Arms Race towards Hypersonic Weapons


    In Context 

    • Recent developments have put the spotlight on hypersonic weapons development, especially the advancements made by China and Russia.

    About Hypersonic Weapons

    • They are manoeuvrable weapons that can fly at speeds in excess of Mach 5, five times the speed of sound. 
    • They are capable both of manoeuvring and of flying faster than 5,000 km per hour, which would enable such missiles to penetrate most missile defences and to further compress the timelines for a response by a nation under attack.
    • Most hypersonic vehicles primarily use scramjet technology
    • Types: 
    • 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.

    What are the recent developments?

    •  China: It tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile in August 2021 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. 
    • Russia: In early October 2021, Russia had successfully test-launched a Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missile from a Severodvinsk submarine deployed in the Barents Sea which hit a target 350 km away.
    • USA: While the U.S. has active hypersonic development programmes, 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.
    • The U.S. is now looking to accelerate its own programmes, though it is unlikely to field an operational system before 2023. 
    • Other countries:  Australia, India, France, Germany, and Japan—are also developing hypersonic weapons technology.
    • India:  It is also working on hypersonic technologies
      • India operates approximately 12 hypersonic wind tunnels and is capable of testing speeds of up to Mach 13.
      • 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.
        • 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.

    Implications for 

    • The World
      • China’s flight test of a manoeuvrable hypersonic glide vehicle upsets the strategic balance of power, while the proliferation of such technologies through clandestine methods could undermine Russian security.
        • China’s tests are worrying the international community as it has been a free-rider so far, with no responsibility in regional and global orders. 
      • 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.
    • India 
    • For India, China’s hypersonic glide vehicle demonstration poses multiple challenges, including the proliferation of such technologies to Pakistan, the opening of two-front war under nuclear threshold”, and the penetration of nascent Indian missile defence systems. 
    • Given the ongoing border stand-off and China’s refusal to de-escalate, such tests add fuel to the fire with India.
      • Such capabilities might pose a threat to our space assets along with the surface assets.

    Way Forward

    • A two-tiered approach to containing the spread of hypersonic systems and components appears to be the most promising.
    • The necessary first step is for the United States, Russia, and China to agree not to export complete hypersonic missiles or their major subsystems.
      • Beyond that, the control list recommended in this report can be the basis for international discussions.
    • India and the world must be very careful of Chinese Intent as transparency and accountability are least expected from the communist regime in China.
    • China is growing leaps and bounds in cutting edge technology and hence India too must take inspiration from the same.
    • India to have a “proper technology roadmap” on what kind of warfighting capability the country needed, instead of countering individual threats such as hypersonic weapons or drones. 

    What is a Ramjet engine ?:  

    • It is a form of air-breathing jet engine that uses the engine’s forward motion to compress incoming air without an axial compressor or a centrifugal compressor.
    • Ramjets work most efficiently at supersonic speeds around Mach 3 (three times the speed of sound) and can operate up to speeds of Mach 6.
    • Ramjet powered missiles provide greater range and a higher average speed compared to missiles powered by solid propellants.

    Scramjet :

    • A scramjet (supersonic-combustion ramjet) is a ramjet engine in which the airflow through the engine remains supersonic, or greater than the speed of sound. 
      • Scramjet powered vehicles are envisioned to operate at speeds up to at least Mach 15.
      • In the chamber, the air mixes with the fuel to ignite supersonic combustion but the cruiser’s flight will be at a hypersonic speed of Mach six to seven. 
        • So it is called supersonic combustion ramjet or Scramjet.

    Source: TH