Hypersonic Weapons Arms Race

  • IASbaba
  • December 7, 2021
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Hypersonic Weapons Arms Race

In News: China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile in August 2021 that circled the globe before speeding towards its target, demonstrating an advanced space capability that caught U.S. intelligence by surprise.

  • However, China has denied that it was nuclear capable.

What are hypersonic weapons?

  • They are manoeuvrable weapons that can fly at speeds in excess of Mach 5, five times the speed of sound.
  • Ballistic missiles, though much faster, follow a fixed trajectory and travel outside the atmosphere to re-enter only near impact.
  • On the contrary, hypersonic weapons travel within the atmosphere and can manoeuvre midway.
  • The above capabilities combined with their high speeds makes their detection and interception extremely difficult.
  • This means that radars and air defences cannot detect them till they are very close and little time to react.
  • There are two classes of hypersonic weapons:
    • Hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV): These are launched from a rocket before gliding to a target
    • Hypersonic cruise missiles (HCM): These are powered by high-speed, air-breathing engines, or scramjets, after acquiring their target.
  • Hypersonic missiles are a new class of threat because they are capable both of manoeuvring and of flying faster than 5,000 kms 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.

What is the status of Chinese and Russian programmes and where does the U.S. stand?

  • In early October 2021, Russia announced that it had successfully test launched a Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missile from Barents Sea which hit a target 350 kms away.
  • Talking of the test in November, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that the tests were almost complete and the Russian Navy would start receiving them in 2022.
  • While the S. has active hypersonic development programmes but it 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.
  • As a result, U.S. hypersonic weapons will likely require greater accuracy and will be more technically challenging to develop than nuclear-armed Chinese and Russian systems.
  • The U.S. is now looking to accelerate its own programmes, though it is unlikely to field an operational system before 2023.
  • The Pentagon’s budget request for hypersonic research for financial year 2022 is $3.8 billion, up from the $3.2 billion it requested a year earlier. The Missile Defence Agency additionally requested $247.9 million for hypersonic defence.

 What is the status of development by other countries?

  • 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) program and successfully tested a Mach 6 scramjet in June 2019 and September 2020.
    • In a scramjet engine, air goes inside the engine at supersonic speed and comes out at hypersonic speeds.
    • DRDO had said after the test in 2020, many critical technologies such as aerodynamic configuration for hypersonic manoeuvres, use of scramjet propulsion for ignition and sustained combustion at hypersonic flow, thermo-structural characterization of high temperature materials, separation mechanism at hypersonic velocities have been validated.

Is Hypersonic a game changer in arms race?

  • Debunking some of the claims surrounding hypersonic weapons, Physicists David Wright and Cameron Tracy argued that hypersonic weapons “may have advantages in certain scenarios, but by no means do they constitute a revolution.”
  • According to these Physicists, many of the claims about hypersonic weapons are exaggerated or simply false.
  • And yet the widespread perception that hypersonic weapons are a game-changer has increased tensions among the U.S., Russia and China, driving a new arms race and escalating the chances of conflict.


Given the rising tensions between the U.S., China and Russia as also the worsening geopolitical situation worldwide, the focus for hypersonic weapons is only set to accelerate more countries to invest significant resources in their design and development.

Connecting the dots

  • Integrated Guided Missile program of India
  • Scramjet Engine
  • Cryogenic Engine by ISRO

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