The Ultimate Guide to China's Hypersonic Weapons Program
The development and testing of this new class of hypersonic weaponry in China has been extremely secretive--until now.
Hypersonic Glide Vehicle Applications:
One major application of a hypersonic glide vehicle could be to deliver a “decapitating strike,” which is an attack on an adversary’s command-and-control centers. An example would be to strike the U.S.’s military bases in Asia, hoping to render American forces vulnerable and incapable of an immediate retaliatory response. If conducted successfully, this approach causes an opponent to be unable to retaliate with its own weapons. Some aspects of Chinese strategy already emphasize these tactics, for example, network attacks to paralyze an opponent’s communications at the outset of a conflict. The DF-ZF could provide “hard” kill capability against hardened infrastructure or leadership facilities to complement cyber-attack “soft kills” against infrastructure. As China’s research into HGV technology progresses, a number of other strategic roles could be developed. Extended range, possibly through the use of scramjet engines (which take advantage of high speeds to compress air for combustion and greater propulsion), could give Chinese missile units the ability to destroy the assets of countries in range.
The DF-ZF does not currently use a scramjet engine like Boeing’s X-51A. However, the PRC recently announced that it is now the second country to possess this technology. Since the announcement, there have not been reports of scramjet engines being tested in the DF-ZF (Sina Military, October 9, 2015). Since scramjet engines, when successful, have the potential to travel very long distances, they are optimal for obtaining rapid global strike capability with HGVs. The majority of U.S. tests using scramjets, for example, have attempted to travel around 3,800 km, supporting the idea that the U.S. is aiming for a very long-range strike with their weapons. China’s own interest in scramjets was demonstrated in 2015 when the Chinese government gave the developer of its scramjet, Wang Zhengou, an award at the 2nd China Aeronautical Science and Technology Conference, which indicates that China highly values the development of this technology (Tencent News, October 8, 2015). Although up to this point China has been testing to obtain hypersonic speeds over short distances (a function that a scramjet engine is not optimal for), their recent attainment of scramjet technology will allow them to expand the goals of their HGV development.
Yet, with or without a scramjet engine, if the PRC expands its targets to include countries outside of the East Asian region, attaching a HGV to one of its SRBMs would extend the reach of this weapon to MRBM and ICBM ranges. When conducting a conventional prompt global strike, there is the potential for other nations to associate that ICBM with a nuclear strike, which could escalate the conflict (Congressional Research Service, February 24). Because SRBMs give off a different radar return than ICBMs, using one to reach the same striking distance would not seem as threatening and would ameliorate this perception problem. The PRC’s use of a DF-21 as an HGV launch vehicle requires the use of specific locations and firing circles, many of which are well known and monitored by the United States. Since missile launch preparations are very rare, it might be possible to detect HGV-equipped DF-21s before launch.
Based on an analysis of China’s HGV development, the authors speculate that the PRC’s main priority for the DF-ZF is to bypass regional BMD. Of all the launchers currently deployed by the PRC, based on the assumed intent and estimated range capabilities, the DF-21 seems to be the most likely launch platform for the HGV. Unlike the DF-31, which is a liquid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the DF-21 is a solid-fueled medium-range ballistic missile, which means quick preparation times compared to liquid-fueled. It also has a reported range of at least 1,500 km (932 miles), meaning it can reach all of the countries in the East Asian region. In 2001, it was reported that the solid fueled DF-21 takes anywhere between 10 to 15 minutes to prepare. Since technology has advanced immensely over the last 15 years, it is very possible that it now takes even less time to prepare. The newly released DF-26 is the next generation of the DF-21 and has a longer range. It is speculated that China will use the DF-26 as a launch platform for the DF-ZF in the future (IHS Jane’s 360, November 26, 2015). No matter the type of launch platform, an HGV can extend the reach of any missile by at least 1,000 km. If the DF-ZF truly does have the capability to bypass ballistic missile defense, it has the potential to deliver a devastating conventional or nuclear strike to any country. Even the threat of its use could be sufficient to make an adversary consider Chinese demands.
There are clear symbolic and military benefits for the nation that successfully develops a hypersonic weapon. The DF-ZF, though impressive, still has a long way to go before it can truly threaten the security of the United States and its allies. Therefore, China will continue frequent testing of the DF-ZF as a display of its military’s power and advancement. Although in its current form the applications of the DF-ZF are constrained to East Asia, it is likely that China will continue to expand the range and capabilities of this weapon. Given the recent increase in investments in BMD by nations such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, the DF-ZF is a potentially destabilizing capability. If China is able to complete development of the system and operationalize it over the coming years, the DF-ZF system could further erode the U.S. military’s deterrent in Asia. In the future, it will play an important role in calculating the relative balance of power in the region.
Erika Solem is a Ph. D. Fellow at the Potomac Foundation where she supports the research efforts on the "China’s 21st Century Strategic Arsenal" project. She is a first year Ph. D. student at George Washington University with a focus on Chinese Space Policy and Defense. She has extensive experience both living and studying in China.
Karen Montague is a Research Fellow at the Potomac Foundation, where she assists in war gaming and simulation development efforts and supports the research efforts on the "China’s 21st Century Strategic Arsenal" project. She earned her B.A. in International Studies from Texas A&M University in 2011 and M.S. in Defense and Strategic Studies from Missouri State University in 2013.
This piece first appeared in ChinaBrief, supported by the Jamestown Foundation.