A new arms race in the offing: China stuns the world with an earth-circling nuclear-capable hypersonic missile test

Upping the ante in the ongoing tensions with Taiwan and amidst the renewed arms race in the Indo-Pacific, China has left the world surprised with a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile test that has reportedly been conducted in August with a hypersonic glide vehicle on a Long-March rocket, that is CNSA’s workhouse launching vehicle for space missions.

The hypersonic missile being tested circled the globe before cruising towards its target demonstrating the advanced space capabilities that China possesses, the report said.

The test has especially caught US intelligence agencies and defence experts by surprise as the amount and speed of progress made by China in developing hypersonic weapons is unbelievable and is looked upon as part of China’s plan to project itself as a military superpower that wouldn’t bow down even to strong security and military alliances like AUKUS and QUAD and will continue to pursue its expansionist goals undeterred.

The Chinese embassy although declined to comment on this test particularly, but Liu Pengyu, spokesperson, said “China always pursued a military policy that was “defensive in nature” and its military assets and their deployment doesn’t target any country”.

The missile, however, reported having missed the target by about two dozen miles as per sources but with a nuclear warhead attached, that miss could be compensated by its impact and scale of destruction that it could cause as the impact area of a nuclear strike can cover hundreds of miles. US, Russia and China are all developing a hypersonic missile system that is launched into space on a rocket but later orbit the earth under their momentum.

Hypersonic Missile Arms Race : What do we know about it?

Hypersonic weapons travel in the upper atmosphere at 5 times the speed of sound which is roughly 4000 mph that means they can travel from New York to Beijing in around 1hr 40mins. They can however travel up to 20 times the speed of sound.

What makes hypersonic weapons lethal is their ability to become manoeuvrable in low earth orbit which makes them harder to track against the widely deployed ballistic missile system that follows a fixed parabolic trajectory in its entire course before hitting the targets. The hypersonic test is significant in a way that it could duck the existing missile defence systems of the U.S that are designed to neutralize only incoming ballistic missiles that follows a set trajectory. So, a combination of speed and manoeuvrability over long ranges works as a deterrent with hypersonic weapons in place.

There are three types of hypersonic weapons- (i) Guided ballistic missiles: They are like normal ballistic missiles but re-entry vehicles that carry the warhead back into the atmosphere after the missile shoots up through it, has steering fins attached to guide it to the target. (ii) Boost glide missiles: They are propelled to great speed by rockets just like ballistic missiles but rather than arching high above the atmosphere the glider re-enter the atmosphere shortly after the launch. They rely on an aerodynamic lift to stay aloft potentially for thousands of miles without the use of engines. The basic idea is the same as a hand glider (iii) Hypersonic cruise missiles: They are powered throughout their flight. To keep flying at such great speeds over long distances they need special scramjet engines. The speed of missiles itself forces the air to the engine where it combusts into supersonic speeds.

Out of three powers possessing the hypersonic weapons capability, only Russia is closer to deploying one, a system named ‘Zircon’ that is reported to have a short-range of around 300 miles. However, boost-glide and guided ballistic has been deployed and some new types are closer to deployment.

Overview of major hypersonic weapon systems in place

Russia: Russian hypersonic program dates back to the 1980s however it picked up momentum in 2001 after the US withdrawal from Anti-Ballistic Missile(ABM) Treaty. Russia currently has two HM’s – Avangard and Kinzhal. AVANGRAD is Russia’s most lethal long-range boost glided missile, it’s glider likely re-enters the atmosphere with around 20 times the speed of sound i.e. Mach 20 and is designed to deliver nuclear warheads against the United States. KINZHAL is another potent guided ballistic missile of Russia that can be launched from an aircraft, it probably travels at speed of around Mach 10 and possesses a range of around 1200 miles. It can carry nuclear as well as conventional warheads.

China: Dragon has in possession several guided ballistic missiles. Its furthest reaching is DF-26 which can travel up to 2500 miles and is likely to re-enter the atmosphere at Mach 10. It can also carry both conventional and nuclear warheads. China also has a new boost-glide missile DF-17 which it showed in a military parade in October 2019. DF-17 carries a glider that has a range between 1100-1550 miles with the space for both conventional and nuclear warheads.

USA: US hypersonic weapons program is also over two decades old in the name of Conventional Prompt Global Strike (CPGS). The hypersonic weapons program of the US is only focused on improving its capability to conduct prompt conventional strikes. It has boost-glide vehicles in inventory with non-nuclear warheads with a range of over 1000 miles. Making sure that weapons of such range are accurate enough to be effective even without much more powerful nuclear warheads presents daunting technical challenges for the U.S.

Nonetheless, the US has made significant progress that includes a recent successful test a fortnight ago of an air-breathing hypersonic weapon that can travel at speeds greater than Mach 5.

Based on the threat perception from China and Russia in future, the US has given a new life to its HW program which started under the Trump administration in the form of raise in budgetary expenditure and it has continued under the Biden administration as well. Pentagon says it is currently focussing on developing and deploying short-range weapons with the sophisticated technology in place.

Does India possess hypersonic weapons?

India is also developing a hypersonic cruise missile system named Brahmos-II with Russian assistance and has launched its first test flight in June 2019 which got failed. However, in September last year, India tested an indigenously developed Hypersonic Glide Vehicle (HGV) which attained a speed of around Mach 6 and conducted a low altitude flight for over 20 sec.

DRDO concluded the test results by saying that a lot of critical technologies were successfully established including the scramjet propulsion and aerodynamic configuration and further said few more tests in the next 5 years will make the system turn into a full-fledged hypersonic weapon capable of carrying both nuclear as well as conventional warheads.

It is worth noting here that currently there are no international agreements or treaties in place on when and how hypersonic weapons can be used.

Clearly, with the kind of deterrence that these weapons create against adversaries, they are certainly strategic and geopolitical game changers and that’s why a new arms race involving Hypersonic weapons is already in play amongst superpowers. As an aspirational global power, India needs to be a part of this elite club to project its might around the globe as well as alongside pursuing the world community especially the “big three” to devise protocols to limit the development, deployment and usage of these weapons.

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