The Buzz

Asia's 'Mach 5' Nightmare: China’s Hypersonic Weapons Build-Up

Back just three years ago, in February of 2013, a high-ranking US naval official remarked that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was preparing to wage, if called upon, what he called “a short sharp war to destroy Japanese forces in the East China Sea …”

Capt. James Fanell, then deputy chief of staff intelligence and information operations for PACFLEET, made the remark in reference to training exercises being conducted by China when it came to Japanese holdings in the East China Sea. Such remarks took the press by storm, clearly a sign of the dangers presented by Beijing’s rapid military modernization as well as its constant saber-rattling over the Senkaku Islands.

But just like all strategic challenges, threats can evolve — and in the case of the broader Asia-Pacific, the region is a far more dangerous place than it was in 2013. Indeed, the amount of places that China is now challenging the status quo — in the East China Sea, once again pushing back against Taiwan and in multiple places within the South China Sea — is a troubling sign of not only Beijing’s reckless approach towards its neighbors, but further evidence of an unyielding quest to dominate the region all the way to the first and likely second-island chains.

So what would be the instruments used to wage such a short, sharp war in any of these above contested bodies of water if the unthinkable occurred? The most likely weapon of choice would be China’s much discussed anti-access/area-denial strategy (A2/AD). Such a strategy — loaded with various scores of cruise and ballistic missiles — would rain down on allied bases throughout the first island chain all the way to Guam as well as on any incoming US naval assets in the region and deploying to any possible combat zone China would conceivably want to wage war in. Various experts within the Pentagon that I have spoken to personally over the last several years worry Washington is not ready for the challenges presented by an asymmetric Chinese strategy that has been crafted to cause large losses of men and material very quickly or, what Beijing ultimately hopes for, an America deterred by the scale of the A2/AD threat that stands down — abandoning critical allies in the process. China hopes to win quickly … or simply not fight at all.

A Mysterious Weapon:

Unfortunately for Washington, China’s A2/AD strategy is about to become even more deadly — thanks to the growing sophistication of Beijing’s hypersonic weapons program, or in layman’s terms, missiles that can move 5 more times faster than the speed of sound (Mach 5+).

Such weapons are not exactly new and have been sought after by various nations like Russia as well as India for some time now. But with Beijing now having tested such systems on seven different occasions, America must now consider the possibility that in the next few years Washington and its allies will face considerable challenges in any sort of kinetic conflict with Beijing — a conflict that could see missiles moving at incredible speeds that will present tremendous problems for allied planners.

Up until recently, we have known little about the nature of China’s hypersonics program. Thanks to the great reporting of Bill Gertz at The Washington Free Beacon/Washington Times and others, we have been provided  a small window into the frequency and nature of Beijing’s efforts–efforts that seem to be on par or possibly even surpass current US efforts.

But while important press reports are certainly needed on this topic, deeper intellectual analysis has been missing. For example: what are the possible strategic plans for such weapons? What would they be able to do on the battlefield? How could they be used in combination with other Chinese weapons?

Lifting the Veil:

Thanks to a new report in the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief journal, two researchers at The Potomac Foundation have attempted to answer many of the deeper intellectual questions when it comes to China’s hypersonic weapons — and with some very frightening conclusions Asia hands will be pondering for sometime to come. (Note: I am also a fellow at The Potomac Foundation).

Authors Erika Solem and Karen Montague provide one of the strongest research studies of China’s hypersonic weapons programs to date. As the authors explain: