RIGHT ANGLE – Hypersonic Weapons Coming of Age
Last few months have been marked by news reports on the countries testing hypersonic missiles. India, too, has tested Agni-5 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) with a range of 5,000 km; some experts say that its real range in 8000 km but New Delhi is deliberately underplaying the capacity.
However, global reactions have been more on the hypersonic missiles. First, it was Russia’s successful test launch of a new Zircon hypersonic cruise missile in July. Second, North Korea tested as many as three hypersonic missiles in September alone. Third, and this has evoked most reactions, is the report by Financial Times last week that China had tested in August two nuclear-capable hypersonic missiles.
Hypersonic speed is considered anything faster than Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound, equivalent to just over 100 kilometres (60 miles) per minute or about a mile every second. And because of its high speed, its flight can be very manoeuvrable, making it extremely difficult to shoot down. Though like ICBMs, hypersonic glide weapons are launched by rockets high into the atmosphere, unlike the former whose warhead is largely powered by gravity once it begins its descent to its target, hypersonics dive back to Earth sooner before flattening out their flight path and then use internal navigation devices to make course corrections and keep it on target while travelling even up to 12 times the speed of sound.
An ICBM follows a parabolic trajectory, which mean it goes up and then comes down in a high arc, but a hypersonic one orbits the earth at a lower height, and is manoeuvrable. The ability to change track or target, mid-trajectory, along with the speed, makes them tougher to track and defend against.
The valuable aspect of the hypersonic missile is its plasma cloud. During flight, the missile is completely covered by a plasma cloud that absorbs any rays of radio frequencies and makes the missile invisible to radars. This allows the missile to remain undetected on its way to the target. Therefore, a hypersonic missile can defeat advanced missile-defence systems of adversaries.
Like ICBMs, hypersonic missiles can carry both conventional and nuclear warheads. The Chinese one that has been reported is said to be a nuclear one. However, and it is interesting to note, China has denied that it tested such a missile as reported in Financial Times, which, it says was actually a spacecraft.
At the moment only three countries – Russia, China and North Korea – have deployable hypersonic missiles. In December 2019, Russia had claimed that its hypersonic missile system — known as Avangard — had entered service. Russian President Vladimir Putin had claimed that the Avangard system was “practically invulnerable” to Western air defences.
China has already fielded such weapons in the form of the DF-17 hypersonic glide vehicle. The DF-17 can deliver a warhead to within meters of its intended target at a range of up to 2,500 kilometres. And North Korea, as mentioned already, has now joined China and Russia.
Analysts point out that developing defence systems against the hypersonic defence will prove to be very costly. As physicist and nuclear expert James Acton explains, “Point-defense systems, and particularly [Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD)], could very plausibly be adapted to deal with hypersonic missiles. The disadvantage of those systems is that they can only defend small areas. To defend the whole of the continental United States, you would need an unaffordable number of THAAD batteries.”
However, analysts also caution that hypersonic cruise missiles may not be used against countries possessing ICBMs in their heartlands. For instance, if Russia manages to use a missile like Zircon against the United States, the latter can retaliate massively with ICBMs.
This, perhaps, explains, why the US has not developed, as of now, a known hypersonic system, though its three services and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency( research and development agency of the United States Department of Defense responsible for the development of emerging technologies for use by the military) are working on their respective hypersonic programs.
The US Navy is requesting $1.4 billion in FY2022. The US Army wants $301 million for the programme in FY2022. The US Air Force has requested similarly $691 million for the various segments of the program. DARPA’s demand for similar purposes $ 411 million. Overall, for fiscal 2022 the Pentagon’s request for hypersonic research funding is US $3.8 billion—up from $3.2 billion in 2021 and $2.6 billion in the previous year.
What about India? Though India test fired its first indigenous Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HSTDV), developed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), in August last year, knowledgeable sources say that this is related to the making of the BrahMos-II, which is supposed to succeed the Indian Navy’s BrahMos anti-ship missile.
BrahMos is also supersonic, flying at 3 times the speed of sound, known as Mach 3. But BrahMos II, like Russian Zircon, will be about twice as fast, flying at speeds in excess of Mach 6. Though expected to have a range of 600 km, BrahMos II can develop the range to 1000 Km and the speed of Mach 8, it is said. However, its scheduled testing was to be held in 2020. Things have been delayed.
As is well-known, BrahMos series is being developed by the BrahMos Aerospace Private Limited, the joint collaboration of India’s DRDO and Russia’s NPO Mashinostroyenia (NPOM). Significantly, Zircon has been designed by none other than the NPOM.
What is noteworthy is that though it is supposed to carry conventional warheads, Zircon can be fitted with nuclear warheads if the need arises. Whether BrahMos II will be allowed to carry nuclear warheads remains unclear.
Viewed thus, it is safe to say that hypersonic missiles will be in news more and more in the days to come. Because, these are needed not only for military purposes but also for low-orbiting satellites that can catch a hypersonic missile in time to alert potential targets. Of course, as has been pointed out, it is very difficult to defend against fast moving and manoeuvrable hypersonic missile. But one may agree with American analyst Philip E. Ross that “at least a timely tip could enable the doomed site to retaliate before dying, a capability that would reinforce the sardonically named system of deterrence known as MAD, for mutual assured destruction.”