China climbsone more step on the Hypersonic Ladder – Implicationsfor India

Issues Details: 
Vol 12 Issue 4. Sep - Oct 2018
Page No.: 
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As China launches Hypersonic systems it is incumbent for India as a potential adversary to be fully seized of the threats
Lt Gen VK Saxena (Retd)
Tuesday, October 2, 2018

As China launches Hypersonic systems it is incumbent for India as a potential adversary to be fully seized of the threats that will come in the wake of such systems being operationalised. Lt Gen VK Saxena a former DGAAD analysis the challenges that will arise on account of these weapon systems and suggests that we need to be alive to the issue and prepare to counter these threats accordingly

As widely reported in the media, On 03 Aug 18China successfully test fired its hypersonic aircraftnamed Xingkong -2 or Starry Sky -2 capable of carrying multiplenuclear weapons and claimed to be unstoppable by the current generation of air defence and ballistic missile systems.  This article examines theabove development and draws out  some implications of the same in the Indian scenario.

Understanding Hypersonic Vehicles

By definition, a hypersonic vehicle is the one that can fly at speeds greater 5000 km/hr (more than 5 Mach). Another signature feature of such vehicles is, that these fly low remaining in the endo-atmospheric region, thereby reducing the chances of their detection by radar systems.

A hypersonic vehicle is also called a "wave-rider" because it uses the shock waves generated by its own flight as a lifting surface to enhance the lift-to-drag ratio to reach the hypersonic regime of Mach 5 or even more.

Such a vehicle is normally launched by any solid propellant rocket/missile which can give it the initial boost and momentum up to a point after which the wave rider phenomenon can be sustained by  the hypersonic vehicle on its own.

The hypersonic era actually started way back in 1960s when the US started a "wave rider" project to develop a B-70 deep-penetration strategic bomber named Valkyrie.This six-engined, delta-wing US hypersonic aircraft was designed to cruise at Mach 3+ at an altitude of 21,000 m above ground, meaning it was almost impossible to intercept the aircraft using aircraft or missiles. However, the ill-fated Valkyrie made a wobbly start and a string of accidents and shifts in the US-Soviet Union arms rivalry led to the programme’s cancellation.  Valkyrie was grounded for good in the 1960s. Early this year Boeing revealed plans for a new hypersonic aircraft, thought to be named “Valkyrie II, with surveillance and strike capabilities. It aims to build it in the next 10-20 years but already faces competition from the Lockheed Martin SR-72, which is a conceptualized hypersonic UAV.

As far as Russia is concerned, it has been reported that Russian Federation is expected to deploy its Avangard hypersonic boost-glide vehicle mounted on the Sarmat super heavy  intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) by late 2018 or early 2019. This vehicle can be carried as a multiple independently targetable vehicle (MIRV) payload and can deliver both the conventional, as well as, nuclear weapons. It is claimed that Avangard will reach "Mach 20"(24,501 km/hr) and will be capable of sharp high speed evasive manoeuvres  making it absolutely invulnerable to any missile defence system.

China’sHypersonic Threat Emerges

China’s Xingkong -2 hypersonic aircraft has been developed by the China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics (CAAA) under the state-owned conglomerate, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation.The aircraft was carried by  a rocket  which flew for 10 minutes (thereby according it the boost momentum) before launching it.  The launch took place from an undisclosed  site in  north western China.

The aircraft then flew for about 10 minutes at speeds of 5.5 to 6 Mach (6738-7350 Km/hr) achieving an altitude of 30 Km (remained endo-atmospheric). During the flight, the aircraft flew an unpredicted trajectory, made some large angle turning manoeuvres and landed in the targeted area as planned. The CAAA also tested a host of other cutting-edge technologies, such as a domestically developed heat-balance thermal protection system. Various parameters were met and the wave-rider prototype was fully recovered.

Prior to the current launch, China had announced in Dec 17 that it has successfully tested a hypersonic missile. In case of missiles, the hypersonic component  is called the hypersonic glide vehicle or HGV.  This HGV  is carried as a payload on a ballistic missile and launched at a point in time. The principle is the same; initial boost by the carrier vehicle up to a point when the wave rider phenomenon can set in and sustained  by the hypersonic vehicle on its own steam. 

In the instance case, a DF 17 missile carried an HGV which was launched at a designated point in its flight. The HGV  thereafter flew on its own steam and achieved a hypersonic speed . Launched from the Jiuquan launch centre in innerMagnolia, the HGV flew for 1400 km before hitting its planned target "within meters" at a site in Xinjiang Province.

Hence the credit still belongs to China for the first successful  flight of a hypersonic missile in Dec 17 and a hypersonic aircraft in Aug 18.

The People’s Daily of China has reported that the "wave-rider" ( Xingkong 2)  gliding at such high speeds could (just) “come and go at will” on a highly manoeuvrable trajectory, piercing through any anti-missile defense system in operation. Also, it can carry both conventional,as well as, nuclear warheads, otherwise a wave-rider can simply use its own immense kinetic energy to hit and destroy a target.In the context of the People's  Daily's assertion of "come and go", the defenders challenges in dealing with the hypersonic threat are given below.

The Time Challenge.

Hypersonic speeds are  way above the speeds of the current generation of air threat vehicles namely aircrafts, attack helicopters, cruise missiles (barring hypersonicones), unmanned aerial systems (UAS) anti radiation missiles (ARMs) or the current series of surface-to-surface or ballistic missiles. Due to this, the hypersonic threat vehicles are likely to reduce the time exposure to the defenders to such low levels as to make the air defence battle functions of detection of the target, identification as to friend or foe, selection of weapons and engagements up to end game, simply "impossible"rendering the current generation of weapons totally ineffective in taking on such threats.

The Generation Gap.

Such threat vehicles actually signify a generation gap between themselves and the regime of air defence resources currently available.In that, flying low and at such tremendous speeds will not only make the current generation of sensors irrelevant, but also, the current family of air defence weapons "incapable" to counter such threats. 

Reality Check

The said  implicationsmust be preceded by a  reality check. In that , it is stated that be it the HGV on board ballistic missiles (DF 17) or Xingkong2 on board the launch rocket, such threatsare just about in their infancy and far on the horizon. For such type of threats to move from their maiden test flights to actualoperationalisation, one could be looking at many years into the future.

It is not only the hypersonic delivery vehicles alone, but also, the support systems, the battle management and control structures, sensor regimes, warhead miniaturisation and mating and many other such challenges that also must mature to the level of hypersonic threat.

The Defenders' Challenge

It will be clear by now that if a hypersonic threat is to be defeated, the bottom line requirementis to beat the "time challenge".   This challenge can be beaten if the defenders achieve the twin capabilities of "instantaneous detection" and "lightening kill". What does that mean?

It means the surveillance systems have to space based. Such systems must maintain a constant vigil over the adversary and instantaneously report default changes in an auto mode. Only such a sensor regime can hope to get an inkling of a lunch of a HGV type of a target. This a  huge challenge as of date; the world over.

Once detected, the kill vehicle has to be a "soft kill” onethat can inflict destruction at the "speed of light". Examples of such kill systems are laser kill rays, charged particle beamswhich can strike like the "lightning bolts" or high powered microwaves that can materially disintegrate the target system at the speed and lethality of microwaves. All these (except probably the laser based systems) are the weapons of the future.

On the flip side, while the HGV threat may still be  beyond the foreseeablehorizon , none of the countermeasures as suggested above,  should sound as "flights of fancy" to a discerning reader.  Simply put, while the HGV threat is taking its years to mature, the defenders should not lose those years to develop the counter in a resolve that when the "sword strikes the shield must be in place".

The Way Forward

Detection of Threat and Battle Management

The national level air defence battle management command and control (BMC2) system, i.e Integrated Air Command and Control System (IAACS) of the Indian Air Force with linkages with similar systems across the three Services and with civil aviation, needs to further grow, as the time rolls, into futuristic sensor capabilities based on satellite surveillance of the stature as described above so as to be able to detect hypersonic class threat vehicles. It is reiterated, this is a huge challenge; a very tall order and will take several years to fructify.

Kill Vehicles

The indigenous efforts currently in progress for development of laser based soft kill capability need to be speeded up. The current challengesbeing faced (not described being classified) need to be addressed through international cooperation, if need be,taking the route of joint ventures under MakeinIndia.

This capability once operationalised will have to be co-ordinated with the requisite sensor capability as and when it gets to be realised. This will require years of effort involving multi-platform and multi-agency coordination.

While laser based soft kill weapons are closer to realisation, another promising area to take on such weapons is the route of electromagneticdebilitation. This could be a niche research area.

That said, the research in other possible fields of soft kill weapons,like the charged particle lightning bolts or the material disintegratingcapabilities of high power microwaves need also to be kept alive at the pace  which the world is going at.

 While all that is said from the defender's point of view stands on one side, on the other must stand the following  "driving thoughts".

  • What is the quantum of such a threat?
  • Test flights notwithstanding, in what time frame from now on,such a threat  can actually get operationalised?
  • The probability of such a threat actually getting unfolded on "our borders".

It is the sense of the author that the quantum of such threat vehicles are likely to be very limitedand still far in the foreseeable future. Also , it is felt that such vehicles are more weighed as"tools of deterrence" rather than instant "battlefield ready" weaponry

That said, while we must keep our eyes and ears open and match capability with counter capability, the realism of it all must drive our efforts in the long run.


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