- Russia has claimed to have fired its state-of-the-art Kinzhal (which means 'dagger') hypersonic missile into Ukraine twice this month, claiming to have destroyed an ammunition storage facility in Diliatyn in the Carpathian Mountains and then a fuel depot in Kostiantynivka near Mykolaiv on March 19 and 20.
- A few days later, US President Joe Biden said Russia was using these missiles because they were "hard to intercept."
When a lethal, powerful weapon comes at you ten times faster than the speed of sound — “unstoppable,” “invincible,” and designed to destroy — there is no way of knowing what hit you or even recognising what hit you. There’s no need to imprison anyone. At least, those are the key selling reasons for hypersonic weapons, according to Vladimir Putin and his trusted generals.
Russia has claimed to have fired its state-of-the-art Kinzhal (which means ‘dagger’) hypersonic missile into Ukraine twice this month, claiming to have destroyed an ammunition storage facility in Diliatyn in the Carpathian Mountains and then a fuel depot in Kostiantynivka near Mykolaiv on March 19 and 20.
A few days later, US President Joe Biden said Russia was using these missiles because they were “hard to intercept.” Despite the fact that hypersonic technologies have been in development for decades, the Russia-Ukraine conflict is the first time they have been utilised in combat.
The buzz, on the other hand, has been building for several years. Russian President Vladimir Putin praised these missiles as “invincible” and “perfect” weapons in 2018, and other countries have been trying to have a piece of the greatest new defence technology.
For example, India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh urged the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) to expedite the development of hypersonic technology in India in December 2021.
China has also claimed to have created heat-seeking hypersonic missiles, which are even more terrifying.
But what precisely are hypersonic missiles, and do the dramatic hyperbole surrounding them accurately reflect their capabilities?
What are hypersonic missiles? What sets them apart from other missiles?
Hypersonic missiles travel at speeds more than Mach 5, or 1.6 kilometres per second, or five times the speed of sound. Anything faster than Mach 1 is considered supersonic, while anything faster than Mach 5 is considered hypersonic.
Other missiles, on the other hand, can approach the same speed. The ability of hypersonic missiles to maintain their speed at low altitudes and paths within the atmosphere, as well as their capacity to avoid detection, is what sets them apart from the others.
While intercontinental ballistic missiles can achieve speeds of roughly Mach 20, they do so by exiting the atmosphere rather than following a low trajectory. Manoeuvrability is another key difference. Other missiles do not stray considerably from their flight course once launched.
Hypersonic missiles, on the other hand, fly within the atmosphere and can vary and manoeuvre their flight path. This makes it easier for them to avoid radar and air defence systems.
In essence, the value of hypersonic missiles stems from their capacity to defeat state anti-missile and anti-access defence capabilities through their speed, manoeuvrability, and trajectory.
Given its capacity to elude defence systems and increased risks of retaliatory attacks, several defence analysts believe hypersonic missiles could eliminate nuclear weapons’ deterrence capabilities in the immediate term.
The US Air Force’s Col. Stephen Reny argues that when one nuclear state develops the ability to overcome ballistic missile defence (BMD) systems, others may feel “disadvantaged.” In the short term, he says in Strategic Studies Quarterly, this feeling of powerlessness could lead to “strategic instability… weapons competitions, aggressive posturing, and bellicose rhetoric.”
Types of Hypersonic technologies
Hypersonic cruise missiles and hypersonic glide vehicles are two types of hypersonic technologies. Hypersonic cruise missiles, like the Tomahawk, are faster variants of existing cruise missiles. Their increased speed is due to the fact that they are propelled by rockets or jets.
On top of ballistic missiles, hypersonic glide weapons are released into the upper atmosphere. They then unleash unpowered hypersonic glide vehicles that move into the lower atmosphere on random paths in order to avoid hostile radars.
Glide vehicles do not have any propulsion. Cruise missiles, on the other hand, get their speed from propulsion. The glide vehicles should be able to go faster than cruise missiles.
‘Hype’ in hypersonic?
While the popular narrative surrounding hypersonic technology portrays them as having game-changing capabilities, there are some doubts about their real capability. To begin, are hypersonic glide vehicles really as quick as they claim to be? Because of the “drag” phenomenon, physicists are sceptical.
In this usage, drag refers to a type of fluid resistance or friction, i.e., the resistance a fluid provides to a moving object. When fluid flows through an object or an object moves through a stationary fluid, the fluid exerts a force on the object that is opposed to the object’s movement.
Any object’s speed and flow are significantly hampered by this resistance. The “drag” phenomenon describes this resistance. Drag on a flying object is proportional to the square of its velocity and is affected by air density, among other things.
As a result, at hypersonic speeds, drag is rather severe. At Mach 5, drag is roughly 25 times more than at Mach 1.
Given the hypersonic glide vehicles’ Mach 5 speeds, physicists think that “drag” will be a major stumbling block to them maintaining their hypersonic speeds.
Second, in a 2021 report published in Science & Global Security, physicist Dr. David Wright and material scientist Cameron L. Tracy argue that hypersonic vehicles will not be able to outwit detection systems or satellites. Their premise is that space-based sensors can track the hypersonic technology’s trajectory.
Third, according to Wright and Tracy, hypersonics’ surfaces heat up to temperatures of thousands of degrees due to their tremendous speeds.
Gliders’ aerodynamics are hampered by the heat because their wings and noses may lose shape, limiting their efficiency. Detectors and sensors can detect these glide vehicles thanks to the warmth.
These questions are enough to make you wonder about hypersonic technologies’ promised speeds, undetectability, and manoeuvrability.
India’s hypersonic development programme
India successfully test-fired a hypersonic missile carrier in September 2020, becoming the fourth country to do so after the United States, Russia, and China. Around the same time, Rajnath Singh tweeted that “all necessary technologies” had been established in order to go to the “next step.”
According to a report published by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), a public policy research institute of the United States Congress, India has roughly 12 hypersonic wind tunnels that can test speeds of up to Mach 13 in operation.
According to the article, India worked with Russia on the development of BrahMos II and is working on a “domestic, dual-capable hypersonic cruise missile.” Indeed, US senator Jack Reed was mentioned in various news stories earlier this week as suggesting that India was one of the countries that have “advantages” over the US in terms of hypersonic technology.