(Editor’s Note: Updated during the course of the day with additional information obtained from DRDO in paragraphs 9, 10, 11 and 12, and a video of the hypersonic vehicle launch in the last paragraph.)
By N. C. Bipindra
New Delhi: In only its second attempt in just over a year, India today said it has successfully flight tested a Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HSTDV), a mission that former President of India and the most popular defence scientist A. P. J. Abdul Kalam had set for the nation’s military technologists.
An earlier attempt at flight testing the HSTDV in June 2019 was not entirely successful, reportedly after its Agni-I ballistic carrier vehicle, which was to provide altitude boost, didn’t complete the mission.
“In a historic mission today, India successfully flight tested Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HSTDV), a giant leap in indigenous defence technologies and significant milestone towards a #sashaktbharat (Empowered India) and #atmanirbharbharat (Self-Reliant India),” a statement from the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) said.
The flight test of the HSTDV was carried out at 11.03 am from Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam Launch Complex at Wheeler Island, off the coast of Odisha, a province on India’s eastern coast.
“(The) DRDO, with this mission, has demonstrated capabilities for highly complex technology that will serve as the building block for NextGen hypersonic vehicles in partnership with (the) industry.”
Only the United States, Russia and China have previous demonstrated hypersonic missile through flight tests. Thus, India becomes the fourth nation globally to join this elite club of hypersonic technology demonstrators.
DRDO Chairman and Secretary for Defence Research and Development Dr G. Satheesh Reddy congratulated all the scientists, researchers and other personnel related with HSTDV mission for their resolute and unwavering efforts towards strengthening nation’s defence capabilities.
India’s Minister of Defence Rajnath Singh tweeted the success of the Indian defence scientists, in which he noted that the test vehicle used the indigenously developed scramjet propulsion system and all critical technologies are now established to progress to the next phase.
The hypersonic cruise vehicle was launched using a proven solid rocket motor, which took it to an altitude of 30 km, where the aerodynamic heat shields were separated at hypersonic Mach number.
The cruise vehicle separated from the launch vehicle and the air intake opened as planned. The hypersonic combustion sustained and the cruise vehicle continued on its desired flight path at a velocity of six times the speed of sound, that is nearly 2 km/second for more than 20 seconds.
The critical events like fuel injection and auto ignition of scramjet demonstrated technological maturity. The scramjet engine performed in a text book manner. The parameters of launch and cruise vehicle, including scramjet engine was monitored by multiple tracking radars, electro-optical systems and telemetry stations.
The scramjet engine worked at high dynamic pressure and at very high temperature. A ship was also deployed in the Bay of Bengal to monitor the performance during the cruise phase of hypersonic vehicle. All the performance parameters have indicated a resounding success of the mission.
The HSTDV project is basically aimed at demonstrating autonomous flight of a scramjet integrated vehicle, which can also have multiple civilian applications, including launching satellites at a low-cost, as well as military uses in the shape of long-range cruise missiles.
A scramjet engine is an improvement over the ramjet engine because the former operates efficiently at hypersonic speeds and allows supersonic combustion. Ramjets, in contrast, operate well at supersonic speeds, around Mach 3, but their efficiency drops at hypersonic speeds.
In mid-2015, India-Russia joint venture BrahMos Aerospace Private Limited Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director Dr Sudhir Kumar Mishra had told this writer in an interview that Kalam had inspired the DRDO to achieve some military technological breakthrough first, ahead of the rest of the global technological powerhouses, and had listed the hypersonic technology as one of the targets.
Mishra had then said that the Indian armed forces had not yet shown interest or a need for an hypersonic cruise missile, but yet BrahMos Aerospace was working on improving the existing, world’s only operation supersonic cruise missile.
BrahMos cruise missile is India’s longest range artillery weapon that the armed forces deploy, at over 290-km range. India has previously tested the cruise missile for doubling its range after the nation joined the Missile Technology Control Regime in the year 2016.