What Are Hypersonic Weapons?

Hypersonic weapons are the ones that can fly at speeds greater 5000 km/hr (more than 5 Mach). Such a speed is equivalent to about one mile (1.6 km) a second. These weapons fly low, remaining in the endo-atmospheric region (generally at altitudes below about 90 km), thereby reducing the chances of their detection by radar systems. For a rough comparison, commercial airliners fly at sub-sonic speeds whereas the modern fighter jets fly at the supersonic speeds of 2-3 Mach ( F 35 has a maximum speed of 1.6 Mach, while J 20 has a maximum speed of 2.5 Mach). The hypersonic weapons have such speeds that can allow them to strike anywhere on the earth in under an hour wrote Lt Gen (Dr) V K Saxena (Retd) in a research paper.

Two Main Variants of Hypersonic Weapons

Currently two versions of hypersonic weapons are being developed. These are Hypersonic Cruise Missiles (HCM) and Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGV).

A conventional cruise missile is a guided missile used against terrestrial targets which remains in the atmosphere and flies the major portion of its flight path at constant speed. It can deliver a warhead with precision over long ranges. The Hypersonic Cruise Missile is a typical cruise missile which is ‘all the way powered’ to achieve hypersonic speeds of Mach 5 or higher. Talking of higher speeds, it is reported that the Russian Hypersonic cruise missile Kh-47 M2 is capable of reaching up to Mach 10 (12,348 km/hr) and can carry a warhead to a range of 2,000 km.

Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGVs) are another version of hypersonic weapon range. Such a vehicle is also called a ‘wave-rider’ because it uses the shock waves generated by its own flight as a lifting surface to enhance the lift-to-drag ratio to reach the hypersonic regime of Mach 5 or even more.

A typical HGV is launched by any solid propellant rocket/missile which can give it the initial boost and momentum up to a point after which the wave rider phenomenon can be sustained by the hypersonic vehicle on its own.

Where Is India In The Hypersonic Field?

As far as the technological threshold and the issue of entering the hypersonic domain is concerned, India has reportedly crossed the entry barrier. On June 12, 2020, India conducted its first on-field test under an indigenous project to develop a hypersonic unmanned scramjet cruise missile namely Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HSTDV). India now stands tall with Russia, the US and China in unlocking the hypersonic technology.

As per open source information of Feb 2018, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has developed a surface-to-surface tactical missile codenamed ‘Shaurya’ which has a hypersonic speed of 7.5 Mach (9187.8 km/hr) and a range of 700 m (1,200 km approx). This missile is capable of carrying a payload of one ton which could either be conventional or nuclear.

The missile is designed to fired from submarine. After reaching a height of 50 km, the missile starts flying like a HCM. Once it reaches the target area it manoeuvres towards the target before striking with an accuracy of 20-30 m within the target area.

Apart from the HSTDV, another missile that is making news is the BrahMos-II Hypersonic Cruise Missile under joint development by DRDO and Russia's NPO Maschinostroyenia, in a highly successful Joint Venture ( JV), BrahMos Aerospace Private Limited ( BAPL).

Countering The Chinese Threat

China last year flaunted its DF-17 missile with a hypersonic glide vehicle at its national military parade while India, had unsuccessfully conducted its maiden launch of a new hypersonic technology demonstrator vehicle.

The DF-17’s hypersonic armament gives Beijing a significant advantage over India and other regional foes due to the glide vehicle’s unpredictable ballistic trajectory.

The DF-17 along with the DF-ZF, was officially unveiled at the National Day military parade on 1 October 2019, making this China’s first operational hypersonic weapon systems and one of the world’s first to be put in the full initial operation.

India Can Catch Up Fast With China On Hypersonic Tech

On advanced warfare technology, India would need to reach a metaphorical warp speed on R&D if it is to bridge the gap with its belligerent neighbour, China—the US admitting in a report that China has an edge over it on certain fronts underscores this. 

With as many as four major global economies having already demonstrated backbone capabilities for this—and three others (Australia, Japan and France) reported to be developing or looking to acquire this technology—non-proliferation seems a utopian goal. India has done well to pre-empt proliferation and now must work on honing its mettle on this. It must take a cue from the US, which awarded weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin two multi-billion-dollar contracts last year to bolster its hypersonic strength, and partner the private sector.

Pak's Deterrence Counteractant

The South Asian region also has significance where the emergence of hypersonic technology is quite visible. Apart from the hypersonic unmanned scramjet cruise missile namely Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HSTDV), India is also reportedly developing another hypersonic cruise missile BrahMos-II in collaboration with Russia that too is aimed at achieving Mach 7 hypersonic speed. As per the estimates, there is still a long way to go for India to get its hypersonic BrahMos-II missile operational. Still, India’s hypersonic capabilities would likely bring new challenges to regional security. They will further embolden India resort to a counterforce first strike against Pakistan. It would also provide India a decisive edge vis-à-vis Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities. In the same way, Pakistan won’t be in a position to deter India from using hypersonic weapons in case of any future conflict keeping in view India’s eagerness to develop hypersonic weapons.

It is pertinent to highlight that hypersonic weapons are widely considered to be deadly weapons based on their certain specifications. These include; incredible speed and manoeuvrability and long-range as compared to ballistic and cruise missiles. Similarly, hypersonic weapons can easily penetrate any advanced air defence shield currently available and in the near future as well. In the South Asian context, if India gets its hypersonic weapons operationalized, the region would become more vulnerable and prone to a nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan. Likewise, it would further add to Pakistan’s security to be at stake. Such a situation would increasingly become more complex given the short flight times and the 3,133 kilometres of the border (including LoC) between the two countries. At the hypersonic level, it would likely be a matter of a minute or two for India to initiate the first strike in absence of a credible countermeasure. These geographical circumstances would likely provide India an edge vis-à-vis Pakistan thus becoming a considerable challenge wrote a Pakistani defence analyst.

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