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[op-ed snap] The hype over hypersonics


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Avangard-HGV

Mains level: Paper 3- Hypersonic Glide Vehicle, whether India go for developing it- and challenges to Indian security.


Russia announced that its new hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV), Avangard, had been made operational.

What HGV is and where the US and China stand

  • What is HGV and what is it capable of?
    • Speed over 5 Mach: A hypersonic delivery system is essentially a ballistic or cruise missile that can fly for long distances and at speeds higher than 5 Mach at lower altitudes.
    • Invulnerable to interception: This allows it to evade interception from current Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD).
    • High manoeuvrability: It can also execute a high degree of manoeuvres.
    • Avangard-Developed by Russia: Russia claims that this HGV can fly at over 20 times the speed of sound.
    • Invulnerable to interception: and is capable of such manoeuvring as to be invulnerable to interception by any existing and prospective missile defence means of the potential adversary.
  • China and the U.S. are also close on the heels: The U.S. has moved from the research to the development stage.
    • Where China stands: China demonstrated the DF-17, a medium-range missile with the HGV, at the military parade in October 2019.
  • What were the reasons for the development: The U.S. walked out of anti-ballistic missile treaty in 2002, prompted by the U.S. exit from the treaty and fear of the U.S. anti-ballistic missile defence system.

How would hypersonics complicate the security concerns?

  • First complication-Increase in the possibility of miscalculation: These missiles are being added to the military capabilities of countries that possess nuclear weapons.
    • For these nations, the concern is always an attack on nuclear assets to degrade retaliation
    • Destination ambiguities: Another layer of complication is added by the fact that these missiles bring in warhead and destination ambiguities.
    • Increasing tendency to assume worst: In both cases, when an adversary’s early warning detects such missiles headed in its direction, but cannot be sure whether they are conventional or nuclear-armed, nor ascertain the target they are headed towards, the tendency would be to assume the worst.
    • For an adversary that faces a country with a BMD but itself has a small nuclear arsenal, it would fear that even conventionally armed hypersonic missiles could destroy a portion of its nuclear assets.
    • The tendency to shift to trigger-ready postures: The tendency could then be to shift to more trigger-ready postures such as launch on warning or launch under attack to ostensibly enhance deterrence.
    • Risk of miscalculation: But such shifts would also bring risks of misperception and miscalculation in moments of crisis.
  • Second complication-Offence defence spiral: According to reports, the U.S. has begun finding ways of either strengthening its BMD or looking for countermeasures to defeat hypersonics, besides having an arsenal of its own of the same kind.
    • Possibility of arms race: The stage appears set for an arms race instability given that the three major players in this game have the financial wherewithal and technological capability to play along.
    • This looks particularly imminent in the absence of any strategic dialogue or arms control.
  • Third complication-Possibility of the arms race into outer space: A third implication would be to take offence-defence developments into outer space.
    • Sensors are already placed into space: Counter-measures to hypersonics have been envisaged through the placement of sensors and interceptors in outer space.
    • While none of this is going to be weaponisation of outer space would, nevertheless, be a distinct possibility once hypersonic inductions become the norm.


The induction of this technology would likely prove to be a transitory advantage eventually leading nations into a strategic trap. India needs to make a cool-headed assessment of its own deterrence requirements and choose its pathways wisely.

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