India’s New Hypersonic Nuclear Capability

What’s a hypersonic missile India is building and how it is different from other missiles

8 September, 2020

New Delhi: The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) Monday successfully test-fired the Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HSTDV), making India the fourth country in the world after the US, China and Russia to develop such technology.

Monday’s test, carried out from Abdul Kalam Island (formerly Wheeler Island) off the coast of Odisha, came a year after the DRDO had first tested the futuristic technology. But it had not met all the parameters then.

The successful test Monday will pave the way for missiles that can travel at six times the speed of sound. India will reportedly make its first hypersonic missile in the next five years.

ThePrint delves into what the HSTDV means for India, and which hypersonic and other missiles are available to major militaries across the world.

What does test firing of HSTDV mean for India? 

The HSTDV is an unmanned scramjet demonstration aircraft for hypersonic speed flight. Hypersonic flight means a speed greater than five times the speed of sound (Mach 5).

Apart from being used as a vehicle for hypersonic and long-range cruise missiles, the HSTDV is a dual-use technology that will have multiple civilian applications, including the launch of small satellites at low cost.

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh tweeted that the HSTDV used the indigenously developed scramjet propulsion system, which is an improvement over the Ramjet engines which work efficiently at supersonic speeds of around Mach 3 (three times the speed of sound).

The DRDO said Monday’s test also demonstrated capabilities for highly complex technology that will serve as the building block for NextGen Hypersonic vehicles in partnership with industry.

Hypersonic nuclear missiles

Hypersonic missiles travel at speeds faster than 3,800 miles per hour or 6,115 km per hour, much faster than other ballistic and cruise missiles. They can deliver conventional or nuclear payloads within minutes.

They are highly manoeuvrable and do not follow a predictable arc as they travel. They are said to combine the speed of ballistic missiles with the manoeuvring capabilities of cruise missiles. The speed makes them hard to track compared to traditional missile tech.

In March this year, the United States announced it had successfully tested an unarmed prototype of a hypersonic missile.

According to reports, China and Russia are also vigorously pursuing hypersonic weapons, though Russia is reportedly not developing or considering them for use with a nuclear warhead.

In July, Russian President Vladimir Putin said his country’s Navy vessels would be armed with hypersonic nuclear strike weapons and underwater nuclear drones, which, he said, are in the final phase of testing

Cruise and ballistic missiles

A cruise missile either locates its target or has a preset target. It navigates using a guidance system — such as inertial or beyond visual range satellite GPS guidance — and comprises a payload and aircraft propulsion system.

Cruise missiles can be launched from land, sea or air for land attacks and anti-shipping purposes, and can travel at subsonic, supersonic and hypersonic speeds.

Since they stay relatively close to the surface of the earth, they cannot be detected easily by anti-missile systems, and are designed to carry large payloads with high precision.

Ballistic missiles, meanwhile, are launched directly into the upper layers of the earth’s atmosphere. They travel outside the atmosphere, where the warhead detaches from the missile and falls towards a predetermined target. They are rocket-propelled self-guided weapons systems which can carry conventional or nuclear munitions. They can be launched from aircraft, ships and submarines, and land.

ICBMs

Intercontinental ballistic missiles or ICBMs are guided missiles which can deliver nuclear and other payloads.

The Federation of American Scientists is quoted as saying that ICBMs have a minimum range of 5,500 km, with maximum ranges varying from 7,000 to 16,000 km.

Only a handful of countries, including Russia, United States, China, France, India and North Korea, have ICBM capabilities.

In 2018, India successfully test-fired nuclear-capable ballistic missile Agni-V, with a strike range of 5,000 km, from the Abdul Kalam Island.

Anti-satellite missiles

Anti-satellite missiles (ASAT) can incapacitate or destroy satellites for strategic military purposes. Several nations possess operational ASAT systems.

Other anti-satellite weapons include ground-based jammers to disrupt the signal from navigation and communications satellites.

The United States, Russia, and China are among countries pursuing anti-satellite weapons.

India had successfully test fired an ASAT on 27 March last year, knocking off one of its own satellites 300 km in space.

DRDO chairman G. Satheesh Reddy had ruled out future ASAT missile tests in the lower Earth orbit, but hinted at keeping the options open for possible experiments in higher orbits.

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