Hypersonic Missiles : Can it spark a global arms race?

International Nov 09, 2021

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“The arms race is based on an optimistic view of technology and a pessimistic view of man. It assumes there is no limit to the ingenuity of science and no limit to the deviltry of human beings.” – J. F. Stone

Hypersonic Weapons are a hot topic of discussion, China tested it’s new hypersonic Missile with nuclear capabilities in summer this year, US Joint Chief of staff Gen. Mark Milley said it was very close to a ‘Sputnik moment’ that caught US intelligence by surprise.

What are Hypersonic Missiles?

The missiles are capable of operating at speeds above Mach 5 which is roughly 6000 km/hr. These missiles operate at a very low altitude that protects them against detection.

What are the types of Hypersonic Missiles?

Ballistic missiles, these are the missiles whose most of the path is a projectile motion and follows a set trajectory, it attains its maximum speed after the re-entry in atmosphere, it has fins on its body for improved maneuverability once it enters atmosphere.

Hypersonic Glide Vehicles ( HGVs) , The vehicle is carried by a rocket into Low Earth Orbitals (LEO) that glides in the atmosphere with help of Physics and Aerodynamics before hitting the target.

Hypersonic Cruise Vehicle (HCV) are at the peak of technological advancement and truly a marvel of engineering to develop. As these missiles are propelled throughout the trajectory by scramjet (supersonic-combustion ramjet) engine  and travels completely below the atmosphere, safeguarding it from RADAR detection.

Which countries possess the Hypersonic Missile technology?

Mainly 3 major countries have developed technology regarding hypersonic Missiles, United States of America, China, and Russia.

Russia and China have been pursuing development for the past decade, both have significantly developed capabilities; the Russian military currently has two hypersonic Missiles.

Avangard with nuclear capabilities, which can reach a staggering 20 mach. Kinzal is also nuclear-powered ballistic missiles fielded in 2017. In October 2020, it successfully tested Zircon HCM from Gorshkov frigate in white sea.

China has also made remarkable progress in Hypersonics, it has tested 20 times as many hypersonic weapons as compared to the United States. It has developed DF-17 equipped with HGV,  with range of 1800-2500 km.

The Biden administration is making a big push in Hypersonic technology by increasing the funding over 20% to 3.8 Billion US Dollars.

A number of other countries – Australia, India, France, Germany and Japan are also developing hypersonic weapons technology. India developed the Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle program and successfully tested a Mach 6 scramjet in June 2019.

What impact can this technology have?

While Russia and China focus to develop these missiles to arm them with nuclear warheads, and build up deterrence against the United States, and it’s air defense system. On the other hand, the US is      developing a long range hypersonic Missile with conventional warheads, with more focus on accuracy and overall flight control.

The problem is threefold, as of now there is no existing air defense system that can defend against these weapons due to their unpredictable path and high speeds.

The complex and random path followed may trigger unwanted response from a country and lead to undesirable escalation in situations.

There are also no international laws or treaties on the use of these weapons, which makes the condition even worse as the development is happening at alarming rate, and measures need to be taken to avoid proliferation of technology.

This article has been written by Rutam Pimplapure for The Paradigm.

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