New Delhi | Jagran News Desk: With an aim to become a major space power in the near future, China in August had reportedly tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile. According to a report by Financial Times, the missile circled the Earth at low orbit before descending toward its target. However, quoting multiple sources, the report claimed that the missile missed the target by more than 32 kms.

Though the missile, which was launched atop a Long March 2C rocket, reportedly missed its target, the test has caused concerns among military experts as they fear that it might intensify the arms race "in which smaller Asian nations are striving to develop advanced long-range missiles".

What is a hypersonic missile?

A hypersonic missile can travel more than the speed of sound in the upper atmosphere and can cross Mach 5. These missiles can travel faster than current nuclear-capable ballistic and cruise missiles at low altitudes, but can manoeuvrability similar to them.

This capability bears all the hallmarks of a fractional orbital bombardment system (FOBS). FOBS comprises an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that launches a warhead into low Earth orbit. When the payload approaches its target, an onboard retro rocket detaches the payload and causes it to return to Earth.

The trajectory of a FOBS is very different to that of a ballistic missile, which follows a parabolic curve with its apogee in space. FOBS, on the other hand, are more manoeuvrable and have a flatter trajectory, making them more difficult to track and hit.

Both the US and USSR studied FOBS during the Cold War, and the USSR deployed such a system starting in the 1970s. It was removed from service by the mid-80s. Submarine-launched ballistic missiles had many of the advantages of FOBS - reducing detection times and making it impossible to know where a strike would come from - and were seen as less destabilising than FOBS.

Did any other country develop hypersonic missiles?

In July, Russia successfully tested a Tsirkon (Zircon) hypersonic cruise missile, which President Vladimir Putin touted as part of a new generation of missile systems. Moscow also tested the weapon from a submarine for the first time.

The United States said in late September that it had tested an air-breathing hypersonic weapon - meaning it sustain flight on its own through the atmosphere like a cruise missile - marking the first successful test of that class of weapon since 2013.

Days after the US announcement, North Korea fired a newly developed hypersonic missile, calling it a "strategic weapon" that boosted its defence capabilities, though some South Korean analysts described the test as a failure.

(With inputs from Reuters)

Posted By: Aalok Sensharma