The Hypersonics are hurtling into our lives at more than sonic speeds, apparently. These weapons may have the power to totally change the battlefield. They can serve both as deterrents, as also weapons of offence. Currently, the US is the leader in the field with the Russians and Chinese trying to catch up. Indians too, are in the arena. As we publish this article, there are reports of tests of hypersonic platforms being carried out by India. The author provides an update on the progress made in the field.
Need For Speed – Hypersonics
Who decides the direction and who decides the length be traversed? Often quoted in international dynamics, ‘It is the ongoing wave of sentiment that carries the direction and speed of matter through medium and not necessarily the amplitude or the righteous approach expected’. ‘Militarily, it’s the embodiment of invention exponentially proportional to destruction’? Let’s qualify and dispel the propounded hypothesis.
Hyperloop Technology, testing a system that would put passengers in pods hurtling through vacuum tubes bringing airplane speeds to the ground, seems revolutionary. In society today, due to the fast pace of life, even a slight delay seems like a crisis. Due to inherent impatience, the understanding of time has changed. Very short gestation lags at accepting what once seemed a natural timeline lead to frustration if not corrected within seconds.
In his book, “Social Acceleration, A New Theory of Modernity”, Hartmut Rosa, a Professor of Sociology, goes on to describe the renewed temporal structure of society due to technological acceleration, acceleration of social change and acceleration in the general pace of life. If the human movement has increased 10 times in a century, the speed of communication has gone up by a factor of 10 million and data transmission by 10 billion, it does not require a rocket scientist to allude how it would ‘Revolutionize Military Affairs’. There is a ‘Need for Speed’ in all manifestations of society and militarily we have the Hypersonics tip the Supersonics.
Hypersonic can be understood in two dimensions; One, alluding to the speeds of more than five times the speed of sound, and second, relating to the sound frequencies of about a thousand million hertz. The Advent of ‘Hypersonic Weapons’, both, Missiles and Hypersonic Glide Boost Vehicles (HGV), have changed the manner in which nation-states would view their foreign policy and warfighting doctrines.
A hypersonic missile travels at speeds upwards of Mach 5, i.e., five times faster than the speed of sound (6173kmph), generating a speed of 1.06 km per second. These missiles with ranges beyond 1900km, have the capability of manoeuvring during the course of their flight and are capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear payloads.
Delivery of hypersonic missiles could either be made by firing them from the last stages of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) or Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBM) and skipping along the top of the atmosphere using specialized jet engines to accelerate to hypersonic speeds; or they could be launched independently or released from aerial platform, prior acceleration to ultra-high speeds.
That defines the two basic kinds of hypersonic weapons- The ‘Boost-Glide’ version, lobbed into space aboard a rocket and then glides to the target manoeuvring and bouncing off the denser air at a lower altitude to extend the range and avoid detection/hit. The other, of course, is the cruise missile, launched from an aircraft, working on the scramjet principle, utilizing the supersonic airflow throughout the engine, capable of flying beneath the existing defences, thereby, denuding detection.
The ICBMs go through a pre-set sequence of events prior to the rocket hitting its target. The rockets pass through three distinct phases of boost, mid-course/glide and the terminal phase when they reach earth’s orbit in space and re-enter the earth’s atmosphere leaving the payload at the mercy of gravitational forces. As per Adam Muspratt of the Defence IQ, “HGVs on the other hand traverse outer space like an ICBM, but soar through the thin upper atmosphere, achieving extremely high speeds, and through their aerodynamic shape ride the shockwaves generated by their own lift as it breaches the speed of sound, giving it enough speed to overcome existing missile defence systems”.
Extreme care on re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere needs to be taken to prevent burnout by appropriate thermal shields, like the reinforced carbon-carbon fibre. Recall how Astronaut Kalpana Chawla and her crew aboard the Columbia space shuttle in 2003 exploded on entry into the earth’s atmosphere killing all on board.
The Missile Defence Advocacy Alliance (MDDA), a non-profit making organization through its Missile Defence Review goes to lengths to explain the functioning of the Hypersonic Missiles. As per the Review, hypersonic vehicles typically consist of a Supersonic Combustion Ramjet, or Scramjet propulsion system to enable high speeds. A Scramjet engine is an engine that uses “air-breathing” technology. This implies that the engine collects oxygen from the atmosphere while travelling and mixes the oxygen with its hydrogen fuel, creating the combustion needed for hypersonic travel.
The technology differs from the traditional Ramjet used in space shuttles and satellite launches, which carries liquid oxygen and hydrogen, thereby adding to the weight of the launcher. Scramjet, on the other hand, requires air into the engine that is already travelling at supersonic speeds to effectively combust with hydrogen mix. So the vessel is launched with traditional booster engine and on achieving the desired speed and altitude, the Scramjet is activated.
The Re-entry model of hypersonic missiles varies from the supersonic ones. The hypersonic weapons travel along the edge of space gliding atop the atmosphere and accelerate between Mach 5 and 10, engaging the specialized jets to accelerate to hypersonic speeds; whereas the conventional ones are launched at steep trajectories along predictable ballistic trajectories, encountering high friction during launch and re-entry. The speed of hypersonic missiles is its guarantor for safety as the ultra-high velocity coupled with manoeuvring in flight allows it to bypass the layered missile defences, the trackers and interceptors with impunity.
The effect a hypersonic missile could prosecute on time-critical targets like mobile Ballistic Missile Launchers and Air Defence measures of Aircraft Carriers is axiomatic. Hypersonic weapons due to their speed leave no time for the defender to get warned of an impending attack and therefore, presently, cannot be intercepted by any current missile defence systems.
The Current Hypersonic Scenario: Combining Speed of ICBM with Accuracy of Cruise Missiles
US, Russia and China have juggled the developmental landscape to create Trypophobia in the defensive architecture of hostiles thereby furthering own interests. Development of hypersonics is also linked to creating an additional rung in the escalator matrix and adds to deterrence. Factor the nuclear angle to the equation and the balance spiral out of control.
The US operates the most advanced space-based sensor layer capable of detecting ballistic missiles launch within seconds of the booster ignition. Yet, there isn’t sufficient clarity to substantiate if the geostationary space-based Infra-red sensors would indeed be capable of detecting and discriminating heat signatures of the HGVs in the skip glide phase of its flight. Therein lies its appeal for application. Although the THAAD, Patriot PAC-3, and MEADS systems of the US are being improved to handle HGV targets, the optimum solution is still a while away.
As per the US calculus, the principality is in developing the offensive capability first, to deter both Russia and China from using theirs and instead have them concentrate on technology and defence to deter the American use and in the bargain lose crucial time and money in its development; referred to by President Ronald Reagan in 1983 as the ‘Cost Imposition Strategy’, when the US embarked on its glib ‘Star Wars’ Space-based Defensive Programme.
The Russian President Putin, in March this year, in keeping with the rhetoric of one-upmanship declared, that the Avangard system, a hypersonic glider capable of carrying a nuclear warhead that attacks “like a meteorite,” due to its inherent manoeuvrability makes it invulnerable to any missile defence system. Russia’s upcoming Kh-47M2 Kinzhal Air-Launched Ballistic Missile, which means “dagger” in Russian, is allegedly capable of reaching Mach 10 speeds (7672 mph) and distances of up to 1200 miles. The weapon is expected to join the Kremlin’s arsenal by 2020.
China and India are working on the hypersonic missiles for the advantage they accrue to warfare. China declared that it had successfully tested its Starry Sky 2, a hypersonic missile that flew more than 4,000 miles an hour. The US reported that China had indeed tested the glide missile, DF-ZF, launched from Central China.BRAHMOS the Indo-Russian venture, though in the supersonic missile category, with speeds between Mach 2 and 3, is capable of attaining speeds of around 3379–3701kmphat ranges of 600km, is mentioned here purely for comparison on the developmental plane.
However, India’s own developmental plane on hypersonics has rightfully picked on the existing BRAHMOS cruise missile as a trailblazer to develop the ‘BRAHMOS-II’ with a range of 290 km (India like Russia is now a signatory to the Missile Technology Control Regime that restricts Russia from helping India develop missiles with ranges over 300 km). Though exact details on the development are restricted in open sources, it is expected that the BRAHMOS-II would have a speed of Mach 7 and be made available for trials by 2020. In addition, India’s DRDO has also developed a Cannister launched hypersonic Surface-to-Surface tactical missile called “Shaurya” with a range of 700 km. The missile after achieving a height of 50 km, flies at a speed of Mach 7.5, making it a hypersonic category with a Circular Error Probability of 20-30 meter.
“You’re shooting a bullet with a bullet,” Air Force General Paul Selva, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said. “And it gets worse when a bullet is going 13 times the speed of sound and can manoeuvre.” It is clear that any development in the field of hypersonic will need factoring both offensive and defensive capabilities. The hypersonic defence system would involve sensors and weapons being put in space by, to start with, piggybacking them if necessary over commercial satellites to track incoming hypersonic weapons and then creating a vehicle that would successfully intercept the incoming projectile.
The defensive architecture, like the ‘Glide Breaker’ of the US, is an advanced interceptor capable of destroying hypersonic vehicles, incorporating diverse, redundant and globally persistent space layers to initially detect the HGV launch, track it and post profiling ‘designate curing-capable’ destruction systems is on the anvil. This will involve robust, secure, high speed and high- quality data transfer capabilities, sharing the information with all nodes. The challenges with respect to sustained combustion inside the hypersonic missiles and encountering extreme temperatures at hypersonic speeds is the current subject of research and being addressed. Therein lies the challenge.
Technologies with least lag time such as Directed Energy Weapons (DEW), Electro-magnetic rail guns, particle beams and other non-kinetic weapons with enhanced performance missile interceptors promise to offer effective defence against hypersonic missiles. A two-pronged approach would need to be executed to guard against the hypersonic attack. The kinetic systems would target the support system while the cyber and electronic attacks could be used to significantly degrade the operational effectiveness of hypersonic weapons.
As per the Rand Corporation report, speed and stealth warrant a pact to restrain spread amongst the forerunners- the US, China and Russia and amongst the fledgelings- Australia, France, India and Japan. Which way the technological evolution graph will either rise or nose-dive is a matter of abundant conjecture. One thing certain, however, is the technological process that the development curve takes.
The segmented process of Technology Trigger, Peak of Inflated Expectations, the Trough of Disillusionment, the Slope of Enlightenment and the Plateau of Productivity or Consignment to Obsolescence remains to be seen in respect of the latest silver bullet. Coming back to the hypothesis, ‘Militarily, the embodiment of the invention is exponentially proportional to destruction’!For the moment though, the thought itself is both provocative and destabilising.
By Brig Yogesh Kapoor (Retd)
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of BharatShakti.in)