China May Have a DF-17 Air-Launched Hypersonic Missile (So What?)

October 19, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: ChinaHypersonic MissilePLAAFPLA Air ForceAmericaDF-17Hypersonics

China May Have a DF-17 Air-Launched Hypersonic Missile (So What?)

America is also working on such weapons and this new one by China may not be even be deployable yet.

China may have an aircraft-fired hypersonic missile, a development likely to generate great concern among Pentagon weapons planners closely following Chinese military modernization. 

The possibility was introduced by a story from The Drive citing an new video showing a Chinese H-6 bomber carrying what appears to be a hypersonic weapon.

“The unique wedge-shaped profile of the missile's forward section points to the possibility that the missile is a hypersonic weapon system. In particular, the form factor looks similar to the one found on China's ground-launched DF-17 hypersonic weapon,” the report says. 

Should this actually be a hypersonic weapon, it would likely signify what could be a very substantial development, however it may not be reason for U.S. military threat assessment analysts to panic, per se. China has long been known to be developing, testing and firing hypersonic weapons and has even reported several successful tests. Some have even suggested that China may indeed already be ahead of America when it comes to hypersonic weapons development. 

Further elaborating upon the appearance of the Chinese weapon and its similarity to the ground-launched DF-17, the report from The Drive says the “DF-17 uses a ballistic missile to boost an unpowered DF-ZF hypersonic boost-glide vehicle to a velocity well over Mach 5 before the vehicle continues on maneuvering path through the atmosphere to its target. You can read our previous post on the DF-17 here.” 

Given the speed at which a hypersonic weapon travels, a bomber-launched weapon presents very significant new threats to U.S. territories, as closer the proximity to U.S. targets enabled by an air platform such as an H-6 will shorten the already brief amount of time needed for a hypersonic weapon to descend upon its target. Should a hypersonic-missile armed H-6 come close, or even penetrate, U.S. airspace, it would be able to attack targets with unprecedented and alarming speeds, greatly complicating defensive efforts. 

While this development, if true, does clearly introduce new threats, there are a few things to bear in mind. Should the weapon actually be hypersonic, it does not mean that it is now operating at a level of full deployable maturity. It may simply be for testing or for the deliberate purpose of intimidating rivals. Air-launched hypersonics can be difficult to achieve, as they often rely upon scramjet propulsion and the ability to achieve, and sustain, hypersonic speeds. Excessive heat needs to be managed properly in order for a hypersonic weapons to succeed in maintaining its trajectory, and of course it needs the requisite amount of propulsion to launch with power from a moving air-platform. 

Also, the United States is also progressing quite rapidly with hypersonic weapons development and has recently launched several successful tests. For example, the U.S. Long Range Hypersonic Weapon is already quite functional and expected to be ready for deployment by 2023, if not sooner. 

“The new LRHW weapon system will consist of four transporter erector launchers (TEL), each installed on a modified M870 40-ton trailer, and command posts. Each TEL will have two canisterized hypersonic weapons at the ready and the unit will have an unspecified number of additional missiles on hand,” a report from Defence Blog states. 

There is yet another element of this as well. The Pentagon is already making rapid progress with the development of new innovations intended to track and destroy attacking hypersonic weapons. These include better networking satellites and space-based sensors to establish a “continuous track” of hypersonic weapons as well as high-speed interceptors intended to find them and “take-them-out.” 

Kris Osborn is the new 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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Image: Reuters.