The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) successfully demonstrated the hypersonic air-breathing scramjet technology with the flight test of Hypersonic Technology Demonstration Vehicle (HSTDV)

How Are Hypersonic Weapons Different From Traditional Weaponry? Where Does India Stand Vis-À-Vis The Technology?

The story so far: In October, The Financial Times had reported that China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile in August that circled the globe before speeding towards its target, demonstrating an advanced space capability that caught U.S. intelligence by surprise. This was later confirmed by U.S. military officer Gen Mark Milley, Chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. However, China has denied that it was nuclear capable. This and other recent developments have put the spotlight on hypersonic weapons development, especially the advancements made by China and Russia.

What Are Hypersonic Weapons?

They are manoeuvrable weapons that can fly at speeds in excess of Mach 5, five times the speed of sound. The speed of sound is Mach 1, and speeds up to Mach 5 are supersonic and speeds above Mach 5 are hypersonic. Ballistic missiles, though much faster, follow a fixed trajectory and travel outside the atmosphere to re-enter only near impact. On the contrary, hypersonic weapons travel within the atmosphere and can manoeuvre midway which combined with their high speeds makes their detection and interception extremely difficult. This means that radars and air defences cannot detect them till they are very close and little time to react.

According to the latest memo of the Congressional Research Service (CRS), ‘Hypersonic Weapons: Background and Issues for Congress’ of October 2021, there are two classes of hypersonic weapons, hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV) and hypersonic cruise missiles (HCM). HGVs are launched from a rocket before gliding to a target while HCMs are powered by high-speed, air-breathing engines, or scramjets, after acquiring their target.

Hypersonic missiles are a new class of threat because they are capable both of manoeuvring and of flying faster than 5,000 km per hour, which would enable such missiles to penetrate most missile defences and to further compress the timelines for response by a nation under attack, says a 2017 book Hypersonic Missile Non-Proliferation published by the RAND Corporation.

What Is The Status of Chinese And Russian Programs And Where Does The U.S. Stand?

In addition to the Chinese test, early October, Russia announced that it had successfully test launched a Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missile from a Severodvinsk submarine deployed in the Barents Sea which hit a target 350 km away.