Chinese Hypersonic Weapon mounted on a PLAAF transport aircraft

China is clearly around 10 years ahead of India in development of hypersonic weapon systems

End March 2022, Russia became the first country to use a hypersonic missile against targets in Ukraine operationally and thus heralding a new era of warfare of very high-speed lethality. The Kh-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic missile reportedly destroyed an ammunition warehouse. Hypersonic weapons or platforms fly at speeds in excess of Mach 5 or five times the speed of sound. These weapons not only enjoy the kinetic energy imparted by speed, but are also manoeuvrable, and thus making them a very lethal and unpredictable weapon.

To sustain hypersonic flight within the atmosphere was a challenge for mankind for long. It meant not only surmounting aero-thermal forces of air resistance but also sustaining such flight for a few minutes. The aerodynamic design had to allow manoeuvrability while maintaining a very high speed. These challenges have now been surmounted and many countries are pursuing such technologies and weapons. Since hypersonic weapons are not only disruptive technology but could carry a nuclear warhead, they could upset the current status quo of deterrence, increasing the risk of miscalculation. Hypersonic weapons have once again unlocked the offence-defence spiral risking arms race and strategic instability.

Hypersonic Weapon Types

There are two main categories of hypersonic weapons: hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV) and hypersonic cruise missiles (HCM). HGV is launched from a rocket, later it separates from the rocket and “glides” at speeds of at least Mach 5 toward its target. HCM is powered by air-breathing engines throughout the flight. HCMs use scramjet engines which are much more advanced ramjet engines that can handle supersonic airflow through the engine. The very high speeds give the defender shallow detection and interception time.

Unlike the ballistic missile which also travels at hypersonic speeds, the HCM/HGV manoeuvrability allows last-minute change of course and brings unpredictability about the intended target. While many nations are working toward space based detection sensors, the complexity remains. The United States, Russia and China have all developed hypersonic weapons. Others like India, the UK, France, Germany, Japan, and Australia are also developing hypersonic technology. Counters to hypersonic threat are already work in progress.

Russian And US Hypersonic Weapons Programs

While both the US and Russia were working on hypersonic weapons, Russia became the first to induct the HGV ‘Avangard’ and HCM ‘Kinzhal’ in 2018. In February 2019, Russia revealed 3M22 Tsirkon (Zircon) HCM, capable of both surface and underwater launch. Russia has already formed a hypersonic weapons regiment. The Kinzhal has been fired from MiG-31K fighter aircraft, and dedicated hypersonic weapons squadron is being formed.

The US has been developing hypersonic weapons under various military programs. The United States Air Force (USAF) successfully tested its first prototype hypersonic missile, the AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon, or ARRW (“Arrow”) HGV in December 2022, after three earlier failures. The Lockheed Martin-designed weapon is said to be based on previous test vehicles built by DARPA that reportedly had a maximum speed of Mach 20 (24,000 km/h). The US Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW) is a medium-range surface-to-surface HGV planned for the US Army, with service induction in 2023. The US Navy (USN) intends to procure a ship/submarine-launched variant as part of the service’s Intermediate-Range Conventional Prompt Strike (IRCPS) program and induct by 2025.

Chinese Hypersonic Program

In early 2000s, China had made a list of critical technologies, many disruptive and dual-use to pursue. Core teams for formed with research institutions, academia and industry. These got priority funding and goals spelt out. Hypersonic was one of these technologies. The tasks were further divided into three main technology areas of scramjet engine, combined propulsion system, and external vehicle design and aerodynamic force simulation. The funding increased considerably by around 2015.

The new generation high-speed flight vehicles need to fundamentally improve the guidance accuracy, reduce the weight, and ensure greater manoeuvrability. This set of requirements need new technologies and improved techniques, and direct lateral force control methods. China created hypersonic technology research institution clusters. These include Harbin Institute of Technology, National University of Defence Technology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Northwestern Polytechnical University, Beihang University, Tianjin University, Dalian Maritime University, Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Peking University, Nanchang University, and Shanghai Jiaotong University.

Beijing is making a major investment in hypersonic missiles. They look at HGV/HCM as important element of its regional war-fighting strategy and also strategic deterrent. China already possesses one operational HGV, and are working on several others. China first successful tested its Starry Sky-2 (Xingkong-2) HCM in 2018. This has a range of 700-800 km and top speed of Mach 6. China successfully tested the DF-17, a road-mobile medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) with a range of around 2,500 km designed to launch the DF-ZF HGV. The DF-ZF is reported to have a range of 1,600-2,400 km and high degrees of manoeuvrability and accuracy.

In 2019 China reportedly launched “more ballistic missiles for testing and training than the rest of the world combined.” Some reports suggest that China is also considering deploying HGVs on DF-21 and DF-26 theatre-range ballistic missiles. China conducted two hypersonic tests in July and August 2021. The missile test in July reportedly circumnavigated the globe before hitting its target, demonstrating China’s ability to incorporate a glide vehicle into a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS). China has also reportedly successfully tested a hypersonic unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), presumably as a future intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platform.

Other than funded research, China has also achieved many defence technologies because of US investments in China and access and transfer of technology by Chinese diaspora. All this happened because US businesses wanted access to huge Chinese market and the profits that come with it. This carried on for nearly four decades starting 1971. The US and the West has of late been trying to put curbs, and may be it is late. The next generation of Chinese hypersonic technology scientists are being trained domestically. While China is clearly collaborating with universities and scholars abroad, their international cooperation on hypersonic technologies now appears to be limited, and mostly stand-alone.

World’s Biggest Hypersonic Wind Tunnel

The world’s first wind tunnel capable of testing a full-sized hypersonic missile through the critical stages of flight has been operating in China and helped prevent expensive test stages and failures. The wind tunnel is large enough to house a full hypersonic missile and test various stages of flight including separation. Pentagon is still working on an equivalent wind tunnel, with a result many of their test had to be done in flight and some were failures. NASA’s 8-foot high-temperature tunnel, though similar to the Chinese facility in size but could not simulate the booster separation. These wind-tunnels not only allow high wind speeds but also create more than 1,700 degrees Celsius. The JF-22, the world’s most powerful hypersonic shock tunnel capable of simulating flight at Mach 30, will be completed in Beijing this year. The new facility will help China maintain a lead in hypersonic technology for decades to come, it is believed.

China’s Hypersonic Operational Strategy

China currently insists that the hypersonic program is for conventional weapons and for use against high value targets, treating them as the logical extension of cruise missiles. These capabilities will provide it enhanced multiple options to target US aircraft carriers and large ships and critical land targets as in Guam. The aim is to raise the costs for the US armed forces. Hypersonic systems would be part of the PLA’s “anti-access/area denial (A2AD)”. The situation could change when USA too deploys its similar weapons in larger numbers.

China could also use hypersonic weapons for striking military targets in US mainland in conventional prompt global strike role. The second role China may deploy these weapons would be for strategic deterrence. The HGV could have a nuclear payload and be launched aboard the new Chinese ICBM, the DF-41. This would give it global targeting ability including the US mainland. A nuclear-armed HGV could also piggyback on China’s JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) giving it greater reach and control while maximising their survivability.

Hypersonic Arms Race And Doctrinal Changes

Where are Russia, China and USA heading in this intense offense-defence hypersonic competition? As more hypersonic weapons are deployed, countries will have to develop active defence capability against such platforms. The nuclear deterrence stability and escalation dynamics would have to be reworked. Would hypersonic weapons be an effective cost-imposing strategy? How expensive would it be to maintain large hypersonic weapons inventories would have to be assessed? Armed forces around the world would have to review doctrines to cater for speed, accuracy, surprise and shock that will come with the one seizing the initiative. Operational concepts would have to be reworked and war-gamed in exercises.

India’s Hypersonic Developments

The DRDO’s Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HSTDV) is an unmanned scramjet demonstration aircraft for hypersonic speed flight. It is being developed as a carrier vehicle for hypersonic and long-range cruise missiles. It could even launch of small satellites at low cost. On 7 September 2020 the HSTDV scramjet was successfully tested. During the 23 seconds test, it reportedly attained Mach 6. The test flight validated many aspects that would serve as the building block for India’s HCM. The BrahMos-2 will also be a hypersonic version and will probably fly at Mach 8, and have a range of 1,500 km. It is likely to enter the prototype stage by 2025. The missile is modelled on Russia’s Zircon HCM.

India would thus become the fourth nation with hypersonic operational capabilities. The Philippines and Indonesia have shown interest for importing this missile. DRDO’s Shaurya is a canister-launched hypersonic surface-to-surface tactical missile with a range up to 1,900 km and can carry a payload of up to 1,000 kg conventional or nuclear warhead. Sagarika K-15 missile is the under-water variant. But both these are ballistic missiles cannot be term as HGV/HCM.

Operational Implications of Chinese Hypersonic Weapons For India

China is clearly around 10 years ahead of India in HGV/HCM development. They are in a position to invest much greater funds for research and operational deployments. While the hypersonic platform can carry a nuclear warhead, that is beyond the scope of this tactical discussion. What are the type of targets against India which China may use hypersonic weapons? To target any land based targets, China can use a combination of conventionally armed ballistic missiles or air/ground/sea launched cruise missiles. These will be much cheaper. However in case a very well-defended and operationally critical target such as a political, or command and control centre, the hypersonic weapon may be used. Much more dividend would accrue in case the hypersonic weapon is used against a very high value target such as an aircraft carrier or large ship.

Hypersonic weapons would clearly score over others to target a large moving target. HGV/HCM would perform conventional precision-strike as next-generation anti-ship missiles that could penetrate the layered air defences even of a US carrier strike group. This is one type of target which the Chinese doctrine considers against the U.S. It could thus be huge threat to India’s flotilla. Once the hypersonic weapons inventory becomes large, such targeting will have to be factored. Defences against HFV/HCM for high value targets would have to be strengthened.

Developing and building India’s own hypersonic weapons stockpile would be important for deterrence and operational capability. Building air defence systems, including railgun or directed energy technologies to destroy incoming hypersonic weapon would be important. Such technologies are not currently available even with the US Hypersonic weapons and flight are indeed game-changing technologies that India must push as a core national mission through a dedicated task-force and whole of nation approach. Time to act is now, lest India gets left behind.

The writer is Director General, Centre for Air Power Studies. Views expressed are personal