Center for Strategic Communication

A BrahMos supersonic cruise missile variant on display at the International Maritime Defense Show in Saint Petersburg, Russia, 2007. Photo: Wikimedia

Russia and India are already testing a new supersonic cruise missile, which is pretty cool, we guess. But going Mach 2 or thereabouts isn’t all that fast these days. Everything has to go faster. That’s why the two countries are also developing a hypersonic missile capable of traveling more than five times the speed of sound. Problem is even building the engines, let alone missiles, is extremely hard to do.

If it works, the missile — called the BrahMos 2 — is expected to travel up to Mach 7 from sea-, land- and air-launched platforms. And it’s supposed to be ready for flight tests in 2017, which is overly optimistic, at best. “I think we will need about 5 years to develop the first fully functional prototype,” Sivathanu Pillai, CEO of India-based BraHmos Aerospace said in Moscow on Wednesday. Pillai also suggested the missile already exists, and that BrahMos has conducted ”lab tests [of the missile] at the speed of 6.5 Mach.”

“There’s little doubt India and Russia are pursuing hypersonic weapons technology, though it remains to be seen whether such an ambitious timescale as suggested for ‘Brahmos 2′ could be met,” Douglas Barrie, an air warfare expert for the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, writes in an e-mail to Danger Room. “The original Brahmos is basically a Russian missile, the NPO Mashinostroenia 3M-55 Onyx (NATO designation SS-N-26), so it will be interesting to see the extent to which Brahmos 2 might draw on previous Russian hypersonic research and development.”

For one, they’ll probably need to build a scramjet engine, which is still a long way from being anything but experimental. The concept, though, is surprisingly simple. As the missile — or whatever vehicle the scramjet is attached to — accelerates through the air, the engine begins to suck in oxygen. Stored fuel, such as hydrogen, is then mixed with the oxygen and burned before being accelerated and pumped out through a nozzle. This motion then speeds up the missile to hypersonic speeds. The catch: Getting it to work is really difficult.

There’s the sheer heat generated by traveling at such speeds. And getting a scramjet into missile-form is even harder. You’d need sophisticated guidance tools, sensors and navigation equipment to keep it in the air and to its target, while also making it small enough to launch from a conventional aircraft. And you still have to solve the propulsion problems.

Just ask the Pentagon. Its experimental pizza-shaped hypersonic weapon capsule, Falcon, failed its test in August before plunging into the Pacific Ocean. The Air Force’s scramjet — the X-51 WaveRider – has a better record, but was bruised by a test last summer when its engine failed. The Air Force is pressing on, however, with a new hypersonic missile for its stealth fighters. The Army’s Advanced Hypersonic Weapon has also been successfully tested, but it’s nowhere close to a deployable weapon.

“You ask the question, how hard is it? The answer is, it’s really hard,” says Mark Lewis, formerly the Air Force’s chief scientist. “It’s not a matter of simply taking a supersonic thing and flying it a little bit faster. The physics work against you, the temperatures get higher, everything really does get harder.”

Hypersonic and scramjet research in the United States also goes back to the early days of the Cold War. But it wasn’t until 1991 when Russia became the first country to successfully test a scramjet. More tests followed, and with the help of NASA, Russia successfully flew a hydrogen-fueled scramjet at up to Mach 6.4 over Kazakhstan in 1998. In 2001, U.S. defense analysts took notice of a mysterious ultra-high-speed Russian missile test suspected of being powered by a scramjet. The first successful solo American scramjet tests didn’t occur until the 2000s, though they were some of the first tests to use engines that operated entirely as scramjets. The earlier Russian tests were hybrid ramjets — slightly different, with oxygen only moving at subsonic speeds inside the engine.

Also, don’t think it’s a coincidence that Russia now wants a hypersonic missile of its own. In May, Russian defense industry chief Dmitry Rogozin called the decline of research into hypersonic weapons since the Soviet era “a treasonable act to our national interests,” and that developing hypersonic weapons was necessary to respond to U.S. developments. Nor are cruise missiles the only area where Russia is afraid of falling behind even more than they already are. It’s why Russia is preparing to open up its own version of the far-out research agency Darpa — while also planning a new stealth fighter, directed-energy guns and radars (to help shoot down our stealth planes). Russia also wants new ICBMs (though they flop on launch).

Another reason is that the technology is just really cool. “I think the applications are profound and really could be game-changing,” Lewis says about hypersonics. It’s flying higher and faster, and not surprising people want it.