Hypersonic weapons

Understanding hypersonic weapons


  • The Russian Defence Ministry spokesperson said the “Kinzhal aviation missile system with hypersonic aeroballistic missiles destroyed a large underground warehouse containing missiles and aviation ammunition in the village of Deliatyn in the Ivano-Frankivsk region.

What are hypersonic weapons?

  • They are manoeuvrable weapons that can fly at speeds of at least Mach 5, five times the speed of sound.
    • The speed of sound is Mach 1, and speeds above Mach I are supersonic and speeds above Mach 5 are hypersonic.
  • They are different from Ballistic missiles which even though are travel much faster, follow a fixed trajectory and travel outside the atmosphere to re-enter only near impact.

    hypersonic weapons
    Photo Credit: AP
  • On the other hand, hypersonic weapons travel within the atmosphere and can manoeuvre midway which combined with their high speeds make their detection and interception extremely difficult. This means that radars and air defences cannot detect them till they are very close and have only little time to react.
  • Thus, unlike ballistic missiles, hypersonic missiles do not follow a ballistic trajectory and can be manoeuvred to the intended target.
  • There are two classes of hypersonic weapons,
    • Hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV) and Hypersonic Cruise Missiles (HCM).
    • HGVs are launched from a rocket before gliding to a target while HCM are powered by high-speed, air-breathing engines, or scramjets, after acquiring their target.
  • Capable both of manoeuvring and of flying faster than 5,000 kilometres per hour, which would enable such missiles to penetrate most missile defences and to further compress the timelines for response by a nation under attack.
  • Enable responsive, long-range, strike options against distant, defended, and/or time-critical threats.
  • Conventional hypersonic weapons use only kinetic energy i.e. energy derived from motion, to destroy unhardened targets or even underground facilities.

What is the status of Russian, Chinese and U.S. programmes?

  • Hypersonic missile ‘Kinzhal’ or Dagger and Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missile of Russia
  • Starry Sky-2 (Xing Kong-2), a nuclear capable hypersonic vehicle prototype-China
  • The U.S. has tested hypersonic weapons for decades. The first vehicle to exceed Mach 5 was a two-stage rocket launched in 1949 which reached a speed of Mach 6.7, under Project Bumper.
    • U.S. was lagging behind China and Russia because most U.S. hypersonic weapons, in contrast to those in Russia and China, are not being designed for use with a nuclear warhead.
    • The U.S. has six known hypersonic programmes, divided among the Air Force, Army and Navy, according to them.

What is the status in other countries?

  • The United States, Russia, and China possess the most advanced hypersonic weapons programmes, a number of other countries including Australia, India, France, Germany, and Japan are also developing hypersonic weapons technology.
  • India operates approximately 12 hypersonic wind tunnels and is capable of testing speeds of up to Mach 13.
  • Reportedly, India is also developing an indigenous, dual-capable hypersonic cruise missile as part of its Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HSTDV) programme and successfully tested a Mach 6 scramjet in June 2019 and September 2020.
  • This test was carried out by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and demonstrated the scramjet engine technology, a major breakthrough. In a scramjet engine, air goes inside the engine at supersonic speed and comes out at hypersonic speeds.
  • A hypersonic version of the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, a joint development of India and Russia, is also under development.




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