The story so far: In October, 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. This was later confirmed by U.S. military officer Gen Mark Milley, Chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. However, China has denied that it was nuclear capable. This and other recent developments have put the spotlight on hypersonic weapons development, especially the advancements made by China and Russia.
What are hypersonic weapons?
They are manoeuvrable weapons that can fly at speeds in excess of Mach 5, five times the speed of sound. The speed of sound is Mach 1, and speeds upto Mach 5 are supersonic and speeds above Mach 5 are hypersonic. Ballistic missiles, though much faster, follow a fixed trajectory and travel outside the atmosphere to re-enter only near impact. On the contrary, hypersonic weapons travel within the atmosphere and can manoeuvre midway which combined with their high speeds makes their detection and interception extremely difficult. This means that radars and air defences cannot detect them till they are very close and little time to react.
According to the latest memo of the Congressional Research Service (CRS), ‘Hypersonic Weapons: Background and Issues for Congress’ of October 2021, 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 while HCMs are 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 kms 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 the RAND Corporation.
What is the status of Chinese and Russian programmes and where does the U.S. stand?
In addition to the Chinese test, 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 the 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,” he said.
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 the $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 that 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 in the article ‘The Physics and Hype of Hypersonic Weapons’.
Whatis the status of development by other countries?
The CRS Memo noted that 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) program 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.
DRDO had said after the test in 2020, many critical technologies such as aerodynamic configuration for hypersonic manoeuvres, 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.
Given the rising tensions between the U.S., China and Russia as also the worsening geopolitical situation worldwide, the focus for hypersonic weapons is only set to accelerate more countries to invest significant resources in their design and development.