India has just joined the select club of four countries, which have developed hypersonic missile technology, a development that is going to stand the country in good stead in future. The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has successfully test-fired the Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HSTDV) from the Abdul Kalam Island off the coast of Odisha. Only three other countries — the United States, China and Russia — have mastered this technology. The successful test will pave the way for missiles that can travel at five times the speed of sound. If everything goes according to plan, India will be able to come up with its first indigenous hypersonic missile in the next five years. Hypersonic missiles travel at 6,115 km per hour, much faster than other ballistic and cruise missiles, rise up to an altitude of 32.5 km in 20 seconds and can deliver conventional or nuclear payloads within minutes. They are highly manoeuvrable and do not follow a predictable arc as they travel, combining the speed of ballistic missiles with the manoeuvring capabilities of cruise missiles. The HSTDV is an unmanned scramjet demonstration aircraft for hypersonic speed flight. What adds significance to the latest demonstration of India’s technology prowess is that the HSTDV, apart from being a vehicle for hypersonic and long-range cruise missiles, can also serve as a dual-use technology that will have multiple civilian applications, including the launch of small satellites at low cost. Another key spin-off benefit is that the DRDO can work in partnership with the private industry to develop the next generation hypersonic vehicles.
With the successful demonstration, many critical technologies such as aerodynamic configuration for hypersonic manoeuvers, use of scramjet propulsion for ignition and sustained combustion at hypersonic flow, thermo-structural characterisation of high temperature materials and separation mechanism at hypersonic velocities have been successfully tested. The Made-in-India hypersonic technology is expected to power futuristic long-range missile systems and aerial platforms. This technology is crucial for India’s several future defence projects and helps the Navy counterbalance the Chinese navy’s move into anti-ship ballistic missiles. One of the most critical advantages of hypersonic missiles is the difficulty of defending against them. With in-flight manoeuvrability, they can dodge enemy missile defence systems. Much of the debate in the previous century was around defence technologies which can increase the speed of the weaponry. Now, the era of hypersonic weapons has arrived. They are the potential game changers. Having demonstrated technological prowess, India should not allow itself to be left behind in the race. It had already completed the tactical cruise missile triad when ‘BrahMos’, the air-to-surface variant of the cruise missile, was successfully test-fired in 2017.
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