The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is pursuing various hypersonic delivery systems to augment its already impressive arsenal of precision strike capabilities. Hypersonic missiles are emerging as a highly valued weapon system for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and other advanced militaries due to their unique combination of attributes, which include: 1) sustained high speed (by definition flying at least five times the speed of sound after separation from launcher); 2) increased maneuverability, either through powered flight or during gliding descent toward a target; and 3) altitude—many hypersonic missiles fly in the upper atmosphere for much of their trajectory, which is higher than most cruise missiles but lower than the apogee of standard ballistic missiles.
China’s new hypersonic delivery vehicles, which could be armed with either conventional or nuclear munitions, could better attack many time-sensitive, mobile, or high-value targets compared with non-hypersonic missiles as well as crewed or uncrewed planes. Such capabilities would impact the existing security balance in the Indo-Pacific and potentially contribute to escalating regional tensions. Hypersonics’ attributes make them especially difficult to intercept for the existing air, sea, and land-based missile defense systems of the United States and its allies, which have been designed to counter ballistic missiles flying more predictable trajectories in outer space or slower cruise missiles flying closer to the earth’s surface.
Beijing’s Hypersonic Portfolio
The PLA has invested heavily in building a massive intermediate-range missile arsenal. Though the United States has more strategic missiles for delivering nuclear warheads at intercontinental ranges of 5,500 kilometers (3,400 miles) or more, its forward-based forces in Asia rely primarily on shorter-range missiles developed during the Cold War, such as the Navy’s subsonic Tomahawk Land Attack Missile that are deployed on U.S. surface ships and submarines. Indeed, until its recent demise, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty prohibited the United States from manufacturing, deploying, or flight-testing ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500–5,500 km (300-3,400 miles), which are generally thought to be more destabilizing to regional theater security. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Defense’s 2020 China Military Power Report estimates that China (unhindered by the INF Treaty) has deployed more than 1,250 intermediate-range missiles. Some of these include the 1,500 kilometer (932 miles)-range DF-21D “carrier killer,” the 4,000 km (2,485 miles) DF-26 “Guam Express” ballistic missiles (东风, Dong Feng), the YJ-12 and YJ-18 (鹰击, Ying Ji) supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, and several types of subsonic cruise missiles (CSIS, updated July 16, 2020).
The PLA is now researching and developing two basic types of hypersonic missiles, which can be categorized based on their means of propulsion. The first group, hypersonic cruise missiles (HCM), rely on powered flight with air-breathing engines. The second group, hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV), are launched into the upper atmosphere (50-80 kilometers, or 30-50 miles) and then glide unpowered toward a target. Both types can reach distant targets more rapidly than China’s existing subsonic or even supersonic cruise missiles and warplanes. And although China’s ballistic missiles can fly as fast as these hypersonic systems, HCMs and HGVs have more unpredictable maneuverability, allowing for better circumvention of some aspects of present-day U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) systems.
The first public demonstration of China’s apparently operational hypersonic capability came when the PLA displayed several DF-17s, a solid-fueled medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) with a range of 2,000 kilometers (1,243 miles), designed to launch the DF-ZF (also known as the WU-14) HGV during a 2019 National Day parade (Xinhua, October 1, 2019). PRC media sources have also discussed deploying HGVs on longer-range ballistic missiles, including the new DF-41 intercontinental-range ballistic missile (ICBM) that is capable of reaching the U.S. mainland, and noted that HGV technology has become “an integral part of nuclear strategy” (Xinhua, January 3, 2018), and that its “sophisticated trajectory…[makes] penetrating enemy defense networks an easy job” (China Daily, August 1, 2020).
In February 2020, General Terrence O’Shaughnessy, then-head of U.S. Northern Command, testified that China was already “testing…an intercontinental-range hypersonic glide vehicle—similar to…[Russia’s] Avangard” (U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, February 13, 2020). Having both a traditional reentry vehicle capable of delivering multiple warheads on one ballistic missile and a HGV capable of carrying fewer warheads but better able to maneuver in unpredictable ways will reinforce China’s ability to overcome its adversaries’ missile defenses. The PLA Navy (PLAN) might also seek to emulate Russia’s ship-launched Tsirkon hypersonic capabilities and equip its JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) with nuclear-armed HGVs to further improve strategic nuclear deterrence.
As in the space race and other high-technology fields, China has made a major effort to catch up to and perhaps overtake Russian and U.S. capabilities. PRC research into the military potential of hypersonic technologies used to lag far behind the efforts of Russia and the United States. But during the past decade, China has invested heavily in new hypersonic research, development, test, and evaluation programs and facilities, and now both Chinese and foreign analysts argue that PRC hypersonics research has surpassed the U.S. in some regards (Xinhua, June 2; CRS, updated July 9). China is constructing some of the world’s fastest wind tunnels (South China Morning Post, May 31), which can simulate hypersonic flight conditions on the ground and streamline testing (Sina.com, December 23, 2020). It is also developing a large-scale supercomputer program that could enable the better simulation, modeling, and development of hypersonic technologies and other advanced weapons development (South China Morning Post, April 10). The 10th Near Space Flight Research Institute under the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) previously led much of China’s HGV research and development efforts (China Brief, April 21, 2016). Other organizations heavily involved in hypersonics research include the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Mechanics (中国科学院力学研究所, Zhongguo kexue yuan lixue yanjiusuo) and the Academy of Military Science (AMS)-affiliated China Aerodynamics Research and Development Center (CARDC, 中国空气动力研究与发展中心, Zhongguo kongqi dongli yanjiu yu fazhan zhongxin) (ASPI, October 31, 2019; China Brief, May 29, 2019).
China seeks to build international prestige by becoming a leading innovator in the hypersonics field (Science, January 8, 2020). In 2018, Chinese scientists tested three different designs of scaled-down hypersonic aircraft, codenamed D18-1S, D18-2S, and D18-3S. These possessed distinct designs: one with a single vertical tail, another with two, and the third with a single wing above its body. The variety of designs permitted Chinese scientists to evaluate how various aerodynamic features can affect flight performance (Global Times, November 6, 2018). In August of that year, the China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics (CAAA, 中国航天空气动力技术研究院, Zhongguo hangtian kongqi dongle jishu yanjiu yuan) announced the first official test flight of Starry Sky-2 (星空-2, Xing Kong-2), a new hypersonic glider employing experimental “waverider” technology, in which a hypersonic delivery vehicle rides shock waves generated by its own flight to boost lift, and which media reports suggested could be used as part of a hypersonic strike platform “capable of evading all existing air-defense networks” (China Daily, August 6, 2018).
The PRC military-industrial complex is also researching HCMs powered by supersonic combustion ramjet (or scramjet) engines, which compress and ignite high-speed incoming air to generate vigorous thrust. According to media reports, the Institute of Mechanics last year conducted a ground test in which a scramjet engine ran for a record 10 minutes. If successfully applied during high speed flight, the technology would allow a missile to travel at sustained hypersonic speeds for some 4,000km (2,500 miles) (South China Morning Post, May 31, 2020). This could eventually be used to develop a global power projection capability.
Implications for Warfighting and Strategic Competition
Hypersonic missiles launched on planes or ships can reach targets further away than equivalent ground-based systems launched from mainland bases. More importantly, they can approach a target from a wider range of locations than if launched from a land-based system, compounding their ability to evade existing BMD systems. In October 2020, an amateur video posted online appeared to suggest that the PLA was developing an air-launched HCM capable of being carried by a strategic bomber such as the H-6N (轰, Hong) missile carrier aircraft or possibly a more advanced successor (Twitter, October 17, 2020). In March of this year, the Beijing Institute of Technology published a study entitled, “Network for hypersonic UCAV swarms” which discussed how groups of future Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAVs, aka drones) could act in coordinated operations through networked sensors and communications at hypersonic speeds.
The PLA will likely employ hypersonic systems in combination with its subsonic and supersonic delivery systems. Because of their speed and unique trajectory capabilities, hypersonic missiles can, as first-strike weapons, facilitate follow-on attacks by non-hypersonic strike systems by disabling an adversary’s air and missile defense systems. One PRC defense expert specifically observed that the range of the DF-17 would enable the system to reach the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) BMD system in South Korea and the SM-3 BMD interceptor in Japan, “which are security threats to China” (Global Times, October 1, 2019).
In addition to directly bolstering the PLA’s warfighting capabilities, China seeks hypersonic delivery systems to weaken Washington’s extended deterrence guarantees to its allies and partners in Asia. A recent report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission notes that, “Capabilities that can credibly threaten the U.S. military also support Beijing’s aim to intimidate and coerce regional states by fueling doubts about U.S. ability or willingness to intervene in a crisis.”
The PLA’s hypersonic delivery systems intensify Beijing’s challenge to the U.S.’ political-military primacy in the Indo-Pacific region. The effectiveness of China’s hypersonic capabilities in battle is uncertain; in addition to the PLA being largely untested in combat, hypersonics are still an emerging military technology. Furthermore, we do not know whether China, like the United States, will choose to only arm its hypersonic missiles with conventional munitions, or whether Beijing will follow Moscow’s lead and load some of its hypersonic delivery systems with nuclear warheads. In any case, China’s novel hypersonic capabilities could, alongside the growing power of the PLA in general, make PRC decision-makers more confident about their ability to employ force successfully against the U.S. military. If Chinese leaders believe that they could employ these capabilities to preemptively destroy or disable key U.S. defense systems, then this would give Beijing greater incentive to strike first, raising the risk of escalation and war in a crisis. If other Asian countries believed that China could more effectively fight U.S. forces, this could weaken the credibility of U.S. security guarantees to allies in Asia and further undermine regional stability.
Some of the measures that the United States and its Indo-Pacific allies are already taking to minimize damage from the PLA’s traditional missile strike capability will also enhance defense against hypersonic weapons, for example passive measures that the U.S. military is pursuing to decrease the vulnerability of U.S. forward-based forces and facilities to China’s ballistic and cruise missiles that include deception, dispersal, hardening, concealment, and mobility, as well as redundancy, recovery, and reconstitution. In the future, more active (and expensive) responses could encompass disrupting hypersonic data links and sensors, space-based sensors that can track missiles in the upper atmosphere, and novel technologies for interceptors. The 2019 Missile Defense Review directs that, “Moving forward, the United States, allies, and partners will pursue a comprehensive missile defense strategy that will deliver integrated and effective capabilities to counter ballistic, cruise, and hypersonic missile threats” (Office of the Secretary of Defense, January 17, 2019). But U.S. policymakers have yet to agree on the balance of funding for hypersonic weapons systems, enabling technologies, supporting research and development infrastructure, and hypersonic missile defense (CRS, updated July 9).
U.S. responses to China’s hypersonic challenge should also encompass non-military measures. The PRC’s failure to sign on to the now-expired INF treaty allowed it to develop and deploy destabilizing ballistic and cruise missile systems. The United States should aim to prevent a recurrence of this gap in coverage by striving to include China in future missile limitation agreements. The U.S. government should also work with its allies and partners (including European states and Israel) to strengthen controls over the transfer of equipment, material, and technologies that could help the PRC develop hypersonic weapons. Additionally, U.S. officials could discuss limiting sales of hypersonic weaponry to rogue countries such as Iran and North Korea with China and other states pursuing research in the hypersonic space. Policymakers and defense planners alike would do well to address the potential risks presented to regional stability as much as possible while also conducting further research into understanding Chinese strategic thinking on hypersonic technology as well as its emerging capabilities.
Richard Weitz, Ph.D., is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.
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