China Is Getting Serious About Mach 10 “Hypersonic” WeaponsPosted: June 23, 2016
New super-high-speed weapons systems would dodge existing air defenses.
By Kyle Mizokami Jun 21, 2016
A new report says China is making progress in developing so-called hypersonic weapons that could evade current missile defenses, delivering a conventional or nuclear bomb at blistering speeds.
The report, by the Washington-based think tank Jamestown Foundation, covers Chinese development of the DF-ZF hypersonic weapon. Hypersonic weapons are a new class of weapon system currently under development by the United States, Russia, and China. Supersonic speed is defined as Mach 1 to Mach 5—beyond that is the realm of hypersonic flight.
The DF-ZF is a vehicle—think of it as a large missile warhead—that sits atop a medium-range ballistic missile such as the one pictured above. China has a lot of medium range missiles, meaning the delivery vehicle has already been perfected and is deployed in large numbers by the People’s Liberation Rocket Forces.
The DF-ZF is blasted into a spaceward trajectory like any other ballistic missile. The comparison stops there, though. The DF-ZF doesn’t actually fly into low earth orbit. Instead it noses down and back up again to control direction, speed, and altitude, eventually it can dive down toward the target at a blistering Mach 10.
China’s new weapon will be difficult to shoot down. Ballistic missile defenses designed to intercept ballistic missiles, such as the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense, probably would be unable to shoot down a hypersonic weapon. By stopping short of going into space, DF-ZF avoids the GBMD’s engagement envelope altogether.
That’s not to say the DF-ZF is unstoppable. Defensive systems that intercept in the terminal phase, such as the Patriot PAC-3, would have a chance of downing the DF-ZF. Plenty of China’s neighbors, including Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, field the PAC-3. It’s a relatively short-ranged weapon, however, meaning it must be located relatively near the target to defend it.
China has tested its hypersonic weapon seven times in three years, with six tests considered a success. So clearly the DF-ZF is important to China, but nobody is quite sure why. It may be developing them simply because the U.S. and Russia are developing their own versions and China sees this as a status issue. The Jamestown report speculates China would like the ability to bypass regional ballistic missile defenses. Another theory is that the DF-ZF could be used to attack American aircraft carriers.
Some news outlets have described the DF-ZF as a nuclear first strike weapon, but China has at most 300 nuclear warheads versus several thousand owned by the United States (and Russia). China would be unable to guarantee destruction of America’s nuclear arsenal in one massive DF-ZF barrage, leaving the door open for a devastating—and likely civilization-ending—counterattack.
Whatever the reason, China is serious about hypersonic strike capability. It has fast tracked the DF-ZF’s development and may be on the verge of operational deployment. When it is operational, it will be a serious quiver in Beijing’s bow.
Source: Popular Mechanics “China Is Getting Serious About Mach 10 ‘Hypersonic’ Weapons”