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Explained: China’s hypersonic glide vehicle test

The Chinese military launched a rocket that carried a hypersonic glide vehicle, which flew through low-orbit space before cruising down towards its target.

File photo of a missile being fired during a military drill. (AP)

A report in the London-based Financial Times on Saturday, citing various sources, says China in August tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle that circled the globe before speeding towards its target. Hypersonic speeds are 5 or more times the speed of sound.

The test, as reported

The FT report mentions five people familiar with the test as saying the Chinese military launched a rocket that carried a hypersonic glide vehicle, which flew through low-orbit space before cruising down towards its target. The test has caught US intelligence by surprise, the report says.

“The missile missed its target by about two-dozen miles, according to three people briefed on the intelligence. But two said the test showed that China had made astounding progress on hypersonic weapons and was far more advanced than US officials realised. The test has raised new questions about why the US often underestimated China’s military modernisation,” the report reads.

The report cites a security official, and another Chinese security expert close to the People’s Liberation Army, as saying the weapon was being developed by the China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics (CAAA), under the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation that makes missile systems and rockets for China’s space programme. Both sources reportedly said the vehicle was launched on a Long March rocket, which is used for the space programme.

The significance

According to the report, two people familiar with the test said the weapon could, in theory, fly over the South Pole. That would pose a big challenge for the US military because its missile defence systems are focused on the northern polar route.

The report quotes the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology as saying on an official social media account on July 19 that it had launched a Long March 2C rocket, its 77th launch. On August 24, it announced a 79th flight. But there was no announcement of a 78th launch, which sparked speculation about a secret launch, the report notes.

“The US, Russia and China are all developing hypersonic weapons, including glide vehicles that are launched into space on a rocket but orbit the earth under their own momentum,” the report says.

India’s DRDO tested a hypersonic vehicle in September last year. Asked about China’s test, a senior DRDO scientist said, “The exact details on technology used by China in this particular test are not known through media sources. But most of the hypersonic vehicles primarily use the scramjet technology. This extremely complex technology, which also needs to be able to handle high temperatures, makes the hypersonic systems extremely costly. It is all about how long can you sustain the systems at those extreme conditions. Most military powers in the world are in the process of developing hypersonic systems.”

Scramjets are a a category of engines designed to handle airflows of speeds in multiples of the speed of sound.

Implications for India

“This test by China certainly needs to be watched closely by the world, especially India considering relations with China in the recent past,” said Air Marshal Bhushan Gokhale (Retd), former Vice Chief of Air Staff. “Such capabilities also highlight the threat for our space assets along with the surface assets. The offence system operating at these speeds would mean requirement to develop defence systems at these speeds.”

He added, “India too is working on hypersonic technologies. As far as space assets are concerned, India has already proved its capabilities through the test of ASAT.”

Hypersonic technology has been developed and tested by both DRDO and ISRO. Last September, DRDO successfully flight-tested the Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HSTDV), with a capability to travel at 6 times the speed of sound. A solid rocket motor of Agni missile took it to an altitude of 30 km where the cruise vehicle separated as planned. The hypersonic combustion sustained and the cruise vehicle continued on its desired flight path at a velocity of six times the speed of sound for more than 20 seconds.

“The scramjet engine performed in a text book manner. With this successful demonstration, many critical technologies such as aerodynamic configuration for hypersonic manoeuvers, use of scramjet propulsion for ignition and sustained combustion at hypersonic flow, thermo-structural characterisation of high temperature materials, separation mechanism at hypersonic velocities etc. were proven.” DRDO had said in a statement.

Last December, an advanced Hypersonic Wind Tunnel (HWT) test facility of the DRDO was inaugurated in Hyderabad. It is a pressure vacuum-driven, enclosed free jet facility that simulates Mach 5 to 12.

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