Hypersonic missiles are considered the fastest weapon ever created in the history of mankind. It has long been the desired weapon of the superpowers and tech giant countries.
The flight speed is often compared to the speed of sound. The speed of sound is Mach 1. The sound travels through the air about ten times as fast as we drive on the freeway. Commercial airliners, for example, fly subsonically right under Mach 1. A modern fighter can travel supersonically at Mach 2 or 3. Anything Mach 5 or above is called hypersonic speed. Mach 25 is the upper limit.
Space agencies do have space shuttles that go hypersonically at Mach 20 or 24. However, it is only flying hypersonically for a relatively short time. But technology is just now emerging which is enabling sustained hypersonic flight and weaponising this cutting-edge hi-tech.
However as time goes on, the knowledge related to these technologies is going to start proliferating. There are two types of missiles emerging, hypersonic cruise missiles and hypersonic glide vehicles.
Hypersonic cruise missiles are powered to their targets using an advanced propulsion system called a scramjet. These are so fast that defenders may have six minutes from the time it's launched until the time it strikes.
Hypersonic glide vehicles are very fast glider. The way it is launched as they put it on top of a rocket then it flies on top of the atmosphere.
It is like a plane with no engine on it and it uses aerodynamic forces to maintain stability to fly along and to manoeuvre. As it is manoeuvrable it can keep its target a secret up until the last few seconds of the flight.
The faster the missile goes the more kinetic energy it gets. In some cases, the attacker may not need to put any explosives in it. The kinetic energy of the vehicle itself is sufficient to cause destruction.
The three countries who have got close being able to full-scale deployment of hypersonic missiles are Russia, China and the US. It is probably less than a decade for these top three countries to develop these devastating weapons.
Other countries such as India, France, Germany, Australia, Japan and South Korea are however much behind in part because of the technical and the engineering challenges. Let us see the country-wise development of hypersonic weapons.
Russian President Vladamir Putin claimed his country is the first in the world which successfully deployed hypersonic missiles. It is believed that Russia is researching hypersonic missiles since the 1980s. Russia deployed Moscow Institute Of Thermal Technology design the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle in December 2019 which flew at Mach 27 during tests according to Yury Borisov, the deputy prime minister of Russia.
The Kh-47M2 Kinzhal is a Russian air-launched ballistic missile, which can also be called a hypersonic weapon considering its speed which is around Mach 10 to 12. Moreover, NPO Mashinostroyeniya, a Russia based rocket design bureau is developing anti-ship & land-attack hypersonic cruise missile Zircon for Russian Navy which can also be launched from a submarine at the speed of Mach 8. In case of air defence missiles, Russia is operating hypersonic technology on S-400 surface to air missile(SAM) from 2007.
The United States
The United States has actively pursued the development of hypersonic weapons as a part of its conventional prompt global strike (CPGS) program since the early 2000s.
On a joint test operation of the hypersonic missile in March 2020 the US Army and Navy tested a nuclear warhead capable hypersonic missile though a Congress report shows that the US is not currently developing hypersonic weapons for use with a nuclear warhead.
The US Army, Navy and Air Force has undertaken hypersonic weapon program named Long Range Hypersonic Weapon(LRHW), Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS) and Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW or "Arrow") respectively. Besides these efforts, the US is collaborating with Australia on Hypersonic Flight Research Experimentation (HIFIRE) program secretly on the development of hypersonic technology from 2009.
Besides the Defense, Advanced Research Projects Agency(DARPA) is researching hypersonic weapons on their own. The Pentagon plans to deploy an arsenal of hypersonic weapons between 2023 and 2028.
China has demonstrated a growing interest in Russian advances in hypersonic weapons technology, conducting a flight test of a hypersonic-glide vehicle (HGV) only days after Russia tested its system.
After several successful tests of the Chinese state of the art weapon DF-17 (Dong Feng 17) hypersonic boost-glide vehicle,18 different models were paraded in October 2019.
According to experts, China plans to deploy it on the field in this year or it has already been deployed. The ongoing Chinese effort to develop hypersonic cruise missiles broke US's X-51 aircraft's flight record and the Chinese scramjet continuously flew 600 seconds which is more powerful than DF-17 claimed by Chinese media. Moreover, China is researching on a very new kind of hypersonic vehicle which is often called wave rider. After the successful test in August 2018, they named it Starry Sky -2.
Currently, India is working on two types of hypersonic missiles. One is surface-to-surface hypersonic cruise missile Shaurya, developed by Defence Research and Development Organisation(DRDO) which reached at the speed of Mach 7.5 on its first test flight in 2011.
Another one is an anti-ship hypersonic cruise missile under development by the joint venture of Russia's NPO Mashinostroyenia and India's DRDO. This missile is the second version of BrahMos missiles. Successful tests were done in 2012 though its deployment is in darkness.
Observing the hypersonic hype all around the world France could no longer wait. They have launched project V-MaX aims to create hypersonic glider by 2021. On the other hand, French Navy and Royal Navy are jointly developing Perseus, a stealth hypersonic cruise missile which will have the ship to ground attack capability.
Germany is developing anti-tank hypersonic missiles and working with USA's Lockheed Martin to create next-generation missile defence system. Germany had a successful hypersonic glide vehicle test in 2012 but according to Congressional Research Service, Germany may have pulled funding for the program.
Other countries such as Japan have started working on both kinds of hypersonic missiles. They expect to test their prototype by 2024. Australia is collaborating with the United States. Earlier this year South Korea has declared to start researching on hypersonic missiles to tackle down North Korean threat. The European Union is running project ATLAS ll.
The current types of missile defences are not adequate to defend against hypersonic missiles. Our whole defence system is based on the assumption that we are going to intercept the ballistic objects. A security analyst of American think tank RAND Corporation says, "A ballistic missile is like a fly ball in baseball. The outfielder knows exactly where to catch it because it is path is determined by momentum and gravity. It is a different scenario for hypersonics. The combination of the different manoeuvrability and the speed makes hypersonic missiles unpredictable and extremely difficult to defend against."
Defence experts around the globe are extra concerned about the ongoing race to add this game-changing weapon to arsenals of military giants. Making this unpredictable beast a nuclear-capable weapon can impose more threat against human civilization. Some sort of agreement must be signed among superpowers and regional powers to pay a conservative outlook on developing and sharing hypersonic technologies.
The author is a student of criminology at Dhaka University.