Hypersonic weapons are defined as armaments capable of traveling at speeds faster than Mach 5 and can be broadly classified into two types: hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV) and hypersonic cruise missiles. The former are launched into the upper atmosphere by ballistic missiles. The vehicle is then separated from the booster to maneuver, or glide, toward its target. The latter can be launched from a jet plane or rocket to reach supersonic speed before igniting a scramjet engine to achieve hypersonic speeds.
As the US engages in a great-power competition with China and Russia, all three countries are racing to field hypersonic weapons. While the US was busy with its “war on terror” over the past 20 years, Beijing seized the opportunity to gain an edge in this contest. China has reportedly fielded DF-17 missiles mounted on DF-ZF HGVs and is making progress on its Starry Sky-2 hypersonic cruise missile.
To aid research and development into hypersonic technology, the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Mechanics (IMECH) launched the JF-12 “shock tunnel reproducing hypersonic flight conditions” program in 2008. It became operational in 2012. The JF-12 tunnel is reportedly being used to develop Starry Sky, which can carry nuclear warheads and travel at six times the speed of sound.
The JF-12 can duplicate flight conditions from Mach 5 to 9 speeds and altitudes from 25km to 50km. The tunnel can sustain test times of more than 130 milliseconds, which is enough to support the data collection of flow field, shock structure and other high-speed aerodynamic parameters to help design hypersonic weapons.
The China Aerodynamics Research and Development Center’s Hypersonic Aerodynamics Institute in Mianyang is responsible for the Chinese People Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) research and development of hypersonic weapons. Given China’s military-civil fusion approach to defense technology, it is highly likely that IMECH supports the center’s simulation and engineering tasks.
Chinese media reports have frequently claimed that the JF-12’s performance is superior to NASA’s hypersonic tunnel facility. Such claims appear dubious in light of contemporaneous emphasis on the JF-12 tunnel’s cutting-edge five degrees of freedom mechanism, a technology that NASA has had since the 1980s. The claim that a 130 millisecond testing time is a world record is also false; NASA’s shock tunnel for the X-43A experimental vehicle can sustain similar test conditions for longer durations.
In March 2018, IMECH began work on the JF-22 “detonation-driven ultra-high-speed and high-enthalpy shock tunnel.” The JF-22 can reportedly achieve higher speeds and altitude conditions than the JF-12. The program passed a major milestone in December last year. IMECH claims that the JF-12 and JF-22 combined can cover all hypersonic flight profiles, although the timeline for the JF-22 to achieve initial operational capability is uncertain.
In addition to powerful wind tunnels, hypersonic vehicle design requires sophisticated computational fluid dynamics simulations. US and Chinese computational fluid dynamics communities frequently interact in open academic conferences. Chinese experts have subsequently acquired much-needed knowledge from such events. The powerful computer simulations, which require computation-intensive algorithms, are run on indigenous supercomputers built with US-designed graphical processing units, central processing units and memory chips. The kind of knowledge diffusion is not preventable under existing national security safeguards such as the US Economic Espionage Act.
In 2012, the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp (CASIC) Academy of Defense Technology proposed a method capable of defending against hypersonic weapons. The first component of the proposed defense architecture is an efficient and optimized detection network comprised of sensors covering 800km to 1,000km. The second is a high-speed information center capable of processing large amounts of heterogeneous data and discriminating against noise and other interference in real-time. The third element is a high-performance command and control system to support an integrated air picture with rapid sensor-to-shooter cycle.
The fourth component is a mixture of fast response airborne and near space-based interceptors. CASIC advocates air-to-air missiles for this purpose, but hypersonic cruise missiles also pose significant technical challenges for low-angle detection and tracking over long distances, and the 2012 proposal does not seem to have solutions to this problem.
Researchers from the China Air-to-Air Missile Research Institute recommended a similar architecture in 2016. They also advocate implementing airborne interceptors using kinetic and direct energy, because of their low risk, and low research and development and deployment costs, as well as their rapid response ability with maximum operational flexibility. One challenge with air-to-air interceptors is their ability to deploy powerful airborne fire control radar to lock onto targets hundreds or even thousands of kilometers away. Whether China has fully developed this technology is unknown.
Researchers from the Space Engineering University, under the command of the PLA Strategic Support Force, indicated that they could use existing surveillance assets consisting of early warning aircraft and ground radars for early detection. For combat, they envisage “forward deployment” of air-to-air missiles for head-on intercept, although due to the HGV’s high maneuverability, the deployment area would need to be quite large, and the rate of success would likely be small.
Two engineers from PLA Strategic Support Force units No. 31002 and No. 32032 propose deploying layered global networks for early warning and kinetic interception. They indicate that although an infrared sensor cannot render precise 3D target coordinates, it can still effectively provide early warning capabilities.
The PLA Rocket Force University of Engineering, previously known as PLA Second Artillery Engineering University, recommend shortening a long chain of command to build a flat command and control organization that optimizes information flow and reduces response time.
Researchers at the First Aircraft Institute of Aviation Industry Corporation of China recognize that laser weapons can be valuable in hypersonic defense because they can illuminate a target instantaneously.
However, such weapons are susceptible to vibration and noise, which creates technical difficulties for beam control, high-precision aiming, tracking and rapid damage assessment. Additionally, hypersonic vehicles are typically shielded by ceramic matrix composites, which protect their structures from extreme heat, especially in the nose cone section, but the ceramics would be naturally effective at diffusing heat from laser beams for a prolonged period, rendering them less effective.
In general, Chinese strategists assess that hypersonic defense systems based on airborne platforms are advantageous due to their flexible deployment and high initial launch speed of kinetic interceptors, and the relatively weak maneuverability of incoming targets in the glide phase. Some Chinese researchers believe these limitations can be remedied by the use of uncrewed aerial systems.
China’s Air Force Engineering University has studied the feasibility of deploying a cluster of widely spaced uncrewed aerial systems to intercept hostile hypersonic strikes. The conceptual design makes use of high-altitude, long-endurance systems that can loiter in the forward theater. Because payloads on such systems are smaller than crewed aircraft, Chinese researchers envisage that a drone cluster would be divided between two missions: early warning and interception.
To provide effective early warning, the systems involved need collaborative decisionmaking, networked target acquisition and beyond-visual-range communications to provide long-range detection and tracking capabilities. Per the Air Force Engineering University’s conceptual design, the uncrewed aerial systems interceptor would carry six 250kg, 200km range airborne missiles.
The researchers divide combat into four stages: patrol and combat readiness, early warning, target acquisition and intercept capabilities. They have conducted systems analysis to determine the optimal deployment strategy for early warning and interceptor uncrewed aerial systems.
Hypersonic vehicles are not subject to arms control treaties on ballistic missiles. The US in February extended the bilateral New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, and hopes to persuade China to join strategic weapons negotiations.
China has little incentive to be encumbered by any arms control treaty as it lags behind the US and Russia in long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear warhead stocks, while maintaining a vast stockpile of short and intermediate-range ballistic missiles that could potentially give it an edge in a regional contingency in the western Pacific.
China is not a signatory of the Missile Technology Control Regime, a multilateral export control authority. Consequently, Beijing is not bound by missile nonproliferation obligations and has provided missile technologies to Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Syria.
The current situation, which is characterized by China’s long-range missile disadvantage vis-a-vis the US and Russia, and huge advantage in short and medium range missiles, might be beginning to shift. In August 2019, the US withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty because of repeated Russian contraventions and Chinese arms buildup in the Pacific and the South China Sea. The withdrawal has introduced the possibility of new US land-based, conventional, intermediate-range and hypersonic missiles deployments in Asia.
US deployment (or the risk thereof) of hypersonic weapons to the region, along with revisions to the Missile Technology Control Regime to assist allies and partners such as Taiwan, Australia and Japan to build long-range, land-based offensive capabilities, could combine to alter Beijing’s strategic calculus on arms control. George Schultz, secretary of state under former US president Ronald Reagan, believed that the US deployment of short-range nuclear missiles in western Europe was what drove the former Soviet Union to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty negotiation.
Given that the PLA Rocket Force sees hypersonic weapons as a deterrence unmatched by nuclear weapons, and can alter the strategic balance and affect an opponent’s intent and determination, US deployment of hypersonic weapons on one of the western Pacific island chains could induce Beijing to perceive a change in the strategic balance to its disadvantage, and compel it to participate in arms control negotiations with the US, Russia and potentially other nuclear states.
Holmes Liao has more than 30 years of professional experience in the US aerospace industries and served as an adjunct distinguished lecturer at Taiwan’s National Defense University.The full version of this article was published by the Jamestown Foundation in its China Brief publication on Friday last week.
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