The Buzz

The Ultimate Guide to China's Hypersonic Weapons Program

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 ballistic missile 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 (Sina, January 1). 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 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 operational deployment 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 HGVs and all three have developed prototypes of this high-tech weapon. The X-51A, Yu-71, and DF-ZF are the current HGV prototypes for the U.S., Russia and China, respectively. 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 HGV weapons’ core characteristic is sustained and controlled Mach 5 (3,836 mph) flight.

The variation in each country’s testing of their respective HGVs 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 (which would enable to hit a target anywhere in the world with a conventional warhead in less than an hour), 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 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 HGV. 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). In contrast, 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-15C, DF-16, DF-21C, DF-21D, DF-26 (rumored), and the M-20/DF-12 (Sina Military, June 18, 2015). When comparing HGV technology, the U.S.’s delivery method and intended range appear to be more ambitious. However, the U.S. program has had a much lower test launch success rate (25 percent), compared to China’s 83 percent. Despite its recent advances with its HGV program, the United States has not conducted a Waverider test in the past two years, which makes the Chinese program appear more advanced.

China and its Goals for the DF-ZF