On September 7, 2020, Indian Defence Research and Development Organisation successfully flight-tested the indigenously-developed hypersonic technology demonstration vehicle (HSTDV). As per the Ministry of Defence (MoD), the parameters of launch and cruise vehicle, including the scramjet engine, were monitored by multiple tracking radars, electro-optical systems and telemetry stations. A ship of the Indian Navy was also deployed in the Bay of Bengal to monitor the performance during the cruise phase of hypersonic vehicle. In appreciation of the achievement, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said, “I congratulate DRDO on this landmark achievement towards realising Prime Minister Modi’s vision of “AatmaNirbhar Bharat”.
The successful test flight by DRDO of the hypersonic missile more appropriately known as the hypersonic technology demonstration vehicle or HSTDV, was undertaken from the Abdul Kalam launch complex on Wheeler Island, located off the coast of Odisha. Despite the fact that it comes after a decade and a half since the initiation of the project, the success of this experimental flight has been a major technological breakthrough and has convincingly demonstrated the capability of the scientific community of the nation in respect of highly complex technology that will serve as a stepping stone for nextgeneration hypersonic vehicles that can and will be produced in collaboration with the indigenous defence industry. The successful execution of this particular test flight has certainly helped the DRDO to prove and validate a number of critical technologies such as aerodynamic configuration for hypersonic manoeuvres, use of air breathing scramjet propulsion for ignition and sustained combustion at hypersonic speeds. Dr G. Satheesh Reddy, who dons multiple caps of Chairman of DRDO and Secretary, Department of Defence R&D, Government of India as well as Director General, Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), stated that “By successfully demonstrating the complex air-breathing hypersonic technology, India has now entered the hypersonic regime.”
Hypersonic flight is a flight through the atmosphere at a height of less than 90 km from the surface of the Earth at a speed of above Mach 5 or five times the speed of sound. It is at this speed that dissociation of air begins to become significant and the vehicle experiences high heat loads. The first object made by human beings that achieved hypersonic flight, was a two-stage rocket and this feat was achieved in the year 1949 at White Sands in New Mexico in the United States (US). In this experiment, the rocket achieved a speed of 8,288 kilometres per hour which is approximately Mach 6.7, or nearly seven times the speed of sound. However, due to excessive generation of heat during re-entry into the atmosphere, the rocket was destroyed leaving only charred remains for the scientists involved to study. Later on in April 1961, during the world’s first piloted orbital space venture, the Russian cosmonaut Major Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to travel at hypersonic speed. This was followed by the American astronaut Alan Shepard who became the first American and second person in the world to achieve hypersonic flight when his capsule reentered the atmosphere at a speed above Mach 5 at the end of his suborbital flight over the Atlantic Ocean.
Developed by the DRDO, the HSTDV is not a weapon by itself; but is a carrier vehicle for long-range cruise missiles and even nuclear warheads. The successful test flight of the HSTDV has catapulted India into the exclusive club of three nations that could hitherto boast of possessing this capability namely the US, Russia and China. As per reports, both Russia and China are engaged in the development of hypersonic weapon systems with conventional as well as nuclear warheads. In July this year, Vladimir Putin President of Russia indicated that in the near future, warships of the Russian Navy would be armed with hypersonic strike weapons equipped with nuclear warheads.
Hypersonic missiles travel at speeds that are much higher than other ballistic or cruise missiles. This class of missile systems can deliver conventional as well as nuclear payloads in very short time frames – in fact within minutes of being launched. Also, these missiles are highly manoeuvrable, they do not follow a predictable path during their flight and can combine the speed of ballistic missiles with the manoeuvring capability of cruise missiles, bringing larger areas of enemy territory under threat. The operating characteristics of hypersonic missile systems render these platforms difficult for the enemy’s air defence organisation to detect, track and intercept. In the case of the DRDO’s HSTDV which is a dual-use technology platform, it is planned to have multiple civilian applications as well which would include the launch of small satellites at very nominal cost that is easily affordable. One major fall out of the successful launch of the HSTDV will be that it will go along way to help India develop its next-generation hypersonic missile BrahMos-II that is currently under development by the DRDO in collaboration with Russia’s NPO Mashinostroyenia.