India join elite Hypersonic Missile Club


Hypersonic missile

       India has successfully tested a hypersonic system that could pave the way for the development of a hypersonic weapon. The Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HSTDV) developed by Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) was launched at 11:03 hours on 07 Sept 2020 DRDO is the research and development arm of India's military. Viewers may note that India has carried out an initial test of the HSTDV on 12 Jun 2019. The latest test was conducted from Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam Launch Complex at Wheeler Island, off the coast of Odisha. India's Prime Minister tweeted: 'Congratulations to @DRDO_India for successful flight of the Hypersonic Test Demonstration Vehicle on 7th of August. 

The scramjet engine developed by our scientists helped the flight achieve a speed 6 times the speed of sound! Very few countries have such capability today.’ Currently, only 3 countries - Russia, the U.S, and China have successfully tested this kind of system. The timing of this test is interesting since it comes at a time when India & China are involved in an increasingly bitter border row which escalated after the deadly June’s clash. 

An object is said to be hypersonic once they exceed speeds of Mach 5 that is 5 times the speed of sound. This is about 1,715 meters per second or 3,836mph or 6,174 km/h. 

There are currently 3 methods being applied to make hypersonic weapons. The first is using a Scramjet engine. The scramjet is an innovation on the Ramjet. Ramjet engine can power flight to supersonic speeds but scramjet can enable the missiles to reach hypersonic speeds. The scramjet engine can power a hypersonic cruise missile. 

The second is through the use of ALBM or Air-Launched Ballistic missile. As the name suggests, this kind of missile is ballistic in nature but is launched from air, unlike traditional ballistic missiles which are launched from land or sea-based platforms. 

The third is using HGV or Hypersonic Glide Vehicle. In this method, the system is launched to extremely high altitudes using a Ballistic Missile or an aircraft where it skips across the Earth’s upper atmosphere. The vehicle then separates from the carrier and glides back to the earth towards its intended target attaining hypersonic speed. The glide vehicle could be powered or unpowered. 

India’s HSTDV uses this method and deploys a powered glider. India launched the Hypersonic Glide Vehicle using a proven solid-fueled rocket motor. The HGV separated from the carrier rocket at an altitude of 30 km (18.65 miles). The air intake of HGV opened as planned and it continued on its desired flight path at a velocity of six times the speed of sound i.e. nearly 2 km/s for more than 20s. The scramjet engine performed in a textbook manner and several critical events like fuel injection and auto ignition of scramjet were validated. 

It is to be noted that the parameters of the launch and glide vehicle, including the scramjet engine, were monitored by multiple tracking radars, electro-optical systems, and Telemetry Stations. 

Indian Navy warships were also deployed in the Bay of Bengal to monitor performance during the cruise phase of the hypersonic vehicle. India's Defense Minister Rajnath Singh congratulated DRDO for achieving this milestone. Secretary DD R&D and Chairman DRDO congratulated all the scientists and support staff for their contributions in proving highly complex air-breathing hypersonic technology. 

Countries like Russia, China, and the U.S have been developing sophisticated layered air defense. These systems are difficult for traditional aircraft & missiles to penetrate. This is where hypersonic weapons come in. Their extreme speed and ability to fly in unpredictable paths give them a high probability of penetrating the air defenses. They will be very hard to track, let alone intercept. It is to be noted that traditional ballistic missiles like American Minuteman III, Russian Sarmat or Indian Agni missile also reach hypersonic speed when then descend down on the target but they follow a predictable predefined parabolic path which could lead to possible interception by anti-ballistic missile defense systems. 

The characteristic of Hypersonic weapons makes it suitable for neutralizing well-defended strategic military assets. These weapons may also have used in neutralizing incoming enemy missiles, where they will be used as interceptors. India has to hostile nuclear-armed neighbors -China & Pakistan. 

Keeping this in view, India is taking the right step Russia is leading the hypersonic weapons space as of now. It has claimed that it has already fielded hypersonic missile named Kinzhal and also a hypersonic boost-glide vehicle named Avangard. China is thought to be pursuing hypersonic weapons as well. It had shown off mockups of its road-mobile DF-17 as part of the October 2019 celebrations commemorating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. 

It is to be noted that America’s Government Accountability Office (GAO) report has stated that the U.S currently lacks the defenses required to protect against the latest crop of hypersonic weapons being developed by China and Russia. 

The report states, “China and Russia are pursuing hypersonic weapons because their speed, altitude, and maneuverability may defeat most missile defense systems, and they may be used to improve long-range conventional and nuclear strike capabilities. There are no existing countermeasures.” In its response to the GAO, the Department of Defense described the report as “an accurate although sobering macro picture of how the US stands in the world against emerging threats.” 

The United States is working on multiple approaches for developing its own hypersonic weapon and may have a working prototype by 2021. India’s missile program is one of the most advanced in the world. It has several kinds of missile - short, medium, and long-range once. 

The Agni 5 missile is the longest range weapon, with an officially stated range of 3100 miles or 5000 km but an actual estimated range of more 5100 miles or 8200 km. On March 27, 2019, India even conducted an anti-satellite missile (ASAT) test. Till then only 3 countries - the US, Russia, and China have demonstrated this kind of capability. 

This test was also conducted by Defense Research and Development Organization. The anti-satellite missile knocked out a satellite which was in low Earth orbit at an altitude of 186 miles or 300 km. India already has a homegrown two-layer BMD (Ballistic Missile Defense). 

India’s indigenously designed BMD system was successfully tested on May 15, 2016. The two-tiered BMD System consists of the PAD (Prithvi Air Defense), which will intercept missiles at exo-atmospheric altitudes of 50 to 80 km or 31 to 50 mi, and the AAD (Advanced Air Defense) missile for an interception at endo-atmospheric altitudes of up to 30 km or 19 mi. Adding hypersonic weapons in its arsenal will surely add another dimension to India's military capability and enhance its deterrence capacity.  

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