• World
  • Oct 19

Explainer / Hypersonic weapons

• According to a report, China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle from a near-orbital trajectory in August, amid an intensifying race for the next generation of long-range weapons that are harder to detect and intercept.

• China clarified that the country tested a space vehicle in July and not a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile.

• The reports have put the spotlight back on the race among nations for developing hypersonic weapons. 

• The United States and Russia have conducted tests of hypersonic weapons in recent months, and North Korea said it tested a newly developed hypersonic missile last month.

• Over the last 25 years, the US Air Force Research Laboratory has invested over $1.7 billion in hypersonics.

• Also, a few other countries, including India, are working on hypersonic technology.

What is special about hypersonic weapons?

• Two things make these weapons special — speed and maneuverability. Speed brings surprise, and maneuverability creates elusiveness. Together, those qualities could mean trouble for missile defences.

• A hypersonic weapon is one that flies at speeds in excess of Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound.

• This is slower than an intercontinental ballistic missile, but the shape of a hypersonic glide vehicle allows it to manoeuvre toward a target or away from defences.

• It is maneuverable, making it harder to track and defend against.

• 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 defence mechanisms.

• Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), by contrast, carry nuclear warheads on ballistic trajectories that travel into space but never reach orbit.

• Both the US and USSR studied FOBS during the Cold War, and the USSR deployed such a system starting in the 1970s. It was removed from service by the mid-80s. 

• Submarine-launched ballistic missiles had many of the advantages of FOBS — reducing detection times and making it impossible to know where a strike would come from — and were seen as less destabilising than FOBS.

• In July, Russia successfully tested a Tsirkon (Zircon) hypersonic cruise missile, which President Vladimir Putin touted as part of a new generation of missile systems. Moscow also tested the weapon from a submarine for the first time.

• The United States said in late September that it had tested an air-breathing hypersonic weapon, meaning it sustains flight on its own through the atmosphere like a cruise missile, marking the first successful test of that class of weapon since 2013.

• Days after the US announcement, North Korea fired a newly developed hypersonic missile, calling it a “strategic weapon” that boosted its defence capabilities, though some South Korean analysts described the test as a failure.

India’s hypersonic programmes

• In September 2020, 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).

• The HSTDV is capable of powering missiles to attain a speed of around Mach 6 or six times the speed of sound. It can move up to an altitude of 32.5 km in 20 seconds.

• The HSTDV, based on hypersonic propulsion technologies, will help India develop futuristic space assets like long-range missile systems and aerial platforms.

• India is involved in developing a hypersonic cruise missile in cooperation with Russia, known as the Brahmos II.

• Hypersonic systems are able to travel on extended flights within the upper atmosphere — 80,000 to 200,000 feet — at speeds near and above Mach 5, and they’re able to maneuver in ways that are hard for defenders to predict.

• The possession of hypersonic capabilities may well prove to be the pivotal factor in a future determination of military superiority for countries. As a result of this, the development of HSTDV and Brahmos II is of vital strategic importance for the country.

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