EXPLAINED: As China Pulls Off Secret Test, Why Hypersonic Missiles Are Under Hot Pursuit In Missile Race

·4-min read

China is reported to have in August tested a hypersonic missile that caught the US by surprise for what it revealed about the country’s capabilities when it comes to the advanced weapons platform. Hypersonic missiles are seen as being the cutting edge of missile technology given that they can evade existing missile defence systems, thus imparting considerable strategic advantage to countries that possess them. Here’s what you need to know.

What Is A Hypersonic Missile?

Hypersonic speeds are those that exceed five times the speed of sound, that is, anything that can move at speeds of Mach 5 or above, which means at least at 1.6km per second. A hypersonic missile is faster than a cruise missile and can hit the same initial speeds as ballistic missiles, experts say.

Hypersonic missiles though fly through the atmosphere — which subjects them to atmospheric drag that can blunt their speed — whereas ballistic missiles avoid atmospheric drag by first flying into outer space and then dropping towards their target at high speed. Hypersonic missiles take a more direct path to their target and are seen as representing marked improvement in missile tech.

There are two types of hypersonic missiles. Hypersonic cruise missiles are the ones that use rocket or jet propellant through their flight and are regarded as being just faster versions of existing cruise missiles. Then there is the hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) — the kind that China tested in August — that first go up into the atmosphere on a conventional rocket or ballistic missile before being launched towards their target.

What Are The Advantages Of A Hypersonic Missile?

Traditional platforms like cruise and ballistic missiles have been around for long, giving the leading military powers enough time to develop substantial capabilities to detect and intercept them. But hypersonic missiles, by combining the speed of ballistic missiles and the stealth of cruise missiles, impart an ability for evading such anti-missile defences.

They can fly low, as cruise missiles do, while hitting speeds comparable to ballistic missiles. Hypersonic missiles are also manoeuvrable during flight, unlike ballistic missiles, which makes their trajectory highly unpredictable. Experts say the low altitude flight of which hypersonic missiles are capable, allow them to fly under the radar.

But some experts point out that the advantage conferred by hypersonic missiles can be matched by the conventional missile systems with the simple expedient of “firing more missiles than the adversary has interceptors, or by using countermeasures, like decoys”.

Interestingly, experts point out that the speed at which a hypersonic missile travels means it can achieve “devastating kinetic energy on its target, compensating for a smaller explosive warhead”.

What Did China’s Test Achieve?

The ability of missile defence systems to counter cruise and ballistic missiles greatly compromises the strategic advantage provided by such weapons. The development of hypersonic missiles, though not new, has seen renewed interest as the major powers sought to regain the strategic upper hand in the military sphere.

Reports say that China has been aggressively developing hypersonic missile technology to counter the progress made by the US on that front amid a deterioration of ties between the two top superpowers.

The Financial Times quoted sources as saying that China sent up the hypersonic missile mounted on a Long March rocket, which is the mainstay of its space programme. The test, done in August, was not announced. The report said that the nuclear-capable missile circled the Earth at low orbit before descending toward its target. However, the missile is said to have been off the mark by more than 32 km.

Which Countries Have Developed Hypersonic Missiles?

Reports say that while the likes of the US and Russia are leaders in the field, several countries are working on hypersonic missiles and even North Korea claims to have developed one. The Chinese hypersonic missile test report said that it had caught US officials by surprise with the indication it gave of how advanced China’s missile programme had become.

In September last year, India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) had successfully tested a Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HSTDV) that officials said would lay the foundation for the development of a hypersonic cruise missile system.

But while the lack of an operational hypersonic missile defence shield makes such systems attractive, experts say there are several challenges that lie in the path of developing such wepaons, including its propulsion system and the extreme heat these missiles generate while flying low through the atmosphere.

DRDO chief G Satheesh Reddy had said that it would take the agency about four-five years to “realise a complete missile system working for some good amount of range”.

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