China and Hypersonic Weapons

By Richard Weitz

Byline: Beijing

The newly released Missile Defense Review warns that, “Russia and China are developing advanced cruise missiles and hypersonic missile capabilities that can travel at exceptional speeds with unpredictable flight paths that challenge our existing defensive systems.”

China has made significant advancements in a variety of hypersonic capabilities in recent years.

China’s HGV research and development (R&D) efforts initially focused on the Dong Feng “East Wind” (DF-ZF, also known in the West as the WU-14) HGV.

A single or two-stage solid-fueled booster rocket propels the DF-ZF to the upper atmosphere. During its descent phase, the DF-ZF glides toward its target at up to Mach 10 speeds.

More recent Chinese attention has focused on the DF-17, a new ballistic missile specifically designed to be equipped with an HGV.

U.S. intelligence assessments expect the DF-17 should reach initial operating capability around 2020.

The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) has both short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) and medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM) that could serve as HGV boosters.

Before 2017, most Chinese HGV tests involved these shorter-range ballistic missiles, which would be optimal for strikes against Taiwan from the PLA bases on China’s eastern coast.

The DF-11A and DF-15B SRBMs can reach Taiwan, while the DF-21 and DF-26 MRBMs can also hit southern Japan, the Philippines, and the Korean Peninsula.

On August 6, 2018, the China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics atypically announced the first flight test of Starry Sky 2, a new hypersonic glider capable of powered flight.

According to Chinese reports, the experimental HGV employs a wedge-shaped fuselage and an advanced thermal protection system to achieve hypersonic speeds by riding the shock waves generated by its own flight—using so-called “waverider” technology—to enhance lift and conduct sharp angle maneuvers.

Chinese sources were surprisingly forthcoming in discussing the achievement, claiming the vehicle reached a speed of Mach 5.5 and an altitude of 29 kilometers while performing large-angle maneuvers before landing within the designated target zone.

PRC analysts assess that the technology is some three-to-five years away from being weaponized.

The Chinese government claimsits possesses scramjet technology, though it has not publicly tested it yet.

The waverider technology could also be used to propel hypersonic cruise missiles.

On November 6, 2018, during Airshow China 2018, China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation unveiled the CM-401, a hypersonic maneuverable ballistic anti-ship missile with the potential to reach Mach 6 speed over an almost 300-kilometer range.

The missile can be launched from shore bases or from a ship-based launch-canister against ships and offshore facilities.

China is also developing an electromagnetic railgun for launching projectiles from warships at hypersonic speed.

A U.S. intelligence report assessed that the weapon could fire a projectile at a target 200km away with a velocity at more than Mach 7.

On September 21, 2018, moreover, Chinese scientists tested three different designs of scaled-down hypersonic aircrafts, codenamed D18-1S, D18-2S and D18-3S.

The three prototypes possessed distinct designs: one with a single vertical tail, another with two, and the third with a single wing above its body.

This variety of designs allowing Chinese scientists to evaluate how aerodynamic features can affect flight performance.

Though they differed in shape and design, all three vehicles could quickly change their speed, abruptly transitioning from hypersonic to subsonic velocities.

The robustness of Beijing’s investments in this area suggest that China seeks hypersonic capabilities for strategic, operational, and tactical purposes.

Beijing’s strategic goal is to deter the United States or another country from engaging in war with China, especially in defense of a state within Beijing’s perceived sphere of influence.

 Even the appearance of deterring the United States can enable China to weaken the effectiveness of U.S. extended security guarantees and compel Asian states to align their policies more closely to Beijing’s liking.

The threat of hypersonic attack also aims to discourage countries like South Korea from hosting advanced U.S. missile defense systems by threatening to preemptively destroy them.

At the operational level, the PLA’s hypersonic defense technologies contribute, along with China’s already growing collection of anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles, to the Chinese military’s ability to strike critical targets in Asia.

These targets include U.S. ballistic missile defenses (BMD), command and control centers, military forces, and bases and other defense infrastructure.

In support of its anti-access/aerial-denial (A2/AD) strategy, China’s new hypersonic delivery systems could augment the PLA’s already large and diverse missile portfolio, which include the DF-21D and DF-26 ballistic missiles, the YJ-12 and YJ-18 supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, and several types of subsonic cruise missiles.

Due to their speed and maneuverability, hypersonic delivery systems can be more effective at overcoming U.S. air, sea, and land-based defenses than the PLA’s existing weapons.

In the near future, Beijing intends to further refine its existing hypersonic cruise missiles and HGVs, as well as research and develop the various other potential military applications of hypersonic technologies.

China is employing a phased approach toward attaining a global precision strike.

The early version of the DF-ZF is believed to be launched from the DF-21 medium-range ballistic missile.

In the future, a HGV may be carried on the DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile and eventually a ICBM.

HGVs could eventually be mounted on an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), such as the DF-41, to give China a global strike capability.

Meanwhile, the PRC’s intensified pursuit of high-performance supercomputers could remove a potential impediment to the country’s hypersonic research.

To expedite the development of hypersonic technologies, the Chinese Academy of Sciences is constructing the world’s fastest wind tunnel, capable of reaching speeds of nearly 35 times the speed of sound, to simulate the conditions of hypersonic flight.

The tunnel should become operational around 2020.

In any case, all research of this type enables PRC analysts to better understand U.S., Russian, and other foreign hypersonic capabilities and develop means to counter them.

Until recently, the Chinese media provided little coverage of the country’s hypersonic progress.

The higher-profile coverage of these weapons in recent years may aim to communicate to foreign audiences that the PLA is developing powerful deterrent capabilities, while also showing off China’s growing power to domestic audiences.

Nonetheless, China’s stated hypersonic progress may be exaggerated, particularly the stated success rate of its tests, which is considerably higher than the rates for the U.S. and Russian programs.

The actual effectiveness of China’s hypersonic capabilities in battle also is uncertain since the PLA has not fought a major war in decades.

Nevertheless, though the U.S. Navy has been adding sensors, software, and defense systems to counter PLA anti-ship missiles for over a decade, the addition of hypersonic missiles may require the Pentagon to build dedicated missile-defense ships rather than simply continue fortifying general-purpose ships.

The featured photo shows DF-17 launch.