After over a decade of research and development, India successfully flight tested its Hypersonic Technology Demonstration Vehicle (HSTDV) on September 7. Seen as a welcomed addition to India’s rapidly expanding defence artillery, it shall serve as a crucial precursor in the realisation of India’s next-generation cruise missile project. With this, India joins an elite club of countries- Russia, United States and China; making it only the 4th country in the world to achieve such a feat. The HSTDV took off from the Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Island off the Odisha coast, reaching an altitude of 30 km and thereby completing the test and proving crucial technologies.
Giving us a peek into the future of warfare, hypersonic weapons are desired for their speed, maneuverability and their ability to remain undetected for a longer period. They can be armed with a nuclear warhead, a conventional warhead or even have a dual capacity. The Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) is simultaneously working on two futuristic projects which aim to harness the military potential in cutting-edge technology. The first being BrahMos II, a multi-billion dollar collaborative project with Russia’s NPO Mashinostroyenia which aims to develop a hypersonic cruise missile which would travel well above six times the speed of sound. The other project is the desi HSTDV, which the DRDO Chairman Satish Reddy christened “a major technological breakthrough”. An unmanned vehicle powered by an air-breathing scramjet engine which uses oxygen from the atmosphere, it traversed at a velocity equivalent to 6 times that of sound. Unlike the comparatively basic ballistic missiles which rely solely on gravitational descent for trajectory, conventional hypersonic weapons use kinetic energy derived from motion. They enable accurate, long range, distant strikes and since their altitude is significantly lower than that of ballistic missiles, they prompt a much delayed detection by the even the most technologically advanced missile defence apparatus, thus significantly compressing the response time for the targeted region. This quality puts the responding nation on a backfoot, given the reduced time for assessing possible defence options. It has been also suggested that the HSTDV has non-military applications in space projects. It shall be useful in launching satellites into the low earth orbit, at a lesser cost. A multitude of countries including India’s committed enemy Pakistan, Israel, France, Canada, Iran, the United Kingdom are being ambitious in their own right; to acquire hypersonic weapons. Their proliferation would induce a need for elaborate hypersonic missile defence systems since the current systems stand paralysed in the face of relevant threat. Research about such defence systems is still in its preliminary state, with the United States leading the way. However, analysts have questioned the viability of hypersonic missile defence systems, given their high monetary and maintenance costs.
India’s hypersonic capability is an addition to its collection of well-developed supersonic cruise missile- BrahMos I, which has the capability to travel three times as fast as sound. India has agreed to export BrahMos I to Vietnam, South Africa, Brazil, Chile, and the United Arab Emirates. While the successful test deserves the hype, India still has a long way to go. In 2009, it was projected that BrahMos II would be ready by 2013. As is evident, India faced several setbacks which significantly delayed the development of both, the BrahMos II & HSTDV. Technical & monetary barriers aside, India’s Hypersonic military ambitions are characterised by a strong reliance on Russian technology and assistance. Russia owns 49.5% of Brahmos Aerospace, while India owns the remaining 50.5%, additionally it assisted the initial level testing of the HSTDV. Despite the setbacks, India’s resilience to pursue the mammoth project is commendable. While India has marked its grand entry into the “hypersonic orbit” it occupies a position further away from Russia, the United States & China, which are comparatively superior in terms of technology, infrastructure & investment.