Amid concerns from the Pentagon that China already has hypersonic weapons such as its DF-17, there is an equally troubling, yet lesser recognized reality. China not only operates these new high-threat attack missiles, able to travel faster than five times the speed of sound, but they are fast progressing with efforts to further modernize the weapons.
Hypersonic weapons as they exist are certainly problematic for defenses, but there may also be an even newer generation of the weapons slated to emerge over the next few years. The Chinese-government-backed Global Times newspaper reported that the country is breaking new ground testing a next-generation wind tunnel for hypersonic weapons development.
The new FL-64 wind tunnel, built by the state-owned Aviation Industry Corps of China, “passed airflow distribution calibration tests under major Mach numbers,” according to the paper.
“It is designed to simulate speeds from Mach 4 to 8 under a total temperature of 900 Kelvin (626.85 C) at a simulated flight altitude of 48,000 meters,” an AVIC statement said. The statement, as cited in the newspaper, adds that the wind tunnel can operate for more than thirty-second testing an aircraft’s ability to deploy the weapons.
The development raises questions about what might be next for hypersonic weapons beyond their already lethal capabilities. Many of the details regarding these kinds of developments are unlikely to be published. Will future hypersonic weapons operate with much-improved guidance technologies? An ability to hit moving targets? Or fire multiple warheads from a single missile?
Another key area of advances for hypersonic weapons may be defensive in nature, meaning an ability to harden its flight trajectory and guidance systems to make them less susceptible to being jammed, disabled, or even intercepted by some kind of advanced defenses.
The U.S. Army is also moving aggressively to develop a new generation of hypersonic weapons to include work on a “tech insertion” intended to enable the weapons to break new ground by hitting maneuvering targets. This may pertain to software upgrades, new guidance technology, or perhaps some kind of two-way datalink connecting the weapon to emerging target information. A Tomahawk Block IV missile, for example, has a two-way data link enabling it to receive updated target information while in flight, and an SM-6 missile, for example, operates with a dual-mode seeker such that it can adjust in-flight to changing target information. While many details or areas of development related to this are unlikely to be available, next-generation hypersonic weapons guidance systems may involve some of these kinds of innovations, yet the challenge would almost certainly be getting these kinds of guidance systems advances to function at hypersonic speeds.
Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.