The Buzz

China's Hypersonic Weapons Program: A Game-Changer?

A recent report in the Washington Free Beacon seems to shed new light on China’s budding hypersonic weapons program:

“China’s military is working on a jet-powered hypersonic cruise missile in addition to an advanced high-speed glide warhead that was tested earlier this year.

A Chinese technical journal disclosed new details of research on what China’s defense researchers are calling a hypersonic cruise vehicle.

A line drawing of the scramjet-powered vehicle shows that the concept being studied for eventual construction is nearly identical to an experimental National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) scramjet vehicle called the X-43.

Publication of details of work on the powered hypersonic cruise vehicle indicates China is pursuing a second type of ultra-fast maneuvering missile capable of traveling at speeds of up to Mach 10—nearly 8,000 miles per hour. Such speeds create huge technical challenges for weapons designers because of the strain on materials and the difficulty of control at high velocities.

Large numbers of Chinese military writings in recent years have focused on hypersonic flight. However, few have addressed scramjet powered hypersonic flight.”

It goes on to note:

"The Chinese report outlines in technical detail how a scramjet-powered cruise vehicle operates at speeds greater than Mach 5 and discusses how to integrate airframe design with scramjet propulsion.

A scramjet is an engine that uses supersonic airflow to compress and combust fuel, creating a highly efficient propulsion system with few parts.

The report analyzed “preliminary design methods for airframe/engine integrative configuration.”

The analysis “may serve as a basis for quick preliminary design and performance evaluation of airframe/engine integrative configuration” for a future Chinese hypersonic cruise vehicle, the report said.

The scramjet cruise vehicle was described in a technical military journal called Command Control & Simulation. The article was published by the 716 Research Institute of the state-run China Shipbuilding Industry Corp., China’s largest maker of warships, submarines, and torpedoes."

I have been interested in such weapons for a while now. Here is an interview I conducted on the subject back in March (reposted with permission from the Lowy Institute):

Harry Kazianis, Managing Editor of the Washington, DC-based international affairs publication The National Interest interviewed John Stillion, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA).

Q: Please describe what exactly a hypersonic weapon is, for our readers.

A: NASA defines the hypersonic regime as speeds greater than Mach 5 but less than Mach 25. It further divides this speed regime into two parts. One is the 'high-hypersonic' speed range between Mach 10 and Mach 25. The other is the range between Mach 5 and Mach 10 referred to simply as the hypersonic speed range (this is about 5300 to 10,600 kmh). The latter is the speed regime where most of the recent discussion of hypersonic weapons has been focused.

Ballistic missiles with ranges between about 300 and 1000 km travel in this speed range, but they generally don't travel long distances through the atmosphere at these speeds. Usually when hypersonic weapons are discussed people are referring to machines that can sustain flight in the Mach 5 to 10 speed range for a significant distance and period of time measured in minutes. For perspective, the Concorde supersonic transport cruised at Mach 2.

Q: What nations have the strongest hypersonic weapons programs? How advanced is American technology in this regard?

A: Press reports indicate there are only three nations with hypersonic weapons programs: the US, Russia and China.

In November 2011 the US Army conducted a successful test of the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon (AHW) demonstrator. This is a hypersonic glide vehicle similar in concept to the reported Chinese system. A hypersonic glide vehicle couples the high speeds of ballistic missiles with the maneuverability of an aircraft. The goal of the AHW test was to collect data on hypersonic glide vehicle technologies to inform possible future designs. The test used a three-stage missile booster system to power the test vehicle to hypersonic speed and evaluated its performance on a flight over the Pacific Ocean.

A second US approach to hypersonic weapons made a similar advance on 1 May 2013 when the US successfully tested the Boeing X-51 hypersonic research vehicle (video above).

It is powered by a supersonic combustion ramjet or 'scramjet' engine and flew about 306 km in three and a half minutes at just over Mach 5. This was the first successful test of a scramjet-powered vehicle. The scramjet is efficient at hypersonic speeds, but as the name implies, the air flowing through the engine is traveling at supersonic speed, so the fuel must be precisely measured, injected into the air flow and ignited with extreme speed. Work on what eventually became the X-51 began in the early 1990s.

These successful tests indicate the US is well along the path to solving many of the problems associated with sustained hypersonic flight. These include the high drag and temperatures generated by vehicles traveling at hypersonic speed and developing an efficient powerplant.