When India manages to successfully develop the hypersonics technology that could be applied atop the solid propelled Agni category missile systems, it would provide a greater deterrence vis-à-vis China as well as Pakistan, writes Debalina Ghosal
States aim at developing credible weapon systems that would strengthen their nonconventional or conventional deterrence. Credibility is ensured when states possess weapons that can reach targets on time. Weapon systems that are capable of evading enemy missile defence system further strengthen deterrence by ensuring that the weapon systems are credible. One of the biggest challenges for states has been to develop weapon systems that could reach time-sensitive and mobile targets that required weapon systems with greater speeds. The concept of ‘Prompt Global Strike’ whereby the United States plans to develop a family of weapon systems that can reach any part of world within an hour is precisely to address the issue of reaching time sensitive targets.
The need to reach time sensitive targets in a timely manner was realised in 1998 when the US Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired against hideouts of Osama Bin Laden but in vain as by the time the missiles were fired, Laden had escaped.
Hypersonics were an option to reach time-sensitive targets. Hypersonic weapon systems will travel at speeds of Mach 5 and above that require technological breakthrough. Work on such technologies took place in the United States during the times of Cold War. Progress was made on scramjet technology that would provide the basis for developing hypersonic systems as hypersonic systems require scramjet engines rather than depend on ramjet ones. Not only the United States, but Russia and China have also been working on both hypersonic cruise missiles as well as hypersonic technology vehicles (HTVs) or rather hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs). HTVs and HGVs can be mounted atop ballistic missiles to enable them evade enemy missile defence systems. Unlike the United States that is developing conventional HTV technology, Russia and China have progressed with nuclear capable ones.
It is a known fact that China and India have territorial disputes and to add to this, both the countries possess nuclear weapons that can be delivered by sophisticated ballistic missiles. If China develops a capability, India would need to follow suit in order to maintain the stability-instability paradox. Deterrence whether conventional or nuclear is usually strengthened when there is parity between two adversaries as otherwise, it could lead to conventional or nuclear blackmailing by the state which possesses more capable weapon systems than the adversary. In addition, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) does not mention the nuances of hypersonic systems and to add to it, China is not a party to the MTCR also. Hypersonics carry little or no payload for the system to fall under the MTCR restriction category of 500kg payload and above. Thus, technology control regime also can do little to prevent the development of such deadly weapon systems. Hence, for India, the only way to strengthen its deterrence vis-à-vis China is to develop similar systems as ‘defence by denial’ strategy to defend against hypersonic systems would be a cumbersome and expensive and not a fool proof process for India.
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