An Indian hypersonic weapon technology demonstrator was flight tested for the first time today by the country’s Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO), though it is understood that the test was not completed successfully. In the works since the turn of the millenium, the vehicle was tested this morning off India’s east coast. The DRDO issued a short statement confirming the test:
Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) Today launched a Technology Demonstrator Vehicle to prove a number of critical technologies for futuristic missions from Dr Abdul Kalam Island off the coast of Odisha. The missile was successfully launched at 1127 Hours. Various radars, telemetry stations and electro optical tracking sensors tracked the vehicle through its course. The data has been collected and will be analysed to validate the critical technologies. — DRDO STATEMENT
The statement, typically vague, doesn’t mention the status of the test, leading to speculation over whether it successfully met all test points, or whether it was aborted per force. Top sources tell Livefist that the Agni-I ballistic carrier vehicle on which the HSTDV was to receive its altitude boost, didn’t complete the mission, therefore likely precluding the flight of the hypersonic demonstrator itself.
The DRDO and MoD haven’t responded to questions about the status of the carrier and demonstrator vehicle’s performance. Livefist will update this report if and when they respond and provide official detail. Separately, the Chief Minister of Odisha Navin Patnaik and Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan both, congratulated the DRDO for the flight on Twitter.
Whether or not the test was ‘successful’ in terms of meeting all expectations, it must be said that flight testing a complex air vehicle for the first time is fraught with complexity and risk. While the precise details of how the launch platform and HSTDV performed (or if the latter achieved flight at all) are not known at this time, the HSTDV team will undoubtedly be looking to fix what went wrong. One scenario suggests that the Agni-I missile carrier malfunctioned. If that is the case, it doesn’t strictly throw a cloud over the HSTDV itself, but does raise questions over an inducted weapon system. Overall, an advanced technology aeronautical test of this kind even achieving flight-worthy status is a major achievement. None of this of course precludes the difficult questions that will face the test team now as they align to fix problems for the next attempt.
The DRDO statement also doesn’t reveal what speeds were being aimed to be achieved even though official data (see below) on the project mentions speeds of between 2-8 Mach, a wide margin. That being said, the test today is a small first step but an important one in what has been a long-standing propulsion project — one that the DRDO has kept necessarily under wraps and believes will be a gamechanger. The purpose has been to develop and then flight-prove a fully indigenous scramjet engine using kerosene fuel (the DRDO also recently tested a solid fuel ducted ramjet system).
The HSTDV is a curious project — there is no specific requirement from the military for such a capability, especially since the DRDO still depends on Russia for the ramjet engine that powers the joint BrahMos supersonic cruise missile. With a squeezed development budget, at least one former military chief that Livefist spoke to wondered whether the DRDO had “fulfilled basic needs of the forces to justify the luxury of such high-end research”. These are questions that have always — and must always — buffet the DRDO’s choices. The tilting balance between baseline needs of the military and ambitious futuristic research projects have always rankled.
The long term vision is for the hypersonic propulsion technologies to fuel platforms for extended air defence, global targeting and surveillance/reconnaissance. In 2010, right around the time images first emerged of the HSTDV’s wind tunnel model, Livefist also accessed official literature on the program, providing the first formal schematics and data on the vehicle: