French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly has revealed that Paris intends to reach the testing stage on a new hypersonic glider design in two years' time.
"We've decided to conclude a contract on the creation of a working prototype of a hypersonic glider," Parly said, speaking to AFP.
The programme, called "V-MaX", Vehicule Manoeuvrant eXperimental ('experimental manoeuvring vehicle'), is being developed by aerospace and defence firm ArianeGroup, which serves as the main contractor, with France's Directorate General of Armaments (DGA), the agency responsible for defence procurement and technology, overseeing the project.
The glider is expected to be able to carry both nuclear and conventional warheads, and manoeuvre at high speeds to evade enemy air defences. The primary purpose of the prototype is to evaluate the advantages and limitations of the concept, and study the expected trade-offs, such as low payload, required to achieve hypersonic speeds.
"Many nations are equipping themselves with such weapons. We too have all the skills to achieve this. We cannot afford to wait," Parly stressed.
According to the minister, the project will "become a true technological breakthrough for many of our capabilities."
Russia, China and the United States have devoted considerable resources and efforts to the creation of hypersonic weapons systems, with Moscow in particular seeing the idea as a means to maintain the global strategic balance following the US' withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and NATO's buildup along Russia's borders in recent years.
Late last year, the Russian military publicised the latest test launch of the Avangard, a new hypersonic boost-glide vehicle announced by President Vladimir Putin in a speech last March. Carried to space by an intercontinental ballistic missile, the Avangard descends from space at speeds of up to Mach 27 (33,340 kph) while manoeuvring, making it invulnerable to any existing or prospective air defence systems. The Avangard is expected to enter into service with the Russian Missile Troops later this year.