Inside the global race to develop hypersonic weapons

WASHINGTON -- President Trump said he plans to discuss with Russian President Vladimir Putin ways to substantially reduce the number of nuclear weapons the U.S. and Russia have stockpiled. But both nations are racing to develop an entirely new kind of weapon.

When Putin showed off what he said was a hypersonic cruise missile, he gave the world a brief glimpse into a secret arms race. It pits the U.S. against Russia and China in a contest to build weapons that can fly 10,000 miles per hour.

"It's quite an advantage if anybody could ever do that," said John Wilcox, vice president at Northrop Grumman.

The company built the first hypersonic aircraft back in 2004. It only flew for about 10 seconds. But Northrop Grumman is now conducting tests as part of the Pentagon's top secret efforts to develop hypersonic weapons that can fly longer and farther.

Wilcox took CBS News into a test chamber on condition we would not reveal its location. It is a giant air gun that fires bursts of gas at incredible speeds and pressure to simulate the conditions of hypersonic flight.

"The gases come down the air gun and hit right back here at the plate," Wilcox explained.

The gases burst through the steel plate. That, plus temperatures of 2,000 degrees are what a hypersonic aircraft would have to survive.

"If we have a test article that we're trying to emulate in the conditions of the hypersonic flight, it'll be in here," Wilcox said.

Wilcox estimates a working hypersonic weapon is still five to 10 years away. 

The Pentagon has declared hypersonics its number one technical priority, but the official in charge of the program recently acknowledged that the U.S. is playing catch up to Russia and China.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.