Recently the Russian Ministry of Defence announced that it used the hypersonic missile for the first time in the conflict with Ukraine. These ultra-fast “hypersonic” missiles are capable of hitting targets anywhere on earth within a short span of an hour.
Wars/conflicts are often used by top arms exports to test their new platforms and the importing countries are also looking out for such weapons which will help in knocking down their enemies. Weapons like hypersonic missiles, are the new age technologies that are in the process of being perfected by various countries like China, the US, India and these considered to be ‘unstoppable’.
In the never-ending quest to have weapons which will provide a country more power it needs to knock out its adversaries, a different type of weapon has emerged: ultra-fast ‘hypersonic’ missiles which will hit targets anywhere on Earth within an hour.
Cutting edge technology used by Russia against Ukraine
Last weekend, Russia announced that it had launched a hypersonic missile for the first time in the ongoing conflict with Ukraine. Russia became the first country in the world to ever test this missile in a conflict.
Defence Ministry Spokesperson of that country Igor Konashenkov has been quoted in reports, “The Kinzhal (Dagger) aviation missile system with hypersonic aero-ballistic missiles destroyed a large underground warehouse containing missiles. This missile also destroyed aviation ammunition in the village of Deliatyn in the Ivano-Frankivsk region,” defence ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov had said.
What are hypersonic missiles/weapons?
These are next generation missiles and the technology involved is very complicated. Financial Express Online has reported earlier that countries including the UK, China, and Russia have made a lot of investment in hypersonic weapons. India entered the field of hypersonics way back in 2004. And in recent years, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has carried out successful trials, though the India programme is smaller in scale. Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HSTDV) has been tested successfully and is critical for India’s programme for development of a hypersonic cruise missile system.
Technically a hypersonic weapon is supposed to be extremely fast; this means it is five times faster than the speed of sound – around 3,836 mph. And with this kind of a speed the enemy has less time to respond.
Ballistic Vs Hypersonic
According to reports, the ballistic missiles already move fast, almost the same speed as the hypersonic, though these new age hypersonic missiles are highly maneuverable and can glide in the upper atmosphere.
And once the ballistic missiles are launched they cannot alter their course.
Hypersonic missiles are in two forms
In 2021, China had launched a rocket and it had carried a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV). According to a report in the Financial Times, the Chinese HGV before moving towards its target had flown through low-orbit space and at a speed which was five times the speed of sound.
The HGV, according to information available in the public domain, leaves the Earth’s atmosphere and then plunges back into it. To fool the enemy’s radar, this hypersonic vehicle glides through the upper layers of the atmosphere, through a random series of curves and turns.
The other type is hypersonic cruise missile (HCM). It is not as fast as HGV, but is designed to fly low and at extremely high speed. This is to take the enemy by surprise. And there is hardly any time for the enemy to hit back.
Friction is the key challenge as the temperatures go up to as high as 2,200 degrees Celsius (3,990 degrees Fahrenheit). And these missiles have to be designed from highly advanced materials which have the capability of withstanding such high temperatures.
Communication is another issue, as it becomes difficult to connect in these hypersonic weapons as the heat builds up a cloud of super-charged particles known as plasma, according to reports. And it is difficult for the normal radio communications to connect. To explain it easily: there is a blackout moment in communications when a spacecraft is re-entering the atmosphere.
Another challenge faced is maneuverability at high speeds, as it puts a lot of pressure on the structure of the missile.
However, the Russian military has successfully used Kinzhal hypersonic missiles, and became the first in the world to use this in the conflict.
Why did Russia use this instead of the traditional ballistic missile?
According to reports, the missile used by Russia during the Ukraine conflict is said to be a modification of its Iskander missile. And this was the first test fired in 2018 from a MiG-31 aircraft and it hit a target which was 500 miles away.
Russian media reports have said that the Kinzhal has a top speed of Mach 10 and has a capability of hitting targets up to 1200 miles when launched from a MiG-31. The Russian side is also planning to fire this missile from Su-34 long range fighter and it is also planning to mount it on Tu-22 M 3 strategic bombers.
Advantages of using hypersonic weapons
Testifying before the US Congressional Committee on armed services, a former Commander of US Strategic Command, General John Hyten, hypersonic weapons can enable responsive, long range strike options against distant, defended or time critical threats (such as road mobile missiles) when other forces are unavailable, denied access or not preferred. According to him these conventional hypersonic weapons use only kinetic energy to destroy unhardened targets or even underground facilities.
Financial Express Online has reported earlier details on Hypersonic Cruise Missiles globally:
3M22 Zircon – Hypersonic anti-ship cruise missile by Russia.
14-X – hypersonic glide vehicle mounted on a VSB-30 rocket by Brazil.
Kh-90 – Hypersonic air-to-surface cruise missile, this was developed in 1990 by the Soviet Union/Russia.
DF-ZF – DF-17 mounted hypersonic glide vehicle by China.
BrahMos-II – Hypersonic missile by India and Russia.
Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle – Hypersonic scramjet demonstration by India.
High-Speed Strike Weapon – Boeing X-51 based missile by the United States.
More about Chinese & US programme
There are reports suggesting that China may use this hypersonic weapon system by mating conventionally armed HGVs with the DF-21 and DF-26 missiles in its arsenal. In 2020, it extensively tested the DF-ZF HGV with a range of 1200 miles.
In 2018, a nuclear capable hypersonic vehicle prototype Starry Sky-2 (Xing Kong-2), was tested by China according to US defence officials quoted in the Congressional report.
Hypersonic weapons are being developed by the US under its Navy’s conventional Prompt Strike Programme as well as through Army, Air Force and Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). While the US, Russia and China are in advanced stages of hypersonic missile programmes, India, France, Germany, Japan and Australia too are developing hypersonic weapons.