What is A Hypersonic Missile, and Who Has Them?

Multiple countries are discussing efforts to develop hypersonic missiles, describing them as “game changers.” But what are these weapons? Who has them? Where is India in the race for Hypersonic missiles?

They can achieve speeds up to ten times that of sound. Quicker and more accurate delivery of conventional warheads than competing missile systems. Moreover, they are capable of readily overcoming any defenses.

What is a hypersonic Missile?

Hypersonic missiles travel at Mach 5 or higher speed and are extremely maneuverable, allowing them to change their flight path while in the air.

They are not the same as ballistic missiles, which are also capable of traveling at hypersonic speeds (at least Mach 5) but have predetermined trajectories and limited capacity to change course.

One type of Hypersonic Missile is the Russian-made Kinzhal air-launched missile, which travels at ten times the speed of sound and may penetrate air defenses. A Kinzhal is a dagger.

Putin unveiled the Kinzhal missile and other new weapons in his 2018 State of the Nation address.

The missile can carry a 480-kilogram nuclear or conventional payload and has a range of 1,500-2,000 kilometers. The Kinzhal measures 8 meters in length, has a 1-meter diameter body and weighs about 4,300 kilograms when launched.

CNN reports that U.S. missile defense satellites and radars have trouble detecting hypersonic missiles because of their low trajectory, high speed, and maneuverability.

At Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, where Kashin serves as director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies, he has claimed that hypersonic weapons are more effective than cruise missiles for destroying underground storage locations due to their greater speed and maneuverability.

“Because of its extremely high speed, a hypersonic missile can have greater penetrating and destructive force,” he explained. Hypersonic missiles can easily evade detection and countermeasures because of their high speed and agility.

What is their significance?

What is A Hypersonic Missile, and Who Has Them?

For any country, the ability to launch highly agile weapons at hypersonic speeds is a huge advantage because these weapons can easily outmaneuver any existing defense system.

“It doesn’t matter what the threat is. If you can’t see it, you can’t defend against it,” General John Hyten, the former vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told an audience in Washington in January 2020.

There are two kinds of hypersonic weapons.

Two distinct categories of hypersonic missiles exist cruise missiles and glide vehicles.

Hypersonic Cruise Missile

The hypersonic missile uses a high-speed jet engine that enables it to fly at speed over Mach 5 to reach its target. It’s non-ballistic, unlike regular ICBMs, which utilize gravitational forces to get to the target.

Hypersonic Glide Vehicle

The report says that re-entry vehicles are used in hypersonic glide vehicles. At first, the missile is sent into space on a curved path. Then, the warheads are let go, falling at speeds faster than sound toward the atmosphere.

A glide vehicle with the warheads attached re-enters the atmosphere and, because of its aerodynamic form, rides the shockwaves produced by its own lift as it reaches the speed of sound, providing greater speeds to evade current missile defense systems.

Then, Using aerodynamic forces, the glide vehicle navigates through the atmosphere at heights ranging from 40 to 100 kilometers, reaching its goal.

What is the Difference Between Subsonic missiles, Supersonic missiles, and Hypersonic Missiles?

Subsonic missiles move at a speed that is considerably lower than the speed of sound. Most well-known missiles, such as the Tomahawk cruise missile used by the United States, the Exocet missile used by France, and the Nirbhay missile used by India, are included in this category.

What is A Hypersonic Missile, and Who Has Them?
Tomahawk Missile

Although these only reach roughly Mach-0.9 (705 mph) speeds and are more vulnerable to interception, they serve an important purpose in modern warfare. 

According to a report by the PartYard Military organization, Subsonic missiles give an extra layer of strategic value despite their slow speed and compact size because technological challenges have already been conquered and mastered.

A supersonic missile has a top speed of Mach 3, which is greater than Mach 1 but less than the speed of sound. Faster than sound, most supersonic missiles may reach speeds of up to 2,300 miles per hour (Mach 2–3).

The Indian and Russian BrahMos is the most well-known supersonic missile. It is currently the fastest operational supersonic missile, capable of speeds between 2,100 and 2,300 miles per hour.

What is A Hypersonic Missile, and Who Has Them?
Brahmos Missile

Over and above Mach 5, a hypersonic missile travels at a speed that is five times that of sound (3,800 mph). Right now, there is no working defensive mechanism that can stop the hypersonic missile.

Therefore, many major countries, including the U.S., Russia, India, and China, are working on hypersonic missiles.

However, some technological hurdles must be crossed, the most significant of which is keeping the combustion inside the missile system at hypersonic speed.

What countries are in the race to develop hypersonic missiles? 

The three major military powers (the U.S., Russia, and China) are all working on hypersonic weaponry. More countries are developing weapons, and some have made unverifiable claims about testing hypersonic weapons.

Who Has Them

United States

For the fiscal year 2022, the United States military has requested $3.8 billion for hypersonic weapon development and an additional $246.9 million for hypersonic defense research.

Most of America’s hypersonic weapons are still in the testing or development stages, but one system is slated to enter the early operational capability. The United States equips its hypersonic weapons with conventional bombs.

Russia

According to a Western military officer, Russia has been working on hypersonic weapon technology since the 1980s. It became the first country to deploy hypersonic weapons in combat by firing at least one hypersonic missile at a target in Ukraine.

On March 19, Russian military officials said they had fired hypersonic missiles into Ukraine for the first time, aiming to target an underground weapons storage location in the country’s western region.

The Russian government claims that they used a hypersonic Kinzhal missile variant against Ukraine, fired by a military jet. Russia also claims to have a hypersonic glide vehicle (the Avangard) and is working on a launched hypersonic cruise missile (the Tsirkon).

The Avangard has a nuclear warhead, according to reports. Russian news outlets say that Avangard has been in service since December 2019.

China

According to U.S. intelligence, China is pursuing hypersonic cruise missiles and glide vehicles. A rocket capable of carrying a hypersonic glide vehicle may already operate.

The United States has undertaken nine hypersonic weapons tests since 2016, whereas the Chinese government has allegedly conducted hundreds of tests between 2016 and 2021. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman of the United States, General Mark Milley, called a hypersonic test conducted by the Chinese in August 2021 “extremely significant.”

North Korea

North Korea has reportedly conducted two hypersonic missile tests this year, the first on January 5 and the second on January 11, both reported by the state-run Korea Central News Agency.

U.S. officials have not validated the accusations and have only described the launches as ballistic missile testing. Experts think South Korea is in danger because North Korean leader Kim Jong Un claims hypersonic missiles will significantly strengthen his country’s nuclear “war deterrence.”

Other countries

Countries like Australia, India, France, Germany, and Japan are all working on hypersonic weaponry. There have been rumors that Iran, Israel, and South Korea have conducted “foundational research” on hypersonic weapons.

What Does India Stand on Hypersonic Missiles?

For a time now, India has been developing hypersonic missile technology. Now, the country is less advanced in this field than the United States, Russia, or China.

In September 2020, DRDO tested and showed off its hypersonic air-breathing scramjet technology using a Hypersonic Technology Demonstrated Vehicle (HSTDV).

Reports say India made its cryogenic engine and flew it for 23 seconds to test it. To that end, India plans to use HSTDV to create a hypersonic cruise missile. Rajnath Singh, in charge of defense, has also told scientists to work on making hypersonic missile technology.

FAQs

  1. What are hypersonic missiles, and how do they differ from other missile types?
    • Hypersonic missiles are a type of missile that can travel at Mach 5 or higher, which is five times the speed of sound. They are distinct from other missiles in that they can change their flight path while in the air, making them extremely maneuverable.
  2. Which countries currently possess hypersonic missiles, and what are their capabilities?
    • As of now, countries like the United States, Russia, and China are known to possess hypersonic missiles. Russia, for example, has the Kinzhal air-launched missile, which can travel at ten times the speed of sound. China is also pursuing hypersonic cruise missiles and glide vehicles.
  3. What are the advantages of hypersonic missiles over traditional missile systems?
    • Hypersonic missiles offer several advantages over traditional missile systems. They can achieve speeds up to ten times that of sound, allowing for quicker and more accurate delivery of conventional warheads. Moreover, they are capable of readily overcoming any defenses.
  4. What are the challenges associated with developing and deploying hypersonic missile technology?
    • Developing and deploying hypersonic missile technology comes with numerous challenges. One significant hurdle is maintaining combustion inside the missile system at hypersonic speeds. Additionally, the high speeds and maneuverability of hypersonic missiles make them difficult to detect and counter.
  5. How do hypersonic missiles evade detection and interception?
    • Hypersonic missiles can evade detection and interception due to their low trajectory, high speed, and maneuverability. This makes it challenging for missile defense satellites and radars to track and intercept.
  6. How does India’s progress in hypersonic missile development compare to other nations?
    • India has been developing hypersonic missile technology for some time. However, it is less advanced in this field compared to countries like the United States, Russia, and China.
  7. What are the implications of hypersonic missiles for global security and defense strategies?
    • Hypersonic missiles have significant implications for global security and defense strategies. They offer a huge advantage to countries that possess them, as they can easily outmaneuver existing defense systems.
  8. How do hypersonic missiles fit into the broader context of international arms races?
    • Hypersonic missiles are a part of the broader international arms race, where countries constantly try to develop and deploy advanced weapons technologies to gain a strategic advantage over their adversaries.
  9. What are the potential consequences of hypersonic missile proliferation?
    • The proliferation of hypersonic missiles could increase tensions between countries, as possessing such advanced weaponry can change the balance of power.
  10. How are governments addressing the ethical and legal considerations of hypersonic missile development and use?
    • Governments grapple with the ethical and legal considerations of hypersonic missile development and use. There are concerns about the potential for these weapons to cause unintended harm and the need to ensure they are used responsibly and following international law.