After an unsuccessful test of Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HSTDV) by the Defense Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) in June last year, India for the first time has claimed to have successfully tested its hypersonic vehicle on September 7, 2020. With this, India joins the group of elite nations including the United States (US), China and Russia who are either developing or have developed hypersonic technologies for military purposes. The successful test of scramjet technology and its further development into a weapon platform by India will have serious implications for security and stability in South Asia, as ties between archrivals India and Pakistan remain fraught for the last seven decades with no hopes of improvement in the future.
What is HSTDV?
HSTDV is a scramjet engine that will be used to power hypersonic cruise missiles. According to the details of the test released by the Indian government, the scramjet engine was taken to a 30 km altitude using a ballistic missile where the engine opened its air intake channels and after auto-ignition, it continued to travel at Mach 6 for more than 20 seconds.
The HSDTV is an indigenous project being developed by the DRDO. It is also developing a hypersonic version of Brahmos missile with the help of Russia. It is not confirmed whether the two projects have something in common, since DRDO is working on both the projects. If both materialise, India will have developed two scramjet-based cruise missiles in the future.
Hypersonic weapons technologies are complex and require time and patience. Only Russia, China, and the US have been able to achieve sustained success. For India, it would take more time to fully mature the technology in order for it to resist extremely high temperatures and aerodynamic forces indigenously.
Flight testing of the HSTDV was first announced to take place in 2016, but it did not happen until June 2019. Similarly, after the June 2019 test, it was announced that it will again be tested within six months. A year after, India issued a NOTAM for the period between August 20 – 22, but the flight test took place on September 7, 2020. The delays are understandable due to the complexity of the technology.
The technology will increase the speed and impact of the striking power of the possessor nations and have implications for security and stability for smaller nations.
In addition, the Indian media reports that HSTDV will contribute to a usable weapon in the next five years. This claim, however, looks more of a wild guess due to the history of DRDO’s performance. The Brahmos hypersonic version is also facing delays and has yet to take a flight test.
Nevertheless, with the successful test of one program of the two, India inches closer to maturing the technology that only a handful of nations possess. The technology will increase the speed and impact of the striking power of the possessor nations and have implications for security and stability for smaller nations.
How Indian Hypersonic Weapons will Impact Pakistan?
Apart from raising its prestige in the world which comes with developing hypersonic weapons, Indian hypersonic weapons development is driven by military objectives. With territorial disputes with neighbors, ideological and political differences, and dreams of becoming the regional policeman, weapons procurement including hypersonic will give India a technological edge and put great pressure on its rivals, especially Pakistan.
Once developed, these weapons will play an important part in India’s damage limitation strategy against Pakistan. They will give India a precise and unmatched capability to conduct a first strike against the strategic assets of Pakistan.
Hypersonic weapons are fast and unpredictable. They can target highly secure and moving targets. Once developed, these weapons will play an important part in India’s damage limitation strategy against Pakistan. They will give India a precise and unmatched capability to conduct a first strike against the strategic assets of Pakistan. India can target road-mobile missiles of Pakistan, sensitive targets like command and control centres, air-bases, or Pakistani ships at sea in a fast-paced and unpredictable manner to reduce the impact of Pakistan’s retaliatory strike.
A Message to China
China can also be on India’s mind due to geopolitical reasons and the ongoing India-China face-off in Ladakh. The test of the HSDTV can be a signal to China of India’s growing indigenous military capabilities. A hypersonic missile can be an effective deterrence to similar Chinese capabilities. India can use the missile against Chinese military installations along the Line of Actual Control or more effectively against Chinese Navy ships in the Indian Ocean, in case of a conflict situation.
Pakistan should follow a two-pronged approach. First, it could develop or acquire ramjet technology from a friendly country to match Indian Brahmos’ advantage. Secondly, it could start investing in research and development (R&D) of scramjet technologies to catch up with India’s hypersonic goals.
China may be one of the reasons behind India’s exploration of hypersonic options, however, as long as Pakistan remains the arch-rival of India, it will most likely be the country against which India may use these weapons first. Therefore, Pakistani policymakers must watch Indian ambitions for advanced weapons closely.
Options for Pakistan
India may not be able to fully develop a deployable missile in five years to a decade, but Pakistan should not ignore Indian efforts to develop it. India already has an advantage over Pakistan in supersonic missiles and with the development of hypersonic weapons, the technological gap will increase. To be prepared for the future, Pakistan should follow a two-pronged approach. First, it could develop or acquire ramjet technology from a friendly country to match Indian Brahmos’ advantage. Secondly, it could start investing in research and development (R&D) of scramjet technologies to catch up with India’s hypersonic goals. While scramjet is more futuristic, ramjet has been present for a long time.
Although Pakistan Navy has already announced plans to develop a supersonic cruise missile for naval use, the scope of it however, can be expanded to air-to-surface and surface-to-surface warfare just like the Brahmos missile.
Along with acquiring a supersonic missile, A study or exploration of protentional partners for R&D for hypersonic missiles can be considered. China is among the top three countries that have progressed in the hypersonic flight regime technology and has been an important defense partner of Pakistan. Pakistan may opt for the ramjet based C-802 cruise missile from China and seek Chinese help in building a scramjet engine in which China has seen technological breakthroughs.
This article was published in the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research (CSCR) on September 11, 2020.