The Age of Hypersonics

Global race to design and develop hypersonic missiles

Prasun K. Sengupta

Although both the United States and Russia are believed to have possessed operational hypersonic missiles since the early 1990s, it was Russia that first made its operational usage when it fired a few 9K720 Iskander-M surface-to-surface battlefield support missiles (SS-BSM) in a short war with Georgia in 2008. Developed by the Kolomna-based KBM, the Mach 6 Iskamder-M is being produced by the Votkinsk Plant State Production Association (Votkinsk), with the Volvograd-based ‘Barricades’ Production Association making the  ground support equipment.

DF-17 TBM with HGV-2

The air-launched Mach 10 version of this SS-BSM is known as the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal (‘Dagger’) and its range is 2,000km when carried by the MiG-31K and 3,000km when carried by the Tu-22M3. In May 2018, ten Kinzhal-armed MiG-31Ks were on experimental combat duty and they were ready to be deployed. By December 2018, aircraft armed with Kinzhals had conducted 89 sorties over the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.

By February 2019, crews of the MiG-31K Kinzhal-carriers had performed more than 380 training sorties, of which at least 70 used mid-air refuelling. The Kinzhal made its public debut in August 2019. In June 2021, a Kinzhal was launched by a MiG-31K from Syria’s Khmeimim air base against a ground target. A separate aviation regiment has been formed, armed with MiG-31K aircraft with the Kinzhal hypersonic missile in 2021. On March 18 this year, Kinzhal missiles were fired to destroy an underground weapons depot of the Ukrainian armed forces in Deliatyn.

Another hypersonic missile that is nearing operational deployment by Russia is the 3M22 Zircon, developed by NPO Mashinostroyeniya. This is a manoeuvring, winged hypersonic cruise missile with a lift-generating center body. A solid-fuelled booster stage accelerates it to supersonic speeds, after which a scramjet motor with JP-10 liquid-fuel in the second stage accelerates it to hypersonic speeds. The first prototypes were test-launched from a Tu-22M3 bomber in 2012. Launches from a ground-based platform followed in 2015, with first success achieved in 2016.

In April 2017, the Zircon had attained a speed of Mach 8 during a flight test. Zircon was again test-fired on June 3, 2017. In November 2017, Russia announced that this missile’s air-launched variant was already service-inducted. On 20 February 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that the Zircon is capable of accelerating up to Mach 9 and destroying both sea-based and land-based targets within a distance of 1,000km.

In early January 2020, the Zircon was first test-launched from the Project 22350 guided-missile frigate (FFG) Admiral Gorshkov in the Bzarents Sea and it successfully hit a ground target in the Northern Urals 500km away while attaining a cruise altitude of 28km. Flight tests of the missile from a land-based coastal battery and FFG were completed by late September 2021, with more than 10 launches performed. On October 4, 2021, the Russian defence ministry announced the successful test of a Zircon launched from a Project 885 nuclear-powered submarine (SSGN) for the first time from a surfaced position.

India is reportedly the first export customer of the 3M22 Zircon, and it will be known as the BrahMos-2. The Russia-India joint venture company BrahMos Aerospace Pvt Ltd had first shown a scale-model of the BrahMos-2 back in 2013 at the Aero India expo in Bengaluru. First deliveries to India are expected by 2026. The state-owned Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO), as part of an indigenous initiative, began developing ballistic missile-delivered HGVs in 2010 and in June 2019 the first test-firing of a hypersonic missile was conducted, followed by another one on 7 September 2020. Known as the Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HSTDV), it is an unmanned scramjet-equipped Agni-1 missile with a capability to travel at a speed of Mach 6 at an altitude of 30km. The HGV has yet to be test-launched.

Coming to inter-continental hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV), China’s DF-ZF HGV has been tested nine times, and Russia’s Yu-71 HGV also has been tested several times. The gliders are launched atop ballistic missiles and travel along the edge of the atmosphere at speeds ranging from Mach 5 to Mach 10. The DF-ZF HGV has been flight-tested by China nine times, on January 9, August 7 and December 2 in 2014; June 7 and November 27 in 2015; and in April 2016 and was followed by its launch from a DF-17 on November 1 and 15 in 2017. The DF-ZF detached from the DF-17 during the re-entry phase and flew approximately 1,300km to a target.

In actual use, the DF-17 will boost the DF-ZF to Mach 5 or faster, at which point the latter would separate from the booster and angle toward its target, manoeuvring to correct its course or evade enemy air-defences. An HGV deploys from a ballistic missile, then glides to a target on a flight path much different (and much less predictable) than that of a traditional ballistic missile. The glide path is lower and slower than a normal ballistic missile payload, although still generally higher and faster than a traditional cruise missile. The DF-17/DF-ZF combination is configured as a conventional munition, with its destructive effect being derived from the kinetic energy of the HGV. The average speed of the DF-ZF has been assessed at 2,121 metres/ second, or about Mach 6. It has been under development since the previous decade by Department 7 of the PLA’s Naval Aeronautical Engineering Institute in Yantai, Shandong province.

China’s latest missile equipped with an HGV is the YJ-21 ‘Eagle Strike’, which was first test-fired on April 19 from a Type 055 guided-missile destroyer, whose vertical launch cells can accommodate missiles with a length of 9 metres and diameter of 0.85 metres. The 1,500km-range YJ-21 is a derivative of the Dongfeng-21 2,700km-range medium-range ballistic missile, which uses a two-stage solid-fuel rocket engine, can carry a 600kg, 300kT thermonuclear warhead, and has a CEP of 500 metres. The HGV of the YJ-21 is known as the D18.

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