After a failed attempt in 2019, India has finally joined the club of elite nations by successfully conducting the maiden test flight of the High-Speed Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HSTDV) using an indigenously developed propulsion system.
The successful attempt marks the important step in the direction of having hypersonic delivery platforms including development as a carrier vehicle for cruise missiles and civilian applications including the launching of satellites at a lower cost.
The @DRDO_India has today successfully flight tested the Hypersonic Technology Demontrator Vehicle using the indigenously developed scramjet propulsion system. With this success, all critical technologies are now established to progress to the next phase.
— Rajnath Singh (@rajnathsingh) September 7, 2020
Other than India, only three nations – the US, Russia and China have boasted this technology. As reported earlier by EurAsian Times, the HSTDV test vehicle is developed by the state-owned Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and can be mounted on a solid rocket motor, which will take it to a required altitude, and once it attains a certain speed, the cruise vehicle will be ejected out of the launch vehicle.
Subsequently, the scramjet engine will be ignited automatically.
DRDO is reportedly working on a hypersonic anti-ship missile known as BrahMos-II which will succeed BrahMos anti-ship missile. According to reports, it is expected to achieve over six times the speed of sound on hypersonic scramjet technology.
The American interest in the hypersonic vehicles has seen peaks and valleys in the last 60 years. However, now the US is looking at competition as its superiority is threatened by China and Russia.
In 2018, Pentagon declared that the “highest technical priority” is the development of hypersonic capabilities. “I’m sorry for everybody out there who champion some other high priority, some technical thing; it’s not that I disagree with those. But there has to be a first, and hypersonics is my first,” said Michael Griffin, Pentagon’s then undersecretary of defence for research and engineering at a conference.
Recently, US President Donald Trump touted “a super-duper” missile. He claimed that the missile was capable of travelling 17 times faster than anything currently in the US missile arsenal.
According to a CNN report, Pentagon officials addressed the claim and said that it referred to a flight test that was performed in March where we flew 17 times the speed of sound. The report further stated that American efforts still lag behind China and Russia who have already fielded weapons systems, with a US missile unlikely to be fielded until 2023.
China became the first country to publicly announce the deployment of hypersonic weapons when its DF-17 missile featured in the National Day military parade on October 1, 2019.
Meanwhile, in December 2019, Russia announced the deployment of its Avangard missile. According to Russian media, the Avangard is a strategic intercontinental ballistic missile system equipped with a hypersonic boost-glide vehicle and is capable of flying at over 20 times the speed of sound in the dense layers of the atmosphere.
President Vladimir Putin used video presentations to showcase the development of two new nuclear delivery systems that he said could evade detection. One system Putin talked about included a “low-flying, hard to detect cruise missile with a practically unlimited range and an unpredictable flight path, which can bypass lines of interception and is invincible in the face of all existing and future systems of both missile defence and air defence”.
“Hence, although the United States cannot defend against the existing warheads on Russian ballistic missiles, Russia has emphasised that Avangard poses a new challenge to the United States because missile defences cannot intercept a manoeuvring hypersonic glide vehicle.”
The US may attempt to shoot down Russian and Chines hypersonic missiles by using exploding warheads, which may reduce the need for precision. Experts have cited the Arrow 2, SM-6, and PAC-2 interceptors and even novel approaches including high-power lasers and beams of electromagnetic energy.
Overall, the US is clearly behind Russia and China in terms of Hypersonic missile technology while India has a lot of catching to do.