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Hypersonic missiles taking warfare to the next level

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On 19 Feb 22 Russia test-fired its latest hypersonic missile to demonstrate its military might.

Just a few months back Chinese scientists claimed to have developed next-generation hypersonic missiles with heat-seeking technology. China has previously proved its hypersonic missile capacity by conducting tests of a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) that circled the globe but fell short of its target by a few kilometres.

The Chinese researchers proclaimed that the new hypersonic missiles will identify targets using infrared (IR) light emission to track and follow the target.

China and Russia are not the only players which have shown interest in Hypersonic Missiles. North Korea too successfully tested a hypersonic missile on 05 Jan 22.

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According to sources, China is now one step ahead of the United States in the worldwide race for hypersonic weapons.

People know about IR missiles and sensors thanks to war movies. Commonly, IR emissions are shown in ‘Green & White’ clips in Films.

As infrared emissions are emitted by hot bodies, they are also known as ‘heat emissions.’ Infrared-seeking systems are referred to as ‘heat-seekers.’ They lock on to an electronic signature emitted by the target.

‘Close Combat Missiles (CCMs)’ were the first such class of missiles to succeed. The CCMs were utilised by the US Navy in the 1950s. The United States, China, and Russia were exploring the heating-seeking capabilities. 

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Hypersonic missiles developed by China follow orbital bombing systems and strike from space. At the same time, as the entire world is aware, China conducts psychological operations in a very peaceful and effective manner.

Hypersonic Operations by Super Powers

USA, China, Russia and North Korea are conducting trials to ensure a high kill probability using hypersonic missiles. These missiles fly towards targets at lower altitudes in comparison to ballistic missiles. These missiles are designed to achieve more than five times the speed of sound in a short time.

Putin announced the development of an array of new hypersonic weapons in 2018. Russia launched a hypersonic missile, the Zircon, from a submarine. The range of Russia’s hypersonic missile, the Zircon, is 621 miles with a speed of 9,800mph. Russia since late 2019 has had in service the hypersonic nuclear-capable Avangard missiles capable of flying up to Mach 27.

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The US military has a variety of hypersonic weapons projects in progress, across the Navy, Army and Air Force. All these projects are in progress. Many details are not available in the open domain due to the high level of confidentiality maintained by the USA.  However, the known programs are for the development of conventional hypersonic weapons that strike from high altitudes.

Indian hypersonic plans

India has been working on the development of hypersonic missiles for a few years. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, in a Seminar organised by Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) in mid-Dec 21 has asked scientists to work towards developing hypersonic missile technology. DRDO successfully tested a Hypersonic Technology Demonstrated Vehicle (HSTDV) in September 2020 and demonstrated its hypersonic air-breathing scramjet technology.

According to sources, India has developed its cryogenic engine and demonstrated it in a 23-second flight. India will try to make a hypersonic cruise missile, using HSTDV.

Countering hypersonic heat-seeking missiles

Passive homing missiles are classified as ‘Fire & Forget’ Missiles but have a shorter range. Heatseekers pose a higher degree of difficulty to counter it. Passive homing Missiles with smart technology can’t be jammed. But they can be diverted or fooled by high-intensity heat sources. These limitations of heat-seeking weapons do not give supremacy in arms.

These IR weapons can be countered and diverted from their trajectories. Directional IR countermeasures, Chaffs and lasers are the conventional defence against heat-seeking weapons.

Chaff is a critical defence technology used to protect targets from hostile heat seekers. The importance of this technology lay in the fact that a very little quantity of chaff material deployed in the air acted as a decoy to deflect enemy IR missiles for ensuring the safety of the fighter aircraft.

It will take time for all countries to develop an effective counter for Hypersonic heat-seeking systems as vital parameters and specifications are still not known. Necessary R&D will enable the designing of the required systems.

DRDO has significantly focused on Heat Seekers in the last three years. The development of Hypersonic Heat Seeking systems is still to be meaningfully structured. 

Therefore, DRDO had developed an advanced Chaff technology to safeguard the fighter aircraft of the Indian Air Force against hostile IR based threats. “The IAF has started the process of induction of this technology after the completion of successful user trials,” a DRDO statement said. Defence Laboratory, Jodhpur, developed the advanced Chaff material and chaff cartridge-118/I in collaboration with High Energy Materials Research Laboratory (HEMRL), Pune, meeting the present requirements of the IAF. “The technology has been given to the industry for production in large quantities to meet the annual rolling requirement of the IAF,” it stated.

Advance technological research is in progress, involving Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) and non-kinetic weapons. Keeping complexities of heat-seeking guidance systems and the long-range at low-level attack dynamics merits observing the future trials and deployment philosophy to develop effective counter systems.

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Gp Capt (Dr) DK Pandey
Gp Capt (Dr) DK Pandey
Group Captain DK Pandey is a senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS). He served in IAF for more than three decades and retired as Director, Joint Control and Analysis Center. He was also Director of Air Staff Inspections and was commended by CAS and AOC-in-Cs of Western Air Command and South Western Air Command. He commanded six Air Defence (C&R) Units and undertook AD operations in the Western, J&K and NE sectors. The views expressed are his own.


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