On fast track: Deadly new hypersonic missiles to give India strategic edge
After a long struggle it appears that India’s Hypersonic Missile programme is taking some shape. On 12 Jun 2019, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) launched a Hypersonic Technology Development Vehicle (HSTDV). There is no official information available about exactly what this test did achieve. It’s very difficult to quantify precisely what this test did achieve and what it did not. As per DRDO, the missile was successfully launched and various radars, telemetry stations and electro-optical tracking sensors tracked the vehicle through its course. Now, detailed analysis of collected data would be done by the scientists. However, no detailed data assessment requiring more than eight days’ time is required to announce details about the status of the carrier and demonstrator vehicle’s performance.
Hence, it could be safe to argue that this test has been a partial success. Not much official details as such are available in respect of DRDO’s HSTDV programme. Hypersonic missiles are next generation missiles and no operational missiles are yet available with any country in the world. Also, this technology is extremely complicated and hence it is understandable that DRDO, at this point in time, is not ready to share much of the details.
The US, Russia and China have made much of investments towards hypersonic weapon technologies. India probably entered in the field of hypersonic around 2004 and its programme is much smaller in scale. India has received some assistance from countries like Russia and Israel. A country like UK has allowed India to use some of their test facilities. Apart from DRDO, a private sector agency called BrahMos Aerospace (India’s joint venture with Moscow is known to be developing the BrahMos-II, a hypersonic cruise missile. This missile is expected to get ready by 2023. In the memory of India’s missile man and ex-President late Dr Abdul Kalam, now missile is known as BrahMos-II(K).
Hypersonic missiles are missiles which travel at speeds in excess of five times greater than the speed of sound (minimum speed should be more than Mach 5, or 3,800 miles an hour). At present, there are two types of hypersonic systems called boost glide and scramjets. India has interest in the scramjets.
Hypersonic boost glide is boosted by ballistic missiles to a particular level and then they glide towards the target, while scramjets use a conventional rocket to accelerate the missile fast enough that the scramjet can take over and then the target is approached. In a scramjet engine (air/oxygen taken from atmosphere is mixed with fuel and ignited) the airflow remains supersonic.
During recent test by DRDO, the cruise vehicle was mounted on an Agni-I solid rocket motor to take it to the required altitude. DRDO and BrahMos Aerospace are possibly developing missiles which can carry a warhead of around one tone to a distance of around 500 to 750 km. These missiles are expected to travel with a maximum speed in the range of 6 to 7.5 Mach.
Russia claims that they have already developed a missile in the range of 8 to 9 Mach. China has carried out minimum six successful tests of their hypersonic missiles while the US programme covers a wide range of hypersonic missiles. Their scientific community is confident of developing scramjets capable of speeds of up to Mach 24. Recently, they have developed an engine made entirely by 3D printer for their hypersonic programme.
The 20 th century witnessed much of debate on technologies which can increase the speed of the weaponry. But, now the era of hypersonic weapons could be said to have actually arrived. These weapons which could be both conventional or nuclear-tipped, are supposed to overpower the missile defence architectures (THAAD or S-400 systems). These missiles are getting described as ‘game-changing weapons’ or ‘stealth’ missiles. At present, there are more questions than answers with regard to how effectively this technology could be put to use. However, these are early days it also needs to be remembered that these missiles are likely to be destabilizing weapons and could create an Arms Race amongst the major powers. This is the right time to carry out a detailed global debate on the efficacy and employability of this weapon system.