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Home / Opinion / Columns /  2021, a hypersonic space Odyssey

Stanley Kubrick’s epic 1968 science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey incorporated a mélange of futuristic ideas on artificial intelligence, extraterrestrial life, and human evolution. The film was inspired by the writings of Arthur C. Clarke, particularly his short story on a sentient supercomputer called HAL. Kubrick and Clarke span millions of years in their fictional odyssey and cover millions of light years in their journey to Jupiter, but failed to anticipate the rise of China as a major space power.

Suddenly, the world finds itself at the beginning of a new military space race with China, the US and to a less extent Russia as the main participants. The Financial Times reported that China recently tested two hypersonic weapons that are potentially capable of evading missile defence systems that were built primarily to combat intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The earlier hypersonic technology built during the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the US was called a “fractional orbital bombardment system" or Fobs. Fobs was developed to carry a nuclear weapon into orbit at a lower trajectory than an ICBM and thus evade detection. The newer Chinese version of the system is a Hypersonic Glide Vehicle (HGV) and is capable of much lower orbital altitudes and far more flexible manoeuvring. The Chinese HGV follows the successful development of a similar programme by Russia that tested its Avangard missiles over the last few years. The US has been working hard at developing this technology but its test of an HGV last week was not successful.

The word ‘hypersonic’ refers to the ability of missiles to travel at or greater than five times the speed of sound (or Mach 5). In addition to the US, Russia and China, Australia, India, France, Germany and Japan are said to be developing hypersonic technology. The commonly-used technology underlying hypersonic missiles is an ‘air breathing scramjet engine’, so named because air from the atmosphere rams into the engine’s combustion chamber at supersonic speeds, where it mixes with fuel to ignite supersonic combustion. This engine technology must be carefully perfected because it is akin to ‘lighting a match in a hurricane’. The glide vehicle innovation means it can continue to travel at hypersonic speeds at a lower trajectory and with greater manoeuvrability even after it separates from the rocket.

There are two major changes going on in big-power rivalry. One, this is the first time since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 that the framework for this rivalry has shifted from minimum deterrence and détente to an attempt to gain asymmetric power in some areas, such as HGVs, artificial intelligence, machine learning and cybersecurity; and two, the theatre for this rivalry has moved from Europe and land/air- based technology to the Indo-Pacific and naval/air/space-based technology. The attempt at asymmetry, particularly the emphasis on finding newer and more novel ways to deliver nuclear payloads, has triggered the beginnings of another arms race. With Russia and China already having developed HGVs, the US is being forced into a hypersonic race that requires further spending on new defensive systems designed to detect and neutralize these harder-to-spot missiles.

Other countries are developing hypersonic missiles for their own specific purposes. Japan, for example, is building anti-ship hyper-velocity gliding projectiles to guard its Senkaku Islands from the threat of Chinese expansionism. Australia and the US are jointly working on a hypersonic cruise missile prototype, expected to enter service in the late 2020s, a project that leverages work done over the last decade on scramjets, rocket motors and sensors. Germany and France are working on a hypersonic defence system called Twister, which is short for Timely Warning and Interception with Space-Based Theater Surveillance.

All of this comes at a decidedly inconvenient time for India. A necessary (but not sufficient) condition to become a great power is the economic strength needed to prioritize technology development at the cutting edge. India’s economic rise has been gentler than that of China and punctuated by the 2008 financial crisis, the covid pandemic and frictions in the global trade system under the World Trade Organization (WTO). The Indian government has repeatedly stressed that its space programme has only civilian aspirations.

Like India’s space effort, however, India’s missile effort has punched well above its weight. India and 34 other countries are signatories to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) that seeks to limit the proliferation of missiles and missile technology. The Indian BrahMos cruise missile, built jointly with Russia, is considered the fastest anti-ship cruise missile in the world. India is currently working on BrahMos II, expected to be delivered in the next five years, which will be a hypersonic cruise missile capable of a Mach 8 speed. While the BrahMos missile can climb to space altitudes, India’s space-weapons programme has been limited to anti-satellite missiles, first pilot-launched in 2019. At that time, India announced the establishment of a Defence Space Research Agency. India now has a tough balancing act ahead: It must prioritize economic growth but keep pace on evolving technology in the defence sphere.

P.S.: “The great nations have always acted like gangsters, and the small nations like prostitutes," said Stanley Kubrick.

Narayan Ramachandran is co-founder and senior fellow at the Takshashila Institution

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