictable trajectories. Unlike the re-entry vehicle on a ballistic missile such as the US Minuteman III or the Russian RS-24 Yars, which follows a predictable trajectory upon release, a hypersonic glider can remain in the air for ten minutes, meaning defenders would only have a few seconds to intercept it, an industrialist tells Aviation Week.

In its first test, the VMAX glider reached an altitude of more than 100 kilometers before being dropped at speed exceeding Mach 5, or 6,000 kilometers per hour. It then flew for thousands of kilometers, following a curved trajectory, before landing in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California, near the island of Kauai. According to the agency, the telemetry data collected during the test is undergoing analysis.

Despite the success of this inaugural test, the VMAX project has been dogged by delays and setbacks. Several sources familiar with the project told Aviation Week that the glider’s control systems were malfunctioning during the initial phase of the flight, which caused it to lose contact with ground controllers. They said those issues will need to be resolved before the project can continue.

Observers in southern France and northern Spain reported seeing the soaring glider on social media, with online pictures showing a white trail in the sky. The reports echoed earlier warnings from the DGA for maritime and air navigation in a vast area extending into the Bay of Biscay and the Atlantic Ocean. The DGA did not confirm that the test was of the VMAX, but a statement from the ministry’s head of defense programs, Emmanuel Chiva, hinted at it. The test of the VMAX “demonstrated technological bricks” and was part of a larger plan to build a system that could be used for both military and commercial purposes. Tony Carver covers European military and security affairs for Shephard Media Group. He is the author of the Aviation Week Defense Tech blog and deputy editor of its sister publications Defence Helicopters and Rotorhub.

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