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Why is North Korea testing hypersonic missiles and how do they work? – Times of India

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NEW DELHI: North Korea has recently tested a new solid-fuel hypersonic missile, marking a significant advancement in its military capabilities. This development is part of a broader trend in which various countries, including the United States, China, and Russia, are actively pursuing hypersonic technology.
How hypersonic missiles work
Hypersonic missiles are missiles that can fly faster than five times the speed of sound, or Mach 5 (approximately 6,200 km/h or 3,850 mph), and can manoeuvre in flight to evade detection and interception. They are considered the next generation of long-range weapons, as they can potentially overcome the existing missile defence systems that are designed to counter conventional ballistic missiles.
There are two main types of hypersonic missiles: hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs) and hypersonic cruise missiles (HCMs). HGVs are launched by a rocket into the upper atmosphere, where they separate from the booster and glide towards the target at high speeds. HCMs are powered by air-breathing engines, such as scramjets, that allow them to sustain flight in the lower atmosphere.
North Korea’s hypersonic missile tests have included different types of warheads, such as a glider-shaped warhead and a conical maneuverable reentry vehicle (MaRV). These tests aim to validate the reliability of new multi-stage, high-thrust solid-fuel engines and intermediate-range hypersonic maneuverable controlled warheads.
North Korea’s hypersonic goals
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has prioritized the development of hypersonic weapons as part of a five-year plan to enhance military power. North Korea’s hypersonic missile tests have several implications for its military capabilities and regional security. First, they demonstrate that North Korea is making progress in developing solid-fuel rockets, which are easier to store, transport, and launch than liquid-fuel rockets. Solid-fuel rockets can also increase the range and payload of North Korea’s missiles, as well as reduce the launch preparation time and the warning time for the adversaries.
Second, they indicate that North Korea is seeking to enhance the accuracy and survivability of its missiles, especially against the US-led missile defence system in the region. Hypersonic missiles can fly at unpredictable trajectories and change direction in flight, making them harder to track and intercept. They can also carry multiple warheads or decoys to confuse the enemy’s radars and sensors.
Third, they signal that North Korea is not willing to give up its nuclear and missile programs, despite the diplomatic efforts and economic sanctions by the international community. North Korea has repeatedly rejected the US’s calls for denuclearization, and has instead demanded security guarantees and sanctions relief. North Korea’s hypersonic missile tests may be seen as a way of increasing its bargaining power and deterring potential military actions by the US and its allies.
Who leads the race for hypersonic missiles
In 2021, China conducted a significant test by launching a rocket equipped with a hypersonic glide vehicle. This vehicle completed a global orbit before descending towards its target, missing it by approximately 24 miles.
In the same year, Russia also made strides in hypersonic technology by successfully testing the Tsirkon (Zircon) hypersonic cruise missile. This development was highlighted by President Vladimir Putin as a key addition to Russia’s new generation of missile systems. Notably, Russia conducted tests of this missile from both a submarine and a frigate, marking a first in their military advancements.
Meanwhile, the United States achieved a milestone in September 2021 by testing an air-breathing hypersonic weapon. This type of weapon, which maintains flight through atmospheric propulsion similar to a cruise missile, represented the first successful test in this category since 2013.
Why it matters
The pursuit of hypersonic weapons by countries like North Korea is part of a larger arms race in Asia and globally. These weapons pose a significant challenge to existing missile defense systems due to their speed, maneuverability, and ability to fly at lower altitudes. Hypersonic missiles and fractional orbital bombardment systems (FOBS) could potentially evade early warning systems and missile shields, altering the strategic balance and raising security concerns.
(With inputs from agencies)





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