Several countries, including the US, Russia, and China, are actively working on hypersonic missiles. Reports suggest India and North Korea are also working on such weapons

The race to develop a hypersonic missile further intensified on Tuesday after the United States of America (USA) said it conducted a successful test of a Raytheon Technologies Corp air-breathing hypersonic weapon, which is capable of travelling five times faster than the speed of sound.

This was the third successful test of that class of weapon since 2013. "The test demonstrated how we've rapidly matured affordable scramjet technology, which is the basis for air-breathing weapons," said Colin Whelan, president of Advanced Technology for Raytheon Missiles & Defence. "Our second HAWC flight test success is an important milestone for our nation as we advance hypersonic systems."

Several countries, including the US, Russia, and China, are actively working on hypersonic missiles. Reports suggest India and North Korea are also working on such weapons, but there is no official confirmation regarding the same.

These frequent tests have brought attention to why countries are developing hypersonic missiles which experts believe pose a 'unique threat' to the world. To delve into the answer to this question, we would first need to understand what is a hypersonic missile and how it works.

What Is A Hypersonic Missile?

First of all, you need to know that a hypersonic vehicle can travel faster than the speed of sound, which is 1,225 kilometers per hour. Hypersonic systems, which have been in use for decades, operate at a speed of 5,633 kilometers per hour.

They are non-ballistic, the opposite of the traditional intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that uses gravitational forces to reach its target. There are three types of hypersonic missiles - aero-ballistic, glide vehicles, and cruise missiles.

How Do Hypersonic Missiles Work?

Hypersonic missiles launch a warhead that can travel faster than the speed of sound, often manoeuvring at relatively low altitudes. Analysts say their main feature is their manoeuvrability.

Combining a glide vehicle with a missile that can launch it partially into orbit - a so-called fractional orbital bombardment system (FOBS) - could strip adversaries of reaction time and traditional defences mechanisms. ICBMs, by contrast, carry nuclear warheads on ballistic trajectories that travel into space but never reach orbit, reported Reuters.

Why The Race To Develop A Hypersonic Missile Has Intensified

According to Iain Boyd, professor of Aerospace Engineering Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder, the race to develop a hypersonic missile has intensified because they are difficult to defend "due to their speed, manoeuvrability and flight path".

"With all of this activity on hypersonic weapons and defending against them, it is important to assess the threat they pose to national security," he said while writing for The Conversation.

"Hypersonic missiles with conventional, non-nuclear warheads are primarily useful against high-value targets, such as an aircraft carrier. Being able to take out such a target could have a significant impact on the outcome of a major conflict."

Where Does India Stand?

According to a report by Congressional Research Service (CRS) of the US, India is among the select few countries which are developing hypersonic weapons. It said although the US, Russia and China possess the most advanced hypersonic weapons programs, a number of other countries, including Australia, India, France, Germany and Japan, are also developing hypersonic weapons technology.

India has collaborated with Russia on the development of BrahMos-II, a Mach 7 hypersonic cruise missile, the report said. "Although BrahMos-II was initially intended to be fielded in 2017, news reports indicate that the program faces significant delays and is now scheduled to achieve initial operational capability between 2025 and 2028."

"Reportedly, India is also developing an indigenous, dual-capable hypersonic cruise missile as part of its Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle program and successfully tested a Mach 6 scramjet in June 2019 and September 2020," it added.