The 5 Most Powerful Chinese Weapons of War in the Sky

Beijing's forces in the air have made the great aeronautical leap forward. Should Washington be worried?

Editor’s Note: Please see previous works from our “Weapons of War” series including Five Chinese Weapons of War America Should Fear, Five American Weapons of War China Should Fear, Five Japanese Weapons of War China Should Fear, Five Best Weapons of War from the Soviet Union and Five Taiwanese Weapons of War China Should Fear.

The People’s Liberation Army Air Force is no longer a peasant air force of ancient fighters incapable of projecting power beyond its borders. During the Cold War, there was no need for such an expensive force—or to fight a major war outside of China’s borders.

Now, as China’s economy has expanded at a staggering rate, China’s interests have grown beyond its borders, indeed even beyond its traditional area of interest in East Asia to a truly global scope. A Chinese air force is emerging that is capable of acting in support of those interests, capable of challenging longstanding powers such as the United States and Japan.

China’s youthful aerospace industry is churning a dizzying array of weapons systems. From slow, low-flying cruise missiles to hypersonic vehicles that rip through the sky at Mach 5, from bombers based on sixty year old designs to advanced, fifth generation combat planes, China’s air forces have made the great aeronautical leap forward.

WU-14 Hypersonic Glide Vehicle:

China is actively conducting research and development into hypersonic weapons. Hypersonics are a new type of weapons system capable of delivering a payload or vehicle at speeds between Mach 5 and 10, or 3,840 to 7,680 miles an hour. Hypersonic weapons are extremely fast and difficult to shoot down.

On August 7th of this year China conducted a second test of the WU-14 Boost Glide Hypersonic Glide Vehicle (HGV). The test, conducted from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center in Shanxi province, literally fell short of expectations—that is to say, near the Bulong Hu Hotsprings Resort in Inner Mongolia.

The test failure is not exactly unexpected—due to the extreme stresses of flight at hypersonic speeds, those researching hypersonics—including the United States—are experiencing a high rate of failures testing hypersonic systems. It did, however, come on the heels of a successful January 9th test, also launched from Taiyuan.

China’s recent tests have involved using the so-called “boost glide” method to get to hypersonic speeds. The weapon is boosted high into the atmosphere by a rocket or repurposed ballistic missile and glides back to Earth at hypersonic speeds. The kinetic energy of the glide vehicle is such that an explosive payload can be considered optional.

Hypersonic weapons have a variety of advantages. The sheer speed of a hypersonic means it can travel farther faster, delivering its payload within minutes of launch. Hypersonics are difficult to shoot down with current air defense systems and can also use their speed to get inside the decision cycle of an adversary, striking their targets before a foreign government can effectively respond to them.

Prior to the January 9th test China was known to have a hypersonic program, but little was known about what direction it was taking. The use of a liquid-fueled booster rocket—inferred from the August 7th test—possibly suggests that China intends to use the WU-14 to deliver nuclear weapons.

KJ-2000 Airborne Early Warning and Control Aircraft:

The KJ-2000 is China’s main airborne early warning and control aircraft. Like the American E-3 Sentry, the KJ-2000 is a large, wide-bodied aircraft with a rotating disc-shaped radar mounted on top, capable of detecting aircraft at more than 300 miles.

Airborne early warning and control aircraft are essential for modern air forces operating in tense regions, those with large amounts of airspace to defend, or those expeditionary in nature. In the case of China, KJ-2000 can be used to expand China’s surveillance network beyond the range of ground-based radars into areas such as the South and East China Seas.

The KJ-2000 is a force multiplier that can be used to detect enemy aircraft and provide command and control for Chinese fighters. A KJ-2000 could fly in plain sight, radar on, scanning for enemy aircraft in all directions. It could then vector in Chinese fighters flying with their radars off, making them harder to detect.