By Debalina Ghoshal*
Within the scope of Project 4202, Russia conducted a flight test of its Yu-71 hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) with a speed of 11,200km/hour in June 2015. This HGV which Russia has been working on for a while now to enable its ballistic missiles to evade U.S. missile defence systems, is reported to be highly maneuverable. Reports confirm that Russia will deploy twenty four such systems between 2020 and 2025. Reports suggest that the hypersonic vehicle could be fitted on Russia’s new liquid fuelled Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Russia is the third country to venture into such hypersonic vehicles along the United States and China.
Technically, an HGV is called a “glide vehicle” as its rocket component separates from the HGV and allows the HGV to fly unpowered to the target. These vehicles can also perform aerodynamic lifts, gliding to transit into a non-ballistic trajectory from a ballistic trajectory. HGVs possess unpredictable maneuverability, however, excessive maneuverability could adversely affect the range of the vehicles.
The United States has already ventured into research on the Hypersonic Technology Vehicle (HTV). This would be a component of its Conventional Prompt Global Strike (CPGS) strategy. Under this strategy, the United States plans to develop a family of conventional weapon systems that could reach any part of the world in less than sixty minutes. China on the other hand, is developing an HGV called the Wu-14, also known as the DF-ZF, which can be mounted atop its ballistic missiles. This is not surprising as Beijing also desires a global strike system. Reportedly, these HGVs would enable ballistic missiles to evade enemy missile defence systems while also providing a considerable boost to the range of the ballistic missiles.
Both China and Russia have vehemently opposed the U.S. Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system, not just in U.S. territory but also in its forward bases abroad. Both Beijing and Moscow believe that the U.S. BMD system could threaten regional peace and stability and adversely affect China and Moscow’s nuclear deterrent capability.
However, the Russian and Chinese HGVs would differ from those of the U.S. as Russian and Chinese HGVs could be fitted with nuclear warheads whereas the U.S.’s HTVs would be fitted with conventional warheads. The United States is also reported to be developing an Advanced Hypersonic Weapon (AHW), but with a shorter range than the HTVs.
There are three reasons for Russia and China to develop such weapon systems. Firstly, the Russians have been apprehensive of the U.S. missile defence system in Europe and Asia, the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) and Asian Phased Adaptive Approach (APAA) respectively. Beijing too has been apprehensive of the APAA and opposed the deployment of the U.S.’s missile defence systems in the region. In fact, states like South Korea and Taiwan have delayed their decision to deploy the U.S. Theatre High Altitude Air Defence (THAAD) systems within their territories as they do not wish to agitate China. The Russians believe that such defence systems are potentially a component of an offensive strategy and capable of negating Russia’s nuclear deterrent capability. It was hence obvious that the Russian HGV would be nuclear capable in order to strengthen its nuclear deterrent amid rising U.S. defences. This is because Moscow at present is modernising both its offensive and defensive capabilities. Developing sophisticated counter measures to mollify U.S. missile defence systems is crucial for Russia in terms of strengthening its nuclear deterrent vis-à-vis the United States.
Secondly, the U.S. PGS strategy has prompted Russia and China to develop their own global strike systems with precision strike capabilities, of which hypersonic weapons are an integral component. Russia is also cooperating with India to develop a hypersonic version of the BrahMos cruise missile. In addition, reports suggest that Russia is working on hypersonic anti-ship missiles called “Zircons” and that Russian strategic bombers are to carry hypersonic cruise missiles.
Third, Russia is undergoing a modernisation of its nuclear forces in order to maintain the stability/instability paradox vis-à-vis the United States. China’s effort to achieve a ‘limited nuclear deterrent capability’ also calls for the modernisation of its nuclear forces. Beijing’s 2015 Military Strategy stresses the policy of ‘no-first use’, and the need to prepare a counter-attack strategy. For such a strategy to be carried out and to be able to successfully abide by its ‘no-first use’ policy, Beijing would need credible weapon systems that could negate enemy missile defence systems.
In 2014, a Russian general, Yury Yakubov had also called for the option of adopting a pre-emptive strike in its military doctrine. This harkens back to 2012 when Russia had threatened to reserve the right to launch a pre-emptive strike to negate U.S. missile defences if need be. Though the plan never fructified, yet should Moscow decide in the future to adopt a policy of pre-emptive strike, capabilities such as those embodied in HGVs that would mollify enemy missile defences would be crucial in facilitating the ability to launch devastating first strikes. Such capabilities, therefore, would enhance Russia’s potential pre-emption capability while also strengthening its ability to retaliate against an enemy attack.
There are implications though. If the HGV is fitted with a Russian Short Range Ballistic Missiles (SRBMs), for instance the Iskander class SRBMs, it could provide the missiles with an increased range. Such a move then could become complicated. For instance, the Iskanders have a maximum range of 400kms and with the HGVs, their range could be increased to more than 500kms that could be a violation the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). The INF Treaty prohibits Russia and the United States to develop ground launched cruise and ballistic missiles of range 500-5500kms.
Russia, the United States, and China are continuously working on weapon systems that are swift and easily able to reach targets; and HGVs are only one such effort. Such systems are only making the hypersonic arms race more complicated while also raises the cost of defence by denial.
*Debalina Ghoshal, Research Associate, Delhi Policy Group