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The Era of Hypersonics

Although piloted, inhabited aircraft making routine use of hypersonics or capable of traversing at those speeds are, realistically, still years away, all evidence shows that hypersonic weapons are capable of launch from aircraft, surface vehicles, ships, and submarines, and are now within a decade of operational fielding, with aerospace industry claiming this is possible in half that time — provided the governments across the globe make a necessary commitment to steady, disciplined investment to realize this technology. Examples abound of peer nations undertaking successful development of such weapons, though adequate demonstration and ‘limit-testing’ still remain unclear areas.

India itself, under the strategic guidance of visionaries from the nation’s defense establishment DRDO, has two hypersonic programs in the pipeline. The Hypersonic Technology Development Vehicle (HSTDV) that the nation is aiming to develop indigenously has already undergone a first phase of testing in 2019 undertaken by DRDO to understand the complexities associated with the development of this system. In addition to the HSTDV, the nation is currently partnering with one of its closest military allies, Russia, in a bid to collaborate for the development of the Brahmos Mark II(K) missiles through its private sector joint venture corporation BrahMos Aerospace. The possession of hypersonic capabilities may well provide to be the pivotal factor in a future determination of military superiority for countries. As a result of this, the development of HSTDV and Brahmos Mark II(K) is of vital strategic importance for the country, and through this article, we explore just what advantage this development will have for the Indian defense forces.

India’s Hypersonics Programme

Like the other countries, India’s programme also remains classified, and only some limited information is available. As outlined above, India is undertaking hypersonic research through the Defence Ministries, the DRDO, and another private sector agency called BrahMos Aerospace (a joint venture with Moscow). The DRDO’s prototype is known as the HSTDV (Hyper-Sonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle), and BrahMos Aerospace is known to be developing the BrahMos-II.

BrahMos II, which is a hypersonic cruise missile, is currently under development. Initially, this missile was expected to have a range of less than 300km (speed of Mach 7). However now, ever since India has become a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR),52 this range could be increased. The BrahMos-II could be a variant of one of the hypersonic anti-ship missile developed by Russia. In February 2014, India’s Ministry of Defence is known to be have authored the sale of the hypersonic missile BrahMos to other allied and friendly nations. India’s HTDV vehicle ,too remains largely secretive, although tere were

In addition, the Shourya surface-to-surface missiles were two-stage missiles operating on solid fuel. Although, it was reported that the Shouriya missiles had successfully attained speeds of March 7.5, there continues to exist a distinct lack of clarity owing to the complex, secretive and high-stakes nature of this project.

The Disruptive Potential of Hypersonics

As outlined above, although the term 'hypersonic' commonly refers to the obtainment of speeds greater than Mach 5, it would be unwise to consider speed as the only characteristic or parameter that defines emerging hypersonic weapons. After all, most ballistic missiles fly at speeds well above the hypersonic threshold, and these systems have been around for many decades. The true innovative quality of aerial hypersonic weapons is their ability to maintain hypersonic speeds within the atmosphere. This ability allows them to use aerodynamic forces to manoeuvre and follow less predictable flight paths than traditional ballistic missiles, which makes it challenging to map their flight trajectories.

The development of India’s Hypersonic programs hold the promise of providing us with an advantage that may yet be unmatched as most nations are still in the initial stages of development with this technology being in its nascent stages. The Indian armed forces can expect to, such as:

  1. Shrinking the “time to target” window: Hypersonics offer the unprecedented potential to lessen the “time to target” window since at their minimum speeds, they are at least 6 times faster than conventional cruise missile systems. This results in the creation of a more effective intelligence and targeting cycle when dealing with targets that need to be dealt with quickly.
  2. Increased access to targets: Hypersonics also present the ability to reduce the entire globe to the “theatre”, bringing it within access and ensuring that every adversary can potentially be perceived as a bordering territory. Further, there are increased chances of strike success due to the challenges of intercepting systems or vehicles travelling at such hypersonic speeds. These redefining engagement opportunities and allowing more operational flexibility
  3. Enhancing ISR Capabilities: Once hypersonic weapons are fielded, the lessons from their operations could also be translated into intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) operations, giving nations the ability to perhaps someday reach an area of interest faster than a satellite could be repositioned, and overflying contested airspace with a great degree of survivability.
  4. Reducing adversaries’ opportunities: Hypersonics can cripple a target’s decision-making window, effectively enabling the hypersonic attacker to get inside an adversary’s command, control, and battle management cycle with swiftness and precision. This shortened response times for targeted adversaries also presents increased chances of success. In addition to crippling adversarial response times, it also could provide command and control superiority.
  5. Nullifying air-defenses and detection: Not only are Hypersonic targets are ‘10 to 20 times dimmer’ than what the countries normally track by satellites in geostationary orbit.
  6. Extensive Manoeuvrability: The characteristics that Hypersonics possess provides them the potential to challenge detection and defense due to their speed, maneuverability, and low altitude of flight. For example, terrestrial-based radar cannot detect hypersonic weapons until late in the weapon’s flight.
  7. Accentuating the Battlespace: Hypersonics can also present the opportunity for the creation of a more cohesive, strategic military culture and battlespace strategies.
  8. Precursor to Advanced Space Capability: As the first and foundational, stage of a two stage vehicle for rapid access to space as a precursor to space-defense capabilities.

Additionally, several hypersonic technology programs often hold the possibility of possessing a dual-use character. Such hardware and technology may eventually be used for space launch and civilian transport of passengers and cargo. Instead of the usual operational tendency to co-ordinate any military actions and ensure an effective control and command structure across different verticals, in order to align multiple functionalities (such as establishing air superiority, establishing tanker support, positioning personnel recovery assets strategically, establishing airborne command and control networks, prosecuting electronic warfare, and infiltrating attack platforms through myriad defenses) a hypersonic strike could unfold far more rapidly, with far fewer support requirements in order for it to be effective. Unable to intercept such high-speed weapons, a first strike wave could simultaneously eliminate the most heavily defended enemy nuclear facilities and key targets in a fraction of the time, at a much lower threshold of risk to attackers. Along similar lines, it is therefore clear that once a nation acquires hypersonic capabilities, it can be leveraged to create a deterrent effect against regional rivals or to increase the country’s prestige in the international community.

Near-Peer Developments and Global Outlook ,>

At the moment, there are several countries that already possess currently functional hypersonic capabilities, or are in the process of acquiring them over a near-future timeline, of which China, Russia and the United States are the most predominant ones making significant investment and breakthroughs into Hypersonics. 

For instance, the USA has allocated almost 3% of its entire defense R&D budget towards hypersonic weapons programs amounting to nearly $3.8 bn, a remarkable increase from the $3.2 bn allocated in the previous year, with separate programs for each of its tri-services across different deployment mechanisms. Infact, the thrust from the United States seems to be so strong that there are plans to arm each of its Zumwalt class destroyers with a dozen hypersonic missiles to retain naval superiority.

China too, has been investing heavily in infrastructure and R&D capabilities in this front, having recently built a wind tunnel capable of simulating flights at speeds nearing Mach 30 and perhaps beyond – which has already exceeded the analyst expectations of its peers who pegged their capabilities to reach testing abilities nearing Mach 25. This, in addition to their already existing thrust on hypersonics development which has resulted in Chinese scholars leading the pack in researching and publishing research papers at key technological conferences; and the fact that China currently operates FD-02, FD-02, FD-03, and FD-07 hypersonic wind tunnels, capable of reaching speeds of Mach 8, Mach 10, and Mach 12 respectively. In addition to the JF-22 wind tunnel operationalized recently, it also operates the JF-12 hypersonic wind tunnel, which reaches speeds of between Mach 5 and Mach 9, and the FD-21 hypersonic wind tunnel, which reaches speeds of between Mach 10 and Mach 15.

Similarly, Russia is pursuing two hypersonic weapons programs—the Avangard and the 3M22 Tsirkon (or ‘Zircon’)—and has reportedly fielded the Kinzhal (“Dagger”), a maneuvering air-launched ballistic missile. Some experts believe that Avengard, specifically, operates as a hypersonic glide vehicle launched from an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), and possesses “effectively ‘unlimited’ range.

 

An Overview of Current Hypersonic Development Programs

Hypersonic Weapon System

Country of Origin Classification Status Estimated IOC Timeline
DF-17 China HGV Possibly operational ~2020
Lingyun - 1 China HCM Experimental Prototype N/A
Avangard Russia HGV Operational 2019
3M-22 Tsirkon Russia HCM In development Unknown
Kinzhal Russia Other Operational 2019

Air Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW)

United States HGV In development 2021-22
Long Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW) United States HGV In development 2023-24
Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS) United States HGV In development 2027-28
Mayhem System Demonstrator United States HCM In development Unknown
Brahmos II India and Russia HCM In development 2025-28
Hypersonic Demonstrator Vehicle (HSTDV) India HCM In development Unknown
Hypersonic Cruise Missile Japan HCM In development 2024-28
Hypervelocity Gliding Projectile Japan HGV In development 2024-28
Perseus United Kingdom and France HCM In development 2030
Hypersonic International Flight Research Experimentation (HIFiRE) Australia and United States HCM In development Unknown
Sharp Edge Flight Experiment II (SHEFFEX II) Germany HGV In development / Unclear (Possibly halted due to fund re-allocation) Unknown
14-X Hypersonic Aerospace Vehicle Project Brazil HGV Feasibility Analysis Stage Unknown

 

With such intense competition between countries in trying to develop their hypersonic capabilities, experts hold a varying range of opinions on what this will mean for the future of military systems, with some believing that hypersonics may act as the catalyst for another arms’ race amongst near-peer adversaries and rivals, whereas others hold the opinion that hypersonics may eventually act as a non-proliferation tool, reducing the likelihood of escalating tensions reaching a boiling point. In either case, it is apparent that DRDO’s focus on the development of the HSTDV and the government’s thrust on the BrahMos Mark II both will not only trigger incremental opportunities for aerospace companies with ambitions of contributing to or taking advantage of this trend, but also ensure that the nation remains vigilant of the tumultuous geopolitical climate in the region. It is pertinent to note that the development of Hypersonics presents some rather interesting challenges that industries looking to foray into this space will have to be extremely cognizant of. These challenges, and a set of items encapsulating a strategy for the R&D of Hypersonics are aspects that we will be tackling in a separate article.

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