2021: A hypersonic space odyssey that we must brace for

Synopsis: The increasing arms race has forced India to not just prioritize economic growth but keep pace on evolving technology in the defence sphere.


Suddenly, the world finds itself at the beginning of a new military space race with China, the US and to a less extent Russia as the main participants.

It has been reported that China recently tested two hypersonic weapons that are potentially capable of evading missile defence systems that were built primarily to combat intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

The Chinese Hypersonic Glide Vehicle (HGV) follows the successful development of a similar program by Russia that tested its Avangard missiles over the last few years.

The newer Chinese version of the system is a Hypersonic Glide Vehicle (HGV) and is capable of much lower orbital altitudes and far more flexible maneuvering.

What countries other than China are working on the development of Hypersonic technology?

The US has been working hard at developing this technology but its test of an HGV last week was not successful.

In addition to the US, Russia and China, Australia, India, France, Germany and Japan are said to be developing hypersonic technology for their own specific purposes.

Japan, for example, is building anti-ship hyper-velocity gliding projectiles to guard its Senkaku Islands from the threat of Chinese expansionism.

Australia and the US are jointly working on a hypersonic cruise missile prototype, expected to enter service in the late 2020s, a project that leverages work done over the last decade on scramjets, rocket motors and sensors.

Germany and France are working on a hypersonic defence system called Twister, which is short for Timely Warning and Interception with Space-Based Theater Surveillance.

What is hypersonic technology and what are its characteristic features?

The word ‘hypersonic’ refers to the ability of missiles to travel at or greater than five times the speed of sound (or Mach 5). The commonly-used technology underlying hypersonic missiles is an ‘air breathing scramjet engine’.

The glide vehicle innovation means it can continue to travel at hypersonic speeds at a lower trajectory and with greater maneuverability even after it separates from the rocket.

How the ongoing rivalry between big powers is different from Cold war era?

There are two major changes in big-power rivalry.

One, this is the first time since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 that the framework for this rivalry has shifted from minimum deterrence to an attempt to gain asymmetric power in some areas, such as HGVs, artificial intelligence, machine learning and cybersecurity;

Two, the theatre for this rivalry has moved from Europe and land/air- based technology to the Indo-Pacific and naval/air/space-based technology.

How India is faring in this arms race?

The Indian BrahMos cruise missile, built jointly with Russia, is considered the fastest anti-ship cruise missile in the world.

India is currently working on BrahMos II, expected to be delivered in the next five years, which will be a hypersonic cruise missile capable of a Mach 8 speed.

While the BrahMos missile can climb to space altitudes, India’s space-weapons programme has been limited to anti-satellite missiles, first pilot-launched in 2019.

The Indian government has repeatedly stressed that its space programme has only civilian aspirations.

Further, India and 34 other countries are signatories to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) that seeks to limit the proliferation of missiles and missile technology.

Source: This post is based on the article “2021: A hypersonic space odyssey that we must brace for” Published in “Livemint” on 26th Oct 2021.

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