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China’s Development of Hypersonic Weapons: Technology-Push or Market-Pull?

When analyzing a country’s investment in expensive next-generation defense technologies, it is important to understand the driving forces behind its development. A useful lens to analyze new innovations is the technology-push and market-pull framework. Innovation literature traditionally defines a technology-push as an invention that is “pushed” through research and development (R&D) without consideration for the intended use, while a market-pull is defined as R&D arising from an identified market need (Managing Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Technology-Based Firms, 1994). When applying this model to the defense sector, it is also important to consider the principal-agent model. In this case, the defense economy is the agent, which acts in service of the military, the principal (China's Emergence as a Defense Technological Power, 2013). The recent and rapid development of China’s hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) technology presents an interesting case to apply these concepts. Because China’s HGV program is highly secretive, the motivations of its program can support both sides of the technology-push and market-pull dichotomy.

Recent Developments of Hypersonic Glide Vehicles:

The United States, China, and Russia have all invested copious amounts of time and money into developing different forms of hypersonic weapons, with one of the more recent advancements being the HGV. Hypersonic glide vehicles are a new generation weapon that have utilized ballistic missiles or strategic bombers as their launchers. After being separated from the launcher, a HGV is intended to sustain flight at Mach 5 (approx. 3,836 mph) or above. Recent HGV tests have used a ballistic missile or strategic bomber. Although all ballistic missiles travel at hypersonic speeds, HGVs are unique because of their low altitude trajectory and potential to sustain an unpredictable flight path. The vehicles are reported to have both a conventional and nuclear application, and they allow for a faster attack with fewer support requirements than a modern strike force (Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, January 2016). Currently, the U.S., Russia, and China are the only three countries that have knowingly tested HGVs, each with different engines, launch platforms, ranges, and speeds.

These three countries have spent the last six years testing and developing this new technology. The United States has used a B-52 bomber to test the Boeing X-51A Waverider a total of four times starting in May 2010. 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 the Waverider program has ended, the United States will use it as a base for the development and testing of new hypersonic weapons models. Russia, on the other hand, has tested the Yu-71 five times from a SS-19 intercontinental ballistic missile. The first known Yu-71 test was in 2011, its most recent test occurred on April 19, 2016. China, however, has tested its DF-ZF a total of seven times to date, presumably using a DF-21 as a launch platform (Sina Military News, June 2015). It is speculated that the PRC could also launch its HGV from DF-11, 15, 16, 21, and 26 variants. This design launches the boost-glide vehicle into the atmosphere along a trajectory similar to a traditional ballistic missile. After the vehicle re-enters the earth’s atmosphere, it boosts itself back into the upper atmosphere. It then performs a pull up maneuver to control speed and lower its altitude before gliding into the target. The most recent DF-ZF test occurred on April 22, 2016.

The multitude of Chinese tests show that the country is dedicated to the successful research and development of this weapon, regardless of the high cost and uncertainty of the technology. Information on Chinese defense expenditures is kept very general, so it is unknown exactly how much has been spent on HGV research, development, and testing. The cost of the DF-ZF program is most likely comparable to the U.S. spending on the Waverider. In addition to the cost, there are still unknown factors that have gone into China’s decision to pursue hypersonic weapons. There are arguments supporting both sides of the technology-push or market-pull dichotomy, making the main driver for development unclear.

The DF-ZF as a Technology-Push: