Updated – Chinese Hypersonic Weapons Development

Publication: China Brief Volume: 16 Issue: 7

Estimated Missile Ranges (see bottom of the page for a full size image)

China’s military is reorganizing itself to be a more modern, effective force. On January 1, 2016, the Second Artillery Force (第二炮兵部队) (responsible for China’s nuclear and conventional arsenals) was reorganized into the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF; 火箭部队), elevating it to a service (军种) fully on-par with the Navy, Army, and Air Force. As China streamlines its military and works to improve the quality of its personnel, several cutting edge projects are in the works to provide the People’s Liberation Army with advanced weapons. One of these is the PRC’s hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV), called the DF-ZF in China and previously designated by U.S. defense officials as the Wu-14. The development and testing of this new class of hypersonic weaponry in China has been extremely secretive. However, its eventual implementation will represent a significant improvement in the PLARF’s conventional and nuclear arsenals, as it has the potential to penetrate even the strongest layered anti-missile defenses of the United States and its allies.

Hypersonic Arms Race

In addition to China, the United States and Russia are pursuing various iterations of hypersonic weapons and all three have developed prototypes of their own. The X-51A, Yu-71, and DF-ZF are arguably the most publicized developments of the U.S., Russia, and China’s hypersonic weapons development. This new class of weapons has prompted each nation to adopt different approaches, with each model using a different engine, fuel type, and delivery method, but all share the core characteristic of a sustained and controlled Mach 5 (3,836 mph) flight (See Table 1). [1]

Table 1: China, Russia, and U.S. Vehicle Names and Launch Platforms

Country Vehicle Name Launch Platform Engine / Fuel
China (PRC) Wu-14 / DF-ZF DF-11,15,16,21,26 Variants Single or Two-Stage /

Solid Fuel

Russia Yu-71 SS-19 / UR-100N Two-Stage / Liquid Fuel
United States X-51A Waverider B-52 bomber Scramjet / JP-7 Fuel
Karen Montague & Erika Solem The Potomac Foundation, March 2016

The variation in each country’s testing of their respective hypersonic weapons provides a glimpse into their motives for pursuing this costly technology. It is speculated that the United States hopes to improve the speed of its Prompt Global Strike capability, while both Russia and the PRC want the ability to pierce U.S. missile defenses. The competition between the three countries is resulting in both a new arms race and a technology push being fueled by ambiguous goals and a lack of transparency on all sides.

U.S. Hypersonic Glide Vehicle Developments

To understand China’s progress toward an operational HGV, an examination of the U.S. military’s hypersonic projects is important. The United States has been researching and developing hypersonic technology since the early 2000s under the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Force Application and Launch from Continental United States (FALCON) Project. Since then, the U.S. Air Force, DARPA, Boeing, and many others have collaborated on the X-51A Waverider. The Waverider uses a B-52 bomber as a launch platform, is intended to be capable of Mach 5+ speeds, and is equipped with a scramjet engine that uses high speed to pressurize the air-to-fuel mixture, allowing more efficient combustion and greater speeds. The first Waverider test took place on May 26, 2010, and set a record with a 200-second burn, beating out the 12-second burn of NASA’s X-43 in 2004 (Edwards Air Force Base News, May 26, 2010). Though not a hypersonic glide vehicle, the X-51A represents one of the more publicized developments in the United States’ development of hypersonic weapons. The overall budget for the Waverider program was reported to be $300 million, and its final test was in May 2013 (X-51 Scramjet Engine Demonstrator, 2013). Although this program has ended, the United States will use it as a base for the development and testing of new hypersonic weapons models, such as the High Speed Strike Weapon (a hypersonic missile). On the other hand, Chinese media reports that its military has the capability to launch its HGV from a variety of types of ballistic missile models. Among these are the DF-11B, DF-15B, DF-15B, DF-15C, DF-16, DF-21C, DF-21D, DF-26 (rumored), and the M-20/DF-12 (Sina Military, June 18, 2015). When comparing hypersonic weapons technology, the U.S.’s delivery method and intended range appear to be more ambitious. However, the U.S. Waverider program has had a lower test launch success rate with a 50 percent success rate compared to the DF-ZF’s 83 percent. Despite recent advances with its hypersonic weapons development, the United States has not conducted a Waverider test in the past two years, making the Chinese program appear more advanced. (See Table 2)

Table 2: China, Russia, U.S. Hypersonic Program Testing Records

Country Test 1 Test 2 Test 3 Test 4 Test 5 Test 6 Test 7
China 9-Jan-14 7-Aug-14 2-Dec-14 7-Jun-15 21-Aug-15 23-Nov-15 22-Apr-16
DF-ZF Success Failure Success Success Success Success Success
Duration Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown
Speed Mach 10 Unknown Unknown Unknown Mach 10 > Mach 5 Unknown
Russia 27-Dec-11 13-Sep-13 Sep-14 26-Feb-15 19-Apr-16
Yu-71 Failure Failure Failure Failure Success
Duration Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown
Speed Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown Unknown
U.S. 26-May-10 13-Jun-11 14-Aug-12 1-May-13
X-51A Success Failure Failure Success
Duration 3.5 Minutes 9 Minutes

(3 Control)

Crashed After Separation > 3.5 Min
Speed Mach 4.88 Mach 5 Mach 5.1
Karen Montague & Erika Solem The Potomac Foundation, May 2016

China and its Goals for the DF-ZF

China on the other hand has conducted seven DF-ZF tests in the past year and a half. And although frequency does not determine test quality, it does show that China is dedicated to the successful development of this technology. Its 10th Research Institute (also known as the “Near Space Flight Vehicle Research Institute”), which is under the China Aerospace Science Industry Corporation (CASIC) 1st Academy, is the sole entity responsible for the development of HGVs. [2] This unique concentration of the entirety of the program into the 10th Research Institute seems to have facilitated a remarkably quick development of China’s DF-ZF. Unlike the United States, China is assumed to be using a medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) transporter erector launcher (TEL) as the delivery method for all of its HGV tests. This design launches the boost-glide vehicle into the atmosphere along a trajectory similar to a traditional ballistic missile. After the vehicle reenters the earth’s atmosphere, it boosts itself back into the upper atmosphere. It then performs a pull up maneuver to control speed and altitude before gliding into its target (Next Big Future, August 1, 2015). The low trajectory of the HGV and its intended mid-flight maneuverability is believed to prevent ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems from locking onto its target. Countries in the region with BMD available to intercept a Chinese HGV are Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, each with U.S. supplied PATRIOT-3 (PAC-3) batteries, along with India, Pakistan and Russia, each of whom has its own indigenous BMD, as well as BMD purchased from other countries. The DF-ZF’s unpredictable flight path and ability to be launched from a variety of missiles, each with different range capabilities, shows that China’s goals for its HGV is to evade ballistic missile defense systems that threaten its ability to launch a successful offensive or defensive strike.

A major concern about China’s HGV program is that the weapons they are developing could have both conventional and nuclear capability. [3] The wreckage of China’s second (and failed) HGV test indicates that it was conducted using a liquid-fueled launch platform. This test contradicts the many reports that China is using the DF-21 solid-fueled rocket as a launch platform, however, it warrants special attention because it is the only one that has public images of its components (Arms Control Wonk, September 3, 2014). This is important because liquid-fueled launchers are associated with China’s nuclear program. The use of a liquid-fueled launch platform such as the Long March-4C (speculated to have been used in the second test) indicates that China may be developing the DF-ZF for both conventional and nuclear use. An alternative explanation for the use of liquid fuel could be to compensate for the weight of the glider during acceleration to hypersonic speed. However, this explanation likely complements—rather than displaces—the theory behind intended nuclear use (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, November 21, 2014). [4]

China’s design of the DF-ZF indicates that its primary goal is to have it travel fast and low enough to evade BMD systems. China has expressed its frustration with deployed U.S. BMD in the Western Pacific for over a decade due to the perception that such a system would degrade China’s limited nuclear deterrent (MOD, May 26, 2015; MOD, December 9, 2011). Further adding to China’s unease, other regional powers such as Japan and South Korea have also invested heavily in ballistic missile defense, making any sort of larger-scale engagement in the region quite challenging for China’s missile forces (CRS, April 3, 2015). Most of China’s HGV launches have attempted to travel distances up to 1,750 km (1,087 miles) and have been launched from Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center, located in Shanxi province (China Military Online, December 12, 2014). The intended distance of these tests is a strong indicator that China is either less advanced in its HGV development than the United States or is priming its weapons to address regional threats. If China successfully designs an operational medium-range HGV, it will have a better chance of delivering successful missile strikes against its regional adversaries. Given China’s regional focus—particularly on developing the ability to defeat the Taiwan militarily—a shorter-range HGV addresses China’s more immediate needs.

Since the Taiyuan launch center is used primarily for testing new missiles, once development of the DF-ZF is complete, it likely will be relocated to PLARF bases that house compatible launchers. Because China’s DF-ZF appears to be regionally focused, there is a strong possibility that it would be placed under the jurisdiction of the 52nd Base command. The 52nd Base command covers a majority of the Eastern coast of China and it is likely that the DF-ZF will be placed directly in the 807th brigade headquarters, the 817th brigade headquarters, the 818th brigade headquarters, the 819th brigade headquarters, and/or any PLARF bases that house the HGV compatible DF-11A, DF-15B, and DF-21D. There are also specific locations under Base 53’s command on the southeast coast of China, which could also be strategic for the use of a DF-ZF in a regional strike (PLA Second Artillery Corps, January 27, 2014). The DF-11A and DF-15B are able to reach Taiwan, while the DF-21 is able to reach Taiwan, the Philippines, southern Japan, South Korea, and North Korea. (See Image 1) It must be noted that all DF TELs are road-mobile, and easily relocatable on command. Furthermore, it is reported that a glide vehicle extends the reach between 500 and 1,000 kilometers, but it is unclear if this distance is accounted for in the Chinese tests or choices of launch vehicles (Tencent News, November 27, 2015). If the additional distance was not accounted for in published distances, the HGV could have the ability to cover even the furthest parts of the South China Sea and potentially the Second Island Chain, which includes Guam.

Refer to the attached Image 1 at the bottom of the page: Estimated ranges of the PRC’s DF-11A, DF-15B, and DF-21D

Hypersonic Glide Vehicle Applications

One major application of a hypersonic glide vehicle could be to deliver a “decapitating strike,” which is an attack on an adversary’s command and control centers. An example would be to strike the U.S.’s military bases in Asia, hoping to render American forces vulnerable and incapable of an immediate retaliatory response. If conducted successfully, this approach causes an opponent to be unable to retaliate with its own weapons. Some aspects of Chinese strategy already emphasizes these tactics, for example, network attacks to paralyze an opponent’s communications at the outset of a conflict. The DF-ZF could provide “hard” kill capability against hardened infrastructure or leadership facilities to complement cyber-attack “soft kills” against infrastructure. As China’s research into HGV technology progresses, a number of other strategic roles could be developed. Extended range, possibly through the use of scramjet engines (which take advantage of high speeds to compress air for combustion and greater propulsion), could give Chinese missile units the ability to destroy the assets of countries in range.

The DF-ZF does not use a scramjet engine like Boeing’s X-51A, however, the PRC recently announced that it is now the second country to possess this technology. Since the announcement, there have not been reports of scramjet engines being tested in a Chinese hypersonic weapon (Sina Military, October 9, 2015). Since scramjet engines, when successful, have the potential to travel very long distances, they are optimal for obtaining rapid global strike capability with hypersonic weapons. The majority of U.S. Waverider tests using scramjet, for example, have been targeted to travel distances around 3,800 km, which supports the idea that the U.S. is aiming for a long-distance strike with their weapons. [5] Moreover, the Chinese government gave the developer of its scramjet, Wang Zhengou, an award at the 2nd China Aeronautical Science and Technology Conference, which indicates that China highly values the development of this technology (Tencent News, October 8, 2015). Although up to this point China has been testing to obtain hypersonic speeds over shorter distances (a function that a scramjet engine is not optimal for), their recent attainment of scramjet technology could allow them to expand the goals of their hypersonic weapons development.

However, if the PRC expands its targets to include countries outside of the East Asian region, attaching a HGV to one of its SRBMs could extend the reach of this weapon to MRBM and ICBM ranges. When conducting a conventional prompt global strike, there is the potential for other nations to associate that ICBM with a nuclear strike, which could escalate the conflict (Congressional Research Service, February 24, 2016). Because SRBMs give off a different radar return than ICBMs, using one to reach the same striking distance would not seem as threatening and would ameliorate this perception problem. The PRC’s use of a DF-21 as a HGV launch vehicle requires the use of specific locations and firing circles, many of which are well known and monitored by the U.S. Since missile launch preparations are very rare, it might be possible to catch the PRC while preparing to launch a HGV equipped DF-21.

Based on an analysis of China’s HGV development, the authors speculate that the PRC’s main priority for the DF-ZF is to bypass regional BMD. Of all the variations of launchers currently deployed by the PRC, based on the assumed intent and estimated range capabilities, the DF-21 seems to be the most likely launch platform for the HGV. It also has a reported range of at least 1,500km (932 miles), meaning it can reach all of the countries in the East Asian region. In 2001, it was reported that the solid fueled DF-21 takes anywhere between 10 to 15 minutes to prepare. [6] Since technology has advanced immensely over the last 15 years, it is very possible that it now takes even less time to prepare. The newly released DF-26 is the next generation of the DF-21 and has a longer range. It is speculated that China will use the DF-26 as a launch platform for the DF-ZF in the future (IHS Jane’s 360, November 26, 2015). No matter the type of launch platform, a HGV can extend the reach of a missile by up to 1,000km. If the DF-ZF truly does have the capability to bypass ballistic missile defense, it has the potential to deliver a devastating conventional or nuclear strike to any nation. Even the threat of its use could be sufficient to make an adversary consider Chinese demands.


There are clear symbolic and military benefits for the nation that successfully develops a hypersonic weapon. The DF-ZF, though impressive, still has a long way to go before it can truly threaten the security of the United States and its allies. Therefore, it is likely China will continue frequent testing of the DF-ZF as a display of its military’s power and advancement. Although in its current form the applications of the DF-ZF are constrained to East Asia, it is likely that China will continue to expand the range and capabilities of this weapon. Given the recent increase in investments in BMD by nations such as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, the DF-ZF could become a destabilizing weapon. If China is able to complete development of the system and rapidly deploy it over the coming years, the DF-ZF could further erode U.S. military deterrent in the region. In the future, it will play an important role in calculating the relative balance of power in Asia.

Erika Solem is a Ph. D. Fellow at the Potomac Foundation where she supports the research efforts on the “China’s 21st Century Strategic Arsenal” project. She is a first year Ph. D. student at George Washington University with a focus on Chinese Space Policy and Defense. She has extensive experience both living and studying in China.

Karen Montague is a Research Fellow at the Potomac Foundation, where she assists in war gaming and simulation development efforts and supports the research efforts on the “China’s 21st Century Strategic Arsenal” project. She earned her B.A. in International Studies from Texas A&M University in 2011 and M.S. in Defense and Strategic Studies from Missouri State University in 2013.


1. The U.S. and Russia are also developing a new class of ballistic missiles. This class would have the same high-speed, low altitude, and weaving characteristics of a HGV, allowing it to travel above Mach 5 speeds and evade BMD. Most recently, Russia has developed a hypersonic missile that can be launched from a nuclear-powered submarine (Russia Today, March 17, 2016). Currently, China has not announced or demonstrated research into this class of missiles; all three countries seem to be prioritizing development of the glide vehicle.

2. Mark Stokes with Dean Cheng, “China’s Evolving Space Capabilities: Implications for U.S. Interests” Project 2049, April 26, 2012. <https://project2049.net/documents/uscc_china-space-program-report_april-2012.pdf>.

3. Paul J. Waltrup, Michael E. White, Frederick Zarlingo, and Edward S. Gravlin, “History of Ramjet and Scramjet Propulsion Development for U.S. Navy Missiles,” Johns Hopkins APL Technical Digest, Volume 18, Number 2 (1997).

4. Although China has been shifting to the use of more solid-fueled boosters for its missiles, all some of the observable Chinese HGV tests are speculated to have been launched from boosters using liquid fuel. The main use of liquid fuel in China’s missile program is associated with the delivery of nuclear weapons on ICBMs. It is also possible that China is using liquid fuel in tests to obtain higher speeds, as liquid-fueled missiles have a speed advantage over solid fueled missiles.

5. James M. Acton, “China’s Offensive Missile Forces”: Testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission April 1, 2015. <https://www.uscc.gov/sites/default/files/Acton%20USCC%20Testimony%201%20Apr%202015.pdf>.

6. Wendy Frieman, The Arms Control and Ballistic Missile Defense Costs of a Chinese Conflict, in “The Cost of a Future Conflict,” Andrew Scobell, Ed. 2001. p.166.