The story so far: On Saturday, the Russian Defence Ministry spokesperson Major General Igor Konashenkov said the “Kinzhal aviation missile system with hypersonic aeroballistic missiles destroyed a large underground warehouse containing missiles and aviation ammunition in the village of Deliatyn in the Ivano-Frankivsk region.” On Monday, U.S. President Joe Biden confirmed that Russia used hypersonic missiles in its offensive in Ukraine.
What are hypersonic weapons?
They are manoeuvrable weapons that can fly at speeds of at least Mach 5, five times the speed of sound. The speed of sound is Mach 1, and speeds above Mach I are supersonic and speeds above Mach 5 are hypersonic. They are different from Ballistic missiles which even though are travel much faster, follow a fixed trajectory and travel outside the atmosphere to re-enter only near impact. On the other hand, hypersonic weapons travel within the atmosphere and can manoeuvre midway which combined with their high speeds make their detection and interception extremely difficult. This means that radars and air defences cannot detect them till they are very close and have only little time to react.
According to the October 2021 memo of the Congressional Research Service (CRS), ‘Hypersonic Weapons: Background and Issues for Congress’, 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.7 while HCMare 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 kilometres 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 Nonproliferation published by RAND Corporation.
Gen. John E. Hyten who recently retired as the Vice Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff had stated that hypersonic weapons could enable “responsive, long-range, strike options against distant, defended, and/or time-critical threats when other forces are unavailable, denied access, or not preferred.”
What is the status of Russian, Chinese and U.S. programmes?
According to Russian news agency TASS, the Kinzhal air-launched hypersonic missile system was unveiled by Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 1 and has an operating range of over 2,000 km. The basic carrier of the missile is the MiG-31K fighter jet as well as the Tu-22M3 bomber.
Speaking at a Business Roundtable’s CEO quarterly meeting on Monday, Mr. Biden said, “And, if you notice, they’ve just launched a — their hypersonic missile, because it’s the only thing that they can get through with absolute certainty. It’s — as you all know, it’s a consequential weapon. And — but — with the same warhead on it as a — as any other launched missile.”
Stating that it doesn’t make that much difference, except it’s “almost impossible to stop it,” he said, adding: “There’s a reason they’re using it.”
Last October, top U.S. military officer Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the joint chiefs of staff confirmed that China had conducted a test of a hypersonic weapon which he termed was “close to a Sputnik moment” and was “very concerning”, referring to the event in 1957 when the Soviet Union put the first satellite in space. Earlier in the month, 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. However, China has denied that it was nuclear capable. This has put the spotlight on the global development of hypersonic weapons by several countries, especially the advancements made by China and Russia. In addition to the Chinese test, in 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 kms away.
Talking of the test in November, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that tests were almost complete and the Russian Navy would start receiving them in 2022.“Now, it is especially important to develop and implement the technologies necessary to create new hypersonic weapons systems, high-powered lasers and robotic systems that will be able to effectively counter potential military threats, which means they will further strengthen the security of our country,” he said
The U.S. has tested hypersonic weapons for decades. The first vehicle to exceed Mach 5 was a two-stage rocket launched in 1949 which reached a speed of Mach 6.7, under Project Bumper. While the U.S. has active hypersonic development programmes, the CRS memo said it was lagging behind China and Russia because “most U.S. hypersonic weapons, in contrast to those in Russia and China, are not being designed for use with a nuclear warhead.” “As a result, U.S. hypersonic weapons will likely require greater accuracy and will be more technically challenging to develop than nuclear-armed Chinese and Russian systems,” it stated The U.S. is now looking to accelerate its own programmes, though it is unlikely to field an operational system before 2023. The Pentagon’s budget request for hypersonic research for financial year 2022 is $3.8 billion, up from $3.2 billion it requested a year earlier. The Missile Defence Agency additionally requested $247.9 million for hypersonic defence.
However, as stated by the U.S. Principal Director for Hypersonics Mike White, the Department of Defence has not yet made a decision to acquire hypersonic weapons and is instead developing prototypes to assist in the evaluation of potential weapon system concepts and mission sets.
Debunking some of the claims surrounding hypersonic weapons, Physicists David Wright and Cameron Tracy wrote in the Scientific American dated August 1, 2021 stating their studies indicate that hypersonic weapons “may have advantages in certain scenarios, but by no means do they constitute a revolution.” “Many of the claims about them are exaggerated or simply false. And yet the widespread perception that hypersonic weapons are a game-changer has increased tensions among the U.S., Russia and China, driving a new arms race and escalating the chances of conflict,” they wrote. The U.S. has six known hypersonic programmes, divided among the Air Force, Army and Navy, according to them.
What is the status in other countries?
The CRS Memo noted that although the United States, Russia, and China possess the most advanced hypersonic weapons programmes, a number of other countries — including Australia, India, France, Germany, and Japan — are also developing hypersonic weapons technology. India operates approximately 12 hypersonic wind tunnels and is capable of testing speeds of up to Mach 13, according to CRS. “Reportedly, India is also developing an indigenous, dual-capable hypersonic cruise missile as part of its Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HSTDV) programme and successfully tested a Mach 6 scramjet in June 2019 and September 2020,” the memo stated. This test was carried out by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and demonstrated the scramjet engine technology, a major breakthrough. In a scramjet engine, air goes inside the engine at supersonic speed and comes out at hypersonic speeds.
After the test in 2020, DRDO had said that with this demonstration many critical technologies such as aerodynamic configuration for hypersonic manoeuvers, use of scramjet propulsion for ignition and sustained combustion at hypersonic flow, thermo-structural characterisation of high temperature materials, separation mechanism at hypersonic velocities have been validated.
A hypersonic version of the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, a joint development of India and Russia, is also under development.
Hypersonic weapons travel within the atmosphere and can manoeuvre midway which combined with their high speeds make their detection and interception extremely difficult.
In August, China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile that circled the globe, demonstrating an advanced space capability. Russia was able to launch a Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missile from a submarine which hit a target 350 kms away. While the U.S. also has active hypersonic development programmes, it is lagging behind China and Russia.
India operates approximately 12 hypersonic wind tunnels and is capable of testing speeds of up to Mach 13.
- They are manoeuvrable weapons that can fly at speeds of at least Mach 5, five times the speed of sound.
- Hypersonic weapons travel within the atmosphere and can manoeuvre midway which combined with their high speeds make their detection and interception extremely difficult. This means that radars and air defences cannot detect them till they are very close and have only little time to react.
- U.S. President Joe Biden confirmed that Russia used hypersonic missiles in its offensive in Ukraine.