(Editor’s Note: The views are that of the author’s. For the writer’s other interests, read the credit line at the end of the article.)
By Lt Gen Prakash Katoch.
The United States identifies Russia as its top adversary.
On Jul. 19, 2021, the Russian frigate ‘Admiral Gorshkov’, sailing in the White Sea, fired a Zircon cruise missile travelling at the speed of Mach 7 more than 350 kilometres, which hit its target on the coast of the Barents Sea.
Russian President Vladimir Putin called the Zircon “invincible” and said that the future belongs to unmanned aerial vehicles and the use of artificial intelligence in the aviation industry.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said at a briefing that “the new Russian hypersonic systems are a potentially destabilising factor and pose a significant threat, because these systems are compatible with nuclear ones.”
Russia already has the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicles, and the air launched Kinzhal (Dagger) missiles in its hypersonic arsenal, to which the Zircon will be added.
All major powers including the US, China and France are developing hypersonic weapons, but today Russia is viewed holding the number one position.
Having a head start, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu noted that Russia has something to protect the country with and said, “we have an increase in the range of hypersonic weapons in the future.
This is an increase in speeds, if we talk about the same hyper sound, this is an increase in accuracy, this, of course, is the adaptation of carriers to new types of weapons.”
Michael Wigston, Chief of Staff of the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force has stated that the British armed forces would be practicing dispersal manoeuvres because of the probability of the Russian Federation deploying hypersonic missiles in the Kaliningrad region.
Hypersonic weapons are of two types: hypersonic cruise missiles and hypersonic boost-glide vehicles (HGV).
The cruise missile is powered by rockets or jets throughout their flight and is a much swifter version of existing cruise missiles.
The latter type is launched into the upper atmosphere on top of existing ballistic missiles, and then releases the hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs), which fly lower and faster to the target quite unpredictably.
Hypersonic weapons travelling at speeds of Mach 5 to Mach 7 and beyond are most difficult to track and destroy.
Defence against hypersonic weapons has been under debate for some time; among the measures a network of satellites for tracking hypersonic and using lasers to destroy them.
However, considering that the hypersonic can be launched like a ballistic missile and then glide in space, defence against it is not going to be easy.
The United States is developing its new Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor (HBTSS), which also complements existing satellite arrays in low-Earth orbit as part of the Defence Department‘s next-generation missile defence constellation.
Will the need of lasers to destroy hypersonic weapons start a race for space-based laser weapons, even though Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called for a treaty to ban deployment of any types of weapons in outer space at the recent 76th Session of United Nations General Assembly?
According to Michael Griffin, the US Under Secretary of Defence for Research and Engineering, China had tested more hypersonic weapons than the US in 2019.
The same year, China’s Dong Feng-17 (DF-17) medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM), equipped with HGV, appeared in China’s military parade during Oct. 2019.
The DF-17 can carry conventional or nuclear loads, speed of Mach 5-10 with a range of 1,800 kilometres to 2,500 kilometres and a launch weight of 15,000 kgs.
China’s second hypersonic weapon is the DF-ZF HGV with speed of Mach 5-10 and capable of performing extreme manoeuvres to evade enemy defences.
The DF-ZF has been designed in a manner that it can be employed in tandem with the DF-17 to maximise the potential of both these hypersonic weapons.
China’s DF-11 and DF-15 are also expected to be capable of operating in tandem with the DF-Z.
In Sep. 2021, Chinese military scientists published a research paper on the challenges of landing a drone travelling at Mach 5.
The paper published in the bi-monthly Chinese journal ‘Tactical Missile Technology’ did not mention whether such a vehicle is already in service.
The paper mentioned that the engine of the hypersonic Unmanned Aerial Vehicle would need to be shut down 200-km from the intended landing runway but neither humans nor fastest computers would be able to intervene and provide course corrections at Mach 5.
The solution mentioned was to improve the software to better predict possible landing scenarios.
Of concern to India would be China’s DF-17 and DF-ZF missiles with HGVs and as importantly, the research Chinese military scientists are undertaking in hypersonic drones and aircraft.
From our viewpoint, whether China’s hypersonic drone can land back is not important but the fact that the hypersonic drone presents a clear and present danger.
According to the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), India tested an indigenous HGV on Sep. 7, 2021, that flew at the speed of Mach 6 at an altitude of 30-km for about 20 seconds after separating from the launcher.
It proved multiple technologies including aerodynamic configuration for hypersonic manoeuvres.
Over the next five years, another three tests are planned by the DRDO, culminating in developing a hypersonic weapon capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear warheads.
Ironically, we are in an era where militarisation of space is inevitable, irrespective of any treaty signed, if at all since rogue China doesn’t respect treaties and international norms.
Similarly, the race for hypersonic capability will accelerate unchecked and hypersonic drones and jets may appear on the scene faster than expected, especially given the pathologically feverish pace of China to achieve world domination.
It would, therefore, be prudent for India to accelerate its hypersonic capabilities as also develop defence against hypersonic weapons to include the network of satellites for tracking and laser systems to destroy incoming enemy hypersonic missiles, drones, and jets.
For doing so, India could work with strategic partners including Russia with which it has co-developed the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile with a speed of Mach 8.
(The writer is a veteran of Indian Army and a regular contributor to Defence.Capital)