India joins Hypersonic Club: A Step towards Atmanirbharta in ‘Next-Gen’ Delivery Systems
India’s test of the “next-gen” weapon systems is to secure its position and defend itself from any threat especially when the major powers have re-engaged in a nuclear arms race through improved delivery systems.
On September 7, 2020, India joined an elite club of countries that have successfully tested hypersonic technology. The test of scramjet technology was conducted from A.P.J Abdul Kalam Island off the coast of Odisha. The test results were positive and promise to be a building block for the future of India’s Missile and Space programs. India’s scientific prowess was again on the centre-stage a year after the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) conducted an anti-satellite missile test that achieved all parameters.
The pandemic and escalating tensions on the Indo-China borders have prompted the Government of India, especially the Ministry of Defence, to take steps towards achieving self-reliance and curb imports while increasing exports. In order to understand the Ministry of Defence plans, two questions must be answered. First, what is the scramjet technology? And second, how does India’s plan for the technology stack up against others who already possess it?
What is scramjet technology?
To put things into perspective, a jet engine that is used in commercial aircraft, fighter planes, drones, and missiles works on the same principle as a traditional gas turbine. Due to various components in modern jet engines, the weight of these engines can only achieve subsonic speeds. Only a few can reach Mach 3. The ramjet and scramjet technologies do not need turbines and rotary compressors to produce thrust. Piyush Patel writes for Science ABC, “The basic operating principle in ramjets and scramjets involves converting the significant kinetic energy of the incoming hypersonic (speed greater than Mach 5) or supersonic air into pressure energy.”
The term ‘scramjet’ is an extension of ramjet technology. These are experimental engines that are designed to go faster than the speed of sound. A ramjet has a combustion chamber that has a mixture of air and fuel but capped at running on subsonic levels. Unlike a ramjet, the scramjet (supersonic combustion ramjets) is an engine wherein the combustion chamber is designed for supersonic airflow. Operating at subsonic levels, the ramjet technology reduces fuel efficiency. The technology is still a work in progress.
Russia was the first country to test this technology in 1991. The years since then have seen leaps in research and development, but the technology still needs time to mature.
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India’s journey to develop the technology started in 2004 when Dr. R. Dhanaraj completed the project funded by the Defence Research Development Laboratory, Hyderabad, to design a Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HSTDV) Airframe Attachment on a budget of Rs. 3.3 Lakhs. Since then, the DRDO has tirelessly worked to develop this technology. It conducted a test of the indigenously developed Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HSTDV) off the Odisha Coast in 2019. The aftermath of the tests, then, saw senior government officials saying that some of the components, especially wind tunnels, need to be worked on and would the vehicle would be operational soon. The test conducted in 2020 seems to have got things in order and fine-tuned the problems DRDO might have faced a year ago.
India’s test of Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HSTDV) paves the way for investing in hypersonic missile technology and successfully build one in the next five years. The test was crucially assessed and monitored using advanced radars, telemetry stations, and electro-optical systems. The 2019 trials did not check all boxes. This has now changed, putting India in the same category as Russia, China and the U.S. As far as India’s plans are concerned, the technology would also enable it to launch small satellites at a minimal cost.
India’s space technology has gained great appreciation and respect globally to achieve missions and the extended parameters at low costs compared to its counterparts. But, unlike China, the U.S. and Russia, India’s indigenously developed scramjet engines are yet to achieve sustained flight for minutes.
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Comparison of Plans with other countries
The Pentagon has stated that hypersonic flight is a new form of stealth technology that will evade as well as outrun enemy fire. In August 2020, the U.S Air Force Laboratory came out with a Request for Information (RFI) on a multi-mission hypersonic weapon demonstrator called “Mayhem.” This test weapon can carry heavier payloads for longer distance compared to the current competition and can deliver three different payloads as per the government-defined mission sets. The U.S military and private military corporations are already developing various kinds of hypersonic missiles for the Army, Navy, and the Air Force.
China, while celebrating the 70 years of establishment of the People’s Republic of China, showcased DF-17 and DF-100. Russia and the U.S are yet to develop land-based hypersonic weapons. The DF-17 has a range of a thousand miles and can strike the U.S bases in Japan and South Korea. The DF-100, whose capabilities are still being analyzed is supposedly designed to sink a large battleship from over a thousand miles away! The military modernization indicates Chinese plans to become a dominant military power in Asia and the western Pacific.
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On December 27, 2019, the Defence Minister of Russia declared that the Avangard Hypersonic glide vehicle has entered into service. The system, according to President Vladimir Putin, can penetrate existing and future missile systems. Avangard was tested in December 2018 and hit a target 3700 miles away. Later, in February 2020, a new ship-based hypersonic missile called Tsirkon was tested. Further tests, since then, have been planned to be launched from nuclear submarines. Russia, after the tests, warned that it would be forced to place the hypersonic missiles in its nuclear submarines in response to arms control tensions. Tsirkon can strike underground and ground targets 1,000 km away.
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India’s test of scramjet technology comes at a time when the situation on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) is tense after witnessing uneasy peace for decades while pushing forward to achieve Prime Minister Modi’s vision of “Atmanirbhar Bharat” (self-reliant India). India has been developing the dual-use technology for more than a decade, and the successful test would finally put DRDO on track to develop “next-gen” missiles, especially as the threats on the borders increases. With China, Russia, and the U.S actively pursuing research and development in this direction and the global nuclear order under severe pressure, India’s test of the “next-gen” weapon systems is to secure its position and defend itself from any threat especially when the major powers have re-engaged in a nuclear arms race through improved delivery systems.
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About the author
Aayush Mohanty is a Research Associate at the Vivekanand International Foundation, New Delhi, India