India: Tinkering With Hypersonic Missiles
May 14, 2008 | 1918 GMT
A new hypersonic version of the BrahMos supersonic cruise and anti-ship missile capable of speeds in excess of Mach 5 is reportedly undergoing laboratory testing. Though the challenges to its development cannot be overstated, its progress bears continued monitoring.
Laboratory testing of a new hypersonic version of a BrahMos supersonic cruise and anti-ship missile capable of speeds in excess of Mach 5 is now reportedly undergoing laboratory testing, BrahMos Aerospace CEO and Managing Director A. Sivathanu Pillai said May 13.
While many challenges remain — challenges that cannot be overstated — such a missile would be a noteworthy addition to the threat environment on the world’s oceans — especially near the busiest sea-lane, the Strait of Malacca. And just who, besides India, might buy such a weapon remains an open question.
Taking its name from a juxtaposition of India’s Brahmaputra River and Russia’s Moscow River, BrahMos Aerospace Private Ltd.began as a joint Indian-Russian venture in 1998. The current missile now in production was based heavily on the Soviet Union’s SS-N-26 design. The design is intended to be versatile, capable of being launched from land, surface warships, submarines and aircraft against both ships and targets ashore. It is to be deployed within all three branches of the Indian military.
Though little is known about this new hypersonic variant undergoing laboratory testing, it reportedly will use a scramjet instead of a ramjet in the second stage of the same basic design. The pace at which this new development follows serial production of the current BrahMos design suggests the Indians are simply attempting to stretch the existing weapon architecture. While this expansion is likely within the parameters of the design, very significant challenges remain.
As an object proceeds significantly beyond the speed of sound, the friction of air against its surfaces begins to create problems with heat. For example, the SR-71 Blackbird — a now-retired U.S. aircraft capable of exceeding Mach 3 — was known to experience expansion of its titanium structure as well as effects to its surfaces. But the heat at such supersonic speeds has been managed by many countries for decades in both aircraft and missile manufacture.
By moving beyond Mach 5, BrahMos engineers are beginning to flirt with territory where advanced materials science and composites will be necessary. This is especially true if the missile is intended to sustain its speeds at low levels, where the air is much more dense (and thus the friction much greater). Nor is the current BrahMos design thought to have particularly advanced guidance or maneuverability, suggesting potential weaknesses in its operational utility against modern air defenses.
Ultimately, it is not at all clear that BrahMos’ own internal hypersonic lab testing will result in a weapon. The lifetime of Indian weapons programs from inauguration to deployment sometimes is measured in decades, and fielding a hypersonic anti-ship and cruise missile is nothing if not ambitious. Indian engineers do not have experience with hypersonics. And questions remain not only about guidance and maneuverability but regarding flight profile and operational speed at low altitudes. These are questions that go to the heart of the potential missile’s operational effectiveness, to say nothing of price, which will impact both domestic acquisition and foreign sales.
Nevertheless, the objective is noteworthy. The vaunted Soviet SS-N-19 “Shipwreck” and SS-N-22 “Sunburn” anti-ship missiles are both capable of supersonic flight below Mach 3; such speeds both reduce defensive reaction time and dramatically increase kinetic destructiveness. Should BrahMos succeed, further reducing reaction times and increasing kinetic destructiveness, its hypersonic missile could be deployed operationally. That would indeed be an accomplishment for India’s defense industry, even with the help of Russian engineers.
The missile would not shift the military balance between New Delhi and Islamabad — where Pakistan’s comparative disadvantage will remain — or between New Delhi and Beijing — where India’s disadvantage will remain. But the operational deployment of hypersonic anti-ship missiles by the Indian navy and potential export customers like Malaysia and Indonesia would certainly signify a shift in the threat environment around the waters of the world’s busiest sea-lane, the Strait of Malacca.