Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jun 19, 2023
In light of the advances in Chinese defence capabilities, India must prioritise the development of the second phase of India’s BMD capability as well as hypersonic missiles
Advances in Chinese missile defence and hypersonic capabilities In April 2023, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) announced that it successfully tested a ground-based mid-course missile interceptor. Beijing claimed that it was “defensive in nature and not targeted at any country”. Regardless of the inaccuracy and clichéd essence of this statement, it is necessary to probe the consequences of Beijing’s advances in Ground-based Missile Defence (GMD). China’s GMD capability is supported by an extensive set of fire control systems and radars. The actual interceptor tested was most likely the HQ-19. The latter, which was first tested in February 2018, can at a minimum intercept missile targets in mid-course flight such as India’s Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM)—the Agni-III with a range of 3,000 kilometres (kms). At a maximum, the HQ-19 is capable of potentially intercepting Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). Albeit, to secure a credible ICBM interception capability, more successful tests are indispensable for the Chinese.
The worst possible outcome for India would be the complete decapitation of India’s nuclear forces in a Chinese nuclear FU.
The Peoples Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) which operates Chinese Missile Defence (MD) systems provides the PRC with a potent nuclear first-strike advantage against India. Pair that with the fastest-growing nuclear arsenal in the world, the PRC represents the most menacing nuclear challenge facing India. Although China nominally pursues a No First Use (NFU) policy, it is easily reversible and in the heat of a crisis or war, Beijing may be compelled to do so. Indeed, by one credible account, it might not be as watertight as Beijing claims. An MD system such as the MQ-19 also gives the Chinese a significant Damage Limitation (DL) capability by rendering easier China’s First Use (FU) of nuclear weapons vis-à-vis India. If the Chinese resort to first use against India and assuming New Delhi can retaliate with whatever residual capabilities that survive a Chinese FU, the PLARF-operated MQ-19s could intercept India’s retaliatory nuclear-tipped missile strike, thereby limiting damage to both Chinese counterforce and counter-value targets. The worst possible outcome for India would be the complete decapitation of India’s nuclear forces in a Chinese nuclear FU. If this were not minatory, Beijing’s progress in recent weeks and months is not only restricted to MD, another real military threat facing India is Chinese hypersonic missiles.

Chinese hypersonics: A menacing threat to India

If the PRC’s successful MQ-19 test were not enough, Beijing, in May 2023 confirmed that the Dongfeng (DF-27) hypersonic missile has been under operational deployment for more than four years. Hypersonic weapons travel at Mach 5 or five times the speed of sound making them very difficult to intercept. The DF-27 is the most advanced hypersonic missile in China’s missile forces. For almost the entirety of the four years during which it was in service, it was only revealed in a video on the brink of the military drills conducted by the Chinese military in the August 2022 Taiwan Straits by an anonymous source whose identity is still shrouded in secrecy. The DF-27’s less advanced variant is the DF-17 hypersonic missile. The latter is a Hypersonic Glide Vehicle (HGV) geared for both conventional and nuclear missions with a range of 1,500 kms. Whereas the former, the DF-27 is the more advanced variant and was intentionally concealed by the Chinese with the DF-17 assuming “centre stage” at the National Day Military Parade in 2019 and thereafter. As opposed to the DF-17, the DF-27, which was tested in February 2023, has two critical distinguishing features—range and capacity to deliver multiple warheads. In terms of range, the DF-27 can strike targets located at a distance between 5,000 and 8,000 kms. They are capable of striking targets across continental Asia and as far as the United States (US) state of Hawaii from the Chinese mainland. Unlike DF-17 which is equipped with a single warhead, the DF-27 HGV can carry multiple warheads striking several targets simultaneously and is capable of penetrating and defeating enemy missile defences as formidable as that of the US, let alone India. The only lacuna, if there is any, with the DF-27 is that it has not been adequately tested. More successful testing will render the HGV more stable during hypersonic flight and bequeath greater performance reliability.
The worst possible outcome for India would be the complete decapitation of India’s nuclear forces in a Chinese nuclear FU.

India’s options

To counter China’s MD capability, India will need a more robust Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD). The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has completed the first phase of India’s BMD programme to protect the national capital – New Delhi—and the financial capital—Mumbai. This initial phase involves an endo-atmospheric interception capability geared largely towards dealing with the Pakistani ballistic missile threat, the second phase is an exo-atmospheric capability for which testing is still underway and critical to neutralising long-range ballistic missiles in the possession of the Chinese. The second phase of India’s BMD capability, which is still under development, will require significantly greater momentum given how advanced the PRC’s capabilities are today. Pair China’s advanced BMD capability with a galloping nuclear arsenal, and India risks exposing itself to great vulnerability. Finally, given the rapid advancement of Chinese hypersonic capabilities, India’s defence establishment will need to hustle in developing a potent hypersonic capability. To be sure, the DRDO took the first step to test what it dubbed the Hypersonic Technology Demonstration Vehicle (HSTDV) in 2019, which turned out to be a failure. A second test conducted in September 2020 involved testing the scramjet for hypersonic propulsion. In this test, the HSTDV touched a speed of Mach 6 over a duration of 23 seconds. A third test was conducted in late January 2023 in a quest to validate advances made since the previous test, which proved to be only a partial success. As the DRDO maintained, the initial “launch and take-off” were successful, but the subsequent scramjet phase of the flight failed or did not perform as expected. A credible Indian hypersonic capability will require the HSDTV’s scramjet to attain speeds of Mach 5 and beyond over a duration of several minutes. At the time of the second test, the DRDO believed it would take the country at least eight years to develop a confirmed or credible hypersonic capability. However, this timeline will require acceleration. The Government of India must prioritise the development of the second phase of India’s BMD capability as well as hypersonic missiles.
Kartik Bommakanti is a Senior Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation
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Kartik Bommakanti

Kartik Bommakanti

Kartik Bommakanti is a Senior Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme. Kartik specialises in space military issues and his research is primarily centred on the ...

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