India has joined the hypersonic missile race with at least three systems on the drawing board, but rapid progression of these projects assumes importance.
In 2018, India’s Strategic Forces Command (SFC) conducted or was intimately involved in three tests of the Long Range Strategic Missile Agni V. Agni IV and others in the series of strategic missiles were also tested while concomitantly the SSBN INS Arihant conducted an operational patrol. There are some deficiencies in the submarine-launched ballistic missile profile which in due course will be made up.
India no doubt is now in an exclusive club populated so far by the P 5 – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – China, France, Russia, UK and the United States creating the desired minimum credible deterrence required given two nuclear-armed adversaries in the immediate neighbourhood.
The next stage in assured deterrence will have to be hypersonic missiles with rapid developments undertaken by China, United States and Russia.
A hypersonic missile as per Defence IQ is a cruise missile that attains the speed of Mach 5 and higher - five times faster than the speed of sound (3836 mph) or around 1 mile per second. The high velocity facilitates speed in reaching the target before missile defence can get activated.
Comparatively, most cruise missiles such as the US Tomahawk are subsonic travelling at 550mph. The only supersonic cruise missile is the Indo Russian joint project BrahMos China, Russia and the USA are also experimenting with hypersonic glide vehicles which are launched into space “ where the warheads are released and fall towards the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds”. The warhead attached to the glide vehicle “surfs on the atmosphere between 40-100km in altitude and reaches its destination by leveraging aerodynamic forces”.
The advantage of hypersonic missiles is that there is no known missile defence system developed to defeat the same.
These can thus be used for targeting ballistic missile launchers as the Pakistan Nasr tested recently [January 2019].
The United Kingdom and France are also reportedly developing the Perseus hypersonic missile.
China is developing a ballistic missile-launched hypersonic glide vehicle, the DF-17, a scramjet-powered missile, the Ling Yun and DF ZF – short to medium range hypersonic glide vehicle. China has also tested the Starry Sky-2 hypersonic vehicle.
Russia has the U-71, BrahMos II, the 3m22 Zircon, the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile and 3K22 Tsirkon. Russia has reportedly developed an intercontinental ballistic missile-launched hypersonic glide vehicle, Avangard as per Defence IQ.
The United States has awarded Lockheed Martin contracts for the development of Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon ($928 million) and AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon ($480m) as per Defence IQ.
Open source media reports indicate that India is also developing a series of hypersonic missiles and glide weapons.
BrahMos Aerospace the joint Indo Russian venture which is successfully manufacturing the BrahMos missile has indicated that it is developing a hypersonic version of the missile which will be capable of attaining a speed of Mach 6 based on a scramjet engine.
The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is also reportedly developing the Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HSTDV), though verified details of the project are not available.
India has also tested the Shaurya missile way back in 2011 which is said to be having a speed of Mach 7.5 and a range of 700 miles.
Rapid progression of these projects assumes importance given the next level of deterrence that will be required in the near term with China likely to deploy hypersonic missiles in the coming year(s).
Along with the development of the missile and/or glide vehicle, there will be a need for a quality target acquisition capability.
As of now systems that can defeat hypersonic missiles are under development thus these will enjoy an advantage for some years to come before missile defence systems also attain potential for countering the same.