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China’s hypersonic weapons now an integral part of its defense strategy

China missile

By Dr Ajey Lele

On October 1, 2019 Chinese administration was at its best, when it displayed their military platforms and weapon systems during an impressive parade on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of its founding. It was a display of the social, cultural, economic, technological and military potential of China and also showcased various new types of missiles and unmanned platforms for the first time.

There were many attractions in the military display: from drones to underwater automatic vehicles to missiles to high-speed pilotless flying platforms which possibly can fly at supersonic speeds to various categories of missiles. Some 160 aircraft, missiles and 580 pieces of military equipment were displayed.

The major attraction was the Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) and Hypersonic platforms. There was an ICBM called Dong Feng-41 (DF-41) which has a range of around 15,000 km and is known to have the capability to strike the US within 30 minutes. Then there was JL-2, a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) on display. This missile can be launched from a nuclear submarine "providing sea-based nuclear deterrence". In addition, there was YJ-18, an anti-ship and land-attack cruise missile.

One of the important missile systems displayed was a new hypersonic ballistic nuclear missile supposed to be capable of penetrating all existing anti-missile shields. The DF-17 medium-range ballistic missile is known to be the first missile designed to carry hypersonic glide vehicle. It is possible that this missile can hoodwink the US missile interceptors like their ship-based SM-3, ground-based systems like THAAD and Ground-Based Interceptors (GBI). The estimated range of DF-17 is between 1,800 and 2,500 km. With this range this missile could reach South Korea and Japan, challenging their missile defence network. Obviously, this missile can also reach India and in all possibilities should be able to deceive missile defence systems like the S-400.

The speeds for flying platforms are normally mentioned in the unit called Mach and one Mach equals to the speed of sound in air. Supersonic speeds are in the range between 1.2 to 5 Mach. For a missile to attend hypersonic speeds it should fly at the speeds in the rage above Mach 5.0 till say 10.0 Mach (say 6,150-12,300 km/h).

China's interest and investments towards hypersonic vehicle development are known for the last seven-eight years. They have a DF-ZF (also known as WU-14) programme which is for hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) development. Till date, they have conducted six to seven tests of the DF-ZF since its first test in 2014. The first test of the DF-17 ballistic missile took place on November 1, 2017. China has specifically designed DF-17 as a platform for operating their HGV. Other such platforms capable of operating with the HGV could include short-range DF-11 and DF-15, and the medium-range DF-21.

This vehicle-mounted DF-17 is considered to be a major technological accomplishment by China. It is expected to become fully operational by 2020. This hypersonic glide vehicle technology makes the missile to fly at a much lower altitude just before delivering its warhead. Obviously, this capability makes detection and interception of this weapon extremely difficult. Purely, in a ballistic missile mode, this weapon platform is also known to have MIRV (multiple independently manoeuvrable re-entry vehicles) capability, which allows delivering multiple warheads at different targets.

India also has an interest in developing hypersonic technology. Some limited efforts in that direction are known to be happening for almost a decade. Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and BrahMos Aerospace (a joint venture with Russia) are the main agencies involved in this type of research and have already developed few platforms too. The DRDO's prototype is known as the HSTDV (Hyper-Sonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle), and BrahMos Aerospace is known to be developing the BrahMos-II. On June 12, 2019, HSTDV was tested by DRDO which was supposed to reach the speeds of Mach 6. Some reports indicate that this test was a partial success. BrahMos-II is a Hypersonic Cruise Missile and the first test of this missile (expected range: 500 to 600 km) could happen by 2020 and the missile is expected to become operational by 2025. It may be noted that DRDO has already developed (2011) a missile called Shaurya which is a canister launched the hypersonic surface-to-surface tactical missile (Mach 7.5). It has a range of 700 km and is capable of carrying a payload of one ton conventional or nuclear warhead.

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China missile

It is expected that nuclear-weapon states would make investments towards developing hypersonic weapons because such weapons could bring in more muscle to the overall nuclear deterrence capability. Hence along with the weapon development, the 'politics' of hypersonic technology could also dominate the future nuclear weapons debate. Already, there is a demand from few for banning such weapons since they are considered as destabilizing weapons.

China is possibly developing these and various other modern weapons as a part of their long-term plan, which typically gets deliberated as Anti-Access Area-Denial, or A2-AD. The implementation of such a strategy necessitates investment in a variety of missiles-both cruise and ballistic missiles. DF-17 hypersonic weapons is a part of this strategy.

(The Author is Senior Fellow, IDSA, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.)