The People’s Liberation Army on Oct. 1, 2019 revealed a new hypersonic missile that could pose a major threat to U.S. forces in the Pacific region.
The DF-17 hypersonic glide vehicle, or HGV, made its public debut as part of the PLA’s sprawling, 15,000-person military parade in Beijing commemorating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
While other countries also are working on hypersonic weapons -- meaning powered or gliding precision-guided munitions that can travel faster than five times the speed of sound -- the DF-17 apparently is the first or second hypersonic glide vehicle in the regular inventory of any military. Russia claimed it also would deploy an HGV in 2019.
The 16 DF-17s that featured in the parade all were atop what appeared to be DF-16 medium-range ballistic missiles. In actual use, the DF-16 would boost the DF-17 to Mach five or faster, at which point the DF-17 would separate from the booster and angle toward its target, maneuvering to correct its course or evade enemy defenses.
It’s unclear whether the DF-17 carries a warhead. “It is likely that the DF-17 is configured as a conventional munition with its destructive effect derived from the kinetic energy of the HGV,” commented Andrew Tate, an expert with Jane’s.
With a range of potentially a thousand miles or more, the DF-17 could threaten U.S. forces and their allies across the Western Pacific.
Nozomu Yoshitomi, a retired Japanese army general who now is a professor at Nihon University, told Reuters the DF-17 could render obsolete existing defenses. “There is a possibility that if we do not acquire a more sophisticated ballistic missile defense system, it will become impossible for both the United States and Japan to respond,” Yoshitomi said.
"We don't have any defense that could deny the employment of such a weapon against us," Gen. John Hyten, then the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2018.
Hypersonic weapons are proliferating. In late December 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that the Russian military had tested its Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle in order to "successfully verify all of its technical parameters," state-owned TASS news agency reported.
"On my instructions, the industrial enterprises and the defense ministry have prepared for and carried out the final test of this system," Putin said, according to TASS. "The test was completely successful: all technical parameters were verified."
Meanwhile, the United States is just beginning to acquire its first battery of HGVs. The Pentagon in late 2018 awarded Dynetics and Lockheed Martin contracts worth a combined $700 million to build 20 “common” hypersonic vehicles, fit eight with guidance systems and install them on four launchers. The U.S. Army could form its first HGV-launching unit as early as 2023.
The U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force also plan to deploy versions of the same common HGV. The Navy’s would launch vertically from submarines in the same way that subsonic Tomahawk cruise missiles do today.
The Air Force could equip its heavy bombers with the weapons. The flying branch recently proposed its B-1 bombers as launch platforms for hypersonic missiles -- this despite the B-1 fleet’s lingering reliability problems.
In rushing to be first, Russia and China could end up fielding an unreliable weapon, one U.S. official has claimed. In July 2018, Michael Griffin, the U.S. Defense Department's undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, asserted that despite rivals’ progress the United States remained the world leader in hypersonic-weapons research.
The Pentagon determined there was no need to hurry up and equip troops with an unrefined weapon, Griffin told the U.S. Congress. "We didn’t see a need for it."
America's hypersonic weapons would mature "through the 2020s," Griffin said. “You’re going to see our testing pace stepping up, and you’re going to see capability delivery from the early '20s right through the decade."