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Russia and China in the race of hypersonic technologies, where does India stand?

Published: 29th Nov, 2021


Recently, it has been reported that China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle that circled the globe before speeding towards its target.

  • Several countries, including the US, Russia and China, are developinghypersonic missiles which travel at a speed five times that of sound.
  • Though slower than ballistic missiles,they are harder to intercept and can be manoeuvred.


  • A new global arms race is brewing up as US, China and Russia are all pursuing hypersonic weapons technologies.
  • The US administration is making a big push for hypersonic-related research funding in the fiscal year 2022 budget and has requested $3.8 billion in budget.
  • China, apart from enhancing its military capabilities, has also been pursuing the development of hypersonic capabilities for a decade now.
  • Similarly, Russia is also developing hypersonic weapons technology and has recently tested a hypersonic cruise missile – 


What is Hypersonic Missile?

  • An unmanned scramjet demonstration aircraft. This is designed to travel at a speed exceeding 3,800 miles per hour. The hypersonic missile speed is much more than other cruise and ballistic missiles.
  • These are considered to have a combination of cruise missile’s manoeuvring capabilities and ballistic missile’s speed. Unlike traditional missile’s tech, HSTDVs are hard to track due to their speed.
  • In future, these can be used for low-cost launching of satellites and cruise missiles of low-range.  Other than these, there are other civilian applications of HSTDV.

What is Hypersonic Cruise Missile?

The hypersonic cruise missile, running at five times more speed than the speed of sound, is presently the fastest missile in the world.

Following are some of the Hypersonic Cruise Missile:

  • 3M22 Zircon – Hypersonic anti-ship cruise missile by Russia.
  • 14-X – hypersonic glide vehicle mounted on a VSB-30 rocket by Brazil.
  • BrahMos-II – Hypersonic missile by India and Russia.
  • Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle – Hypersonic scramjet demonstration by India.
  • High-Speed Strike Weapon – Boeing X-51 based missile by the United States.
  • Kh-90 – Hypersonic air-to-surface cruise missile. Developed in 1990 by the Soviet Union/ Russia.
  • DF-ZF – DF-17 mounted hypersonic glide vehicle by China.

Which countries have Hypersonic Missiles?

Before India successfully test-fired the missile, the US, Russia and China were the hypersonic technology countries. Now India has also become a part of these hypersonic technology countries.

What are the causes behind this new arms race?

  • US withdrawal from treaties

– INF Treaty: The United States withdrew from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty in 2019. This treaty had been in place since the Cold War. It banned both the Soviet Union (Russia) and the US from developing and deploying land-based cruise and ballistic missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km. However, treaty did not apply to air-or sea-launched missiles. Russia also suspended its participation in the treaty.

– ABM Treaty: Since the US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty in 2002, both Russia and China have been wary of Washington’s Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) programme. The treaty, barred Washington and Moscow from deploying nationwide defenses against strategic ballistic missiles.

– JCPOA: Since the US’ withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), tensions between the US and Iran are at an all-time high. Iran has breached the agreement terms multiple times since then, and announced that it would no longer be bound by any operational limitations of the JCPOA,

  • US-China conflict: US-China conflict has escalated over the years. One of its facet was the recent trade war between the two economies. The race for global supremacy and mutual distrust often permeates into military domain, leading to the development of weapon systems. China is concerned that U.S. hypersonic weapons could enable the United States to conduct a preemptive, decapitating strike on China’s nuclear arsenal and supporting infrastructure. U.S. missile defense deployments could then limit China’s ability to conduct a retaliatory strike against the United States.
  • Russia – US conflict: Though Russian research on hypersonic technologydates back to the 1980s, the program began to pick up momentum after the U.S. withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002. President Vladimir Putin has identified this as a key reason for Russian development of hypersonics.
  • China & Russia’s view of US BMD: A robust Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) compromises the second strike capability of the enemy by neutralising the surviving incoming missiles in case of a near-decapitating first strike. Both Russia and China thus view the US BMD as undermining their deterrence and have sought ways to restore their retaliatory strike capability by investing in new technologies. These mostly include the hypersonic weapons systems, including Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGVs) that can escape the missile defence systems.
  • Anti-Satellite (ASAT) weapons: Russia recently conducted an ASAT test. India had conducted similar ASAT test under Mission Shaktiin 2019. There are approximately two dozen countries that possess ballistic missiles or satellite launch capability that can jeopardize human access to space. An indiscriminate development of ASAT systems can be a precursor to a new age space arms race.

Why China’s testing of nuclear-capable hypersonics is being compared to the Sputnik moment?

  • The launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957 was viewed as a symbol of American weakness and a sign of Soviet superiority in technology, both by the people and policymakers in the US. The shock was worsened by the suddenness of the event, with US intelligence agencies being taken by complete surprise.
  • China’s testing of its nuclear-capable hypersonic weapons system is likely to trigger events similar to those that the Sputnik launch set in motion.
  • The launch of Sputnik, triggered a ballistic missile race that saw Russia and the USA come close to a disastrous faceoff during the Cuban missile crisis.
  • The Chinese tests have the potential to set off a similar aggressive competition among the nuclear powers to modernise their nuclear arsenals and add new, potentially destabilising capabilities to their arsenal.

How development of hypersonics by global powers will change global strategic scenario?

  • Shrinking the “time to target” window:Hypersonics offer the unprecedented potential to lessen the “time to target” window since at their minimum speeds, they are at least 6 times faster than conventional cruise missile systems.
  • Increased access to targets:Hypersonics also present the ability to reduce the entire globe to the “theatre”, bringing it within access and ensuring that every adversary can potentially be perceived as a bordering territory.
  • Enhancing ISR Capabilities:Once hypersonic weapons are fielded, the lessons from their operations could also be translated into intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) operations, giving nations the ability to perhaps someday reach an area of interest faster than a satellite could be repositioned, and overflying contested airspace with a great degree of survivability.
  • Reducing adversaries’ opportunities:Hypersonics can cripple a target’s decision-making window, effectively enabling the hypersonic attacker to get inside an adversary’s command, control, and battle management cycle with swiftness and precision
  • Nullifying air-defenses and detection:Not only are Hypersonic targets are ‘10 to 20 times dimmer’ than what the countries normally track by satellites in geostationary orbit.
  • Extensive Manoeuvrability:The characteristics that Hypersonics possess provide them the potential to challenge detection and defense due to their speed, maneuverability, and low altitude of flight.
  • Accentuating the Battle space:Hypersonics can also present the opportunity for the creation of a more cohesive, strategic military culture and battle space strategies.
  • Precursor to Advanced Space Capability:As the first and foundational, stage of a two stage vehicle for rapid access to space as a precursor to space-defense capabilities.

What are the implications?

– Action-reaction cycle

  • Experts consider the hypersonic weapons highly destabilising, due to their stealth and exceptional manoeuvrability. The US is already developing conventional long-range hypersonic missiles.
  • With the Chinese test, the US may be forced to expand its hypersonic programme and further modernise its missile defence systems. This proliferates an action-reaction cycle wherein countries start building their weapon capabilities as a reaction to enemy state’s weapon development programme.

– Impact on India:

  • India may also be forced to accelerate its hypersonic missiles programme and consider erecting an equally robust missile defence. India is reportedly developing a dual-capable hypersonic cruise missile and an anti-ship hypersonic missile.
  • Chinese advancement in stealth technologies will push New Delhi to seek similar capabilities and development of effective countermeasures. This can then set off a regional arms race, a sign that is not particularly encouraging for regional peace.

Drain of resources:

  • Even as the pandemic devastated lives and economies around the world, spending on nuclear weapon by the world’s nine nuclear states witnessed an increase of $1.4bn from the previous year.
  • This is a massive drain on public resources globally.

What is the way forward?

In order to prevent militarisation of space, there is an urgent case for a strict international ASAT non-proliferation and test-ban treaty to prevent militarisation of space.


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