April 23, 2019

What are Hypersonic Weapons?

  • Speed: Hypersonic weapons are the ones that can fly at speeds greater 5000 km/hr (more than 5 Mach). Due to such speeds they can strike anywhere on the earth in under an hour.

  • Altitude of flying: These weapons fly low, remaining in the endo-atmospheric region (generally at altitudes below about 90 km), thereby reducing the chances of their detection by radar systems.

What are SCRAMJET Engines?

  • The tremendous speed in the bracket of 6-8 Mach is achieved through the use of Supersonic Combustion Ramjet (SCRAMJET) Engines.

  • Such engines, though operate on the same principal of ramjet air breathing engines, have the capability to support the combustion of supersonic air flows in their combustion Chambers.

  • When such air flows are made to pass through escape nozzles, they produce significantly higher acceleration, propelling the missiles at speeds that reach hypersonic ranges.

What are the two Main Versions of Hypersonic Weapons?

  1. Hypersonic Cruise Missiles (HCM): It is a typical cruise missile which is ‘all the way powered’ to achieve hypersonic speeds of Mach 5 or higher.

  2. Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGV): Such a vehicle is also called a ‘wave-rider’ because it uses the shock waves generated by its own flight as a lifting surface to enhance the lift-to-drag ratio to reach the hypersonic regime of Mach 5 or even more. A typical HGV is launched by any solid propellant rocket/missile which can give it the initial boost.

What Makes Hypersonic Weapons So Lethal?

  • Speed: Hypersonic weapons strikes at a tremendous speed and prohibits the defender to get his defences to react to such a threat in time.

  • Undetectability: HCMs can fly lower than the traditional ballistic missiles, thus they tend to avoid radar detection. Since speed (aided by also flying low level) becomes a combat virtue for making such weapons undetectable, and hence unstoppable, it is said, "speed is the new stealth".

  • Huge Kinetic Energy Kill Capability: Experts opine that one kg of warhead carried by a hypersonic missile moving at Mach 6, has 36 times more kill capability than a conventional ballistic missile carrying the same warhead.

  • Unpredictability: The payloads gliding at speeds in excess of Mach 5 and more are so manoeuvrable due to their non-ballistic trajectories that they can change their targets at any point. Because of this, HGVs can hold huge areas of the defender's domain at risk of strike, while making targeting of such payloads extremely difficult (if at all).

What is the Global Trend in Hypersonic Weapon Development?

  • China and Russia are in the forefront of development in the hypersonic weapons, even ahead of USA. Other countries in the hypersonic arms development race are France, UK, Turkey and India.

  • Recently, in March 2019, it was reported that Russia is getting ready to launch the Zircon Hypersonic Missile which will have a capability of flying at Mach 8 and will be simply "unstoppable" by any known missile defence system in the world.

Where does India stands in the Hypersonic Field?

  • DRDO has developed a surface-to-surface tactical missile codenamed ‘Shaurya’ which has a hypersonic speed of 7.5 Mach. This missile is capable of carrying a payload of one ton which could either be conventional or nuclear.

  • BrahMos II Hypersonic Cruise Missile is under joint development by India and Russia. It is an upgraded version of BrahMos I, which will have a speed of about Mach 7 and a range of 600 km. This missile will be ready for testing in 2020.

How to counter the Hypersonic weapons?

  • The attempts to build the counter hypersonic are in their R&D phase.

  • The US’ Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is trying to research possible weapon options (called glide breakers) which could take on this futuristic threat.

  • Weapons that could be based on space with soft kill magazines firing at the speed of light etc are being researched as possible options.

  • Challenges in developing them: The target to be destroyed surely poses huge challenges - speeds in the region of Mach 20, unpredictable non-ballistic trajectory, high manoeuvrability, unpredictability of flight, low endo-atmospheric operation avoiding radar detection and more.

  • Way ahead: However, this concept must be kept alive as a future niche technology area and R&D directed towards it as deemed operationally necessary at a point in time.