Secret hypersonic launch shows China is rocketing ahead in missile arms race

Asia's Tech News Daily

Alarm bells sounded last weekend as reports of China testing an unmanned hypersonic weapon splashed across the internet and newspapers alike.

Secret hypersonic launch shows China is rocketing ahead in missile arms race
© Raytheon Missiles & Defense/Handout via REUTERS Hypersonic missiles such as this artist’s impression are designed to evade countries’ missile defence systems – Raytheon Missiles & Defense/Handout via REUTERS

Believed to be a “fractional orbital bombardment system” (Fobs), it was fired by a booster rocket and “surfed” along the edge of the atmosphere – possibly as close as 50 miles to the boundary.

China’s version of the Fobs, which is designed to evade missile defence systems, deployed a so-called hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) which can travel at more than five times the speed of sound once detached from the rocket.

Controllable, and harder to track or intercept, it came back to Earth at breakneck speed. But perhaps most perturbing is that by going into a low orbit, the weapon has the potential to reach anywhere on Earth.

“The attraction of boost-glide hypersonics is cross-range manoeuvrability. And as it’s hypersonic you can get it on a target quickly, which is really important if that target’s mobile or can react, such as launching its own weapon,” says Douglas Barrie, aerospace fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

While Beijing authorities insisted the event was a “routine test of a spacecraft’s reuseability”, observers believe it was of military origin.

The second of its kind to be tested by China in recent months, there are worries Beijing is making “astounding” progress in developing a new class of weaponry – despite missing its target by about two dozen miles.

If so, it could threaten to topple the balance between the world’s second-in-line superpower and America.

Hypersonic race heats up

US weapons to intercept intercontinental missiles are focused north, facing off threats coming over the shorter arctic route from adversaries such as China, Russia, and possibly North Korea.

Russia claimed to have a similar system to China – called Avangard – operational two years ago but it had a limited range of 4,000 miles.

Should China or Russia perfect a system which doesn’t have to follow an expected route to its target, it would require massive investment in new defences by other nations.

Justin Bronk, research fellow at military think tank RUSI, describes existing anti-ballistic missile systems as “ruinously expensive”. Developing a counter to the new threat of hypersonic glide vehicles could overwhelm Western defence budgets.

But while China and Russia appear to dominate the hypersonic world, as the only countries developing gliders, it doesn’t mean the US is far behind.

The Pentagon’s annual requests for funding into hypersonics have risen from $800m four years ago to $3.8bn for 2022.

The UK, France, Australia, India, Japan and North Korea are also investing in the technology, while Iran, Israel and South Korea have done basic research, according to a report by the US Congressional Research Service last week.

China’s tests caught the world by surprise, demonstrating how their capabilities have been underestimated. What it indicates about China’s intentions is still open to question.

“It’s a definite signal from the Chinese to the US that they are vulnerable,” Bronk says. “You could look at it as a way of China saying to the US ‘don’t bother spending masses on a new technology to defeat this’.

“But you could even flip it around as a way of tricking the US into an insanely expensive ‘Star Wars’ system.”

The fall of the Soviet Union in the 1980s is partly attributed to then-president Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” missile defence programme: a multi-trillion dollar system proposing lasers to take out Russian missiles, forcing Moscow into an arms race.

IISS’s Barrie sees it slightly differently. “It’s not Star Wars 2.0, it’s not a new arms race, it’s an old one revisited.

“Hypersonic technology has been in the lab for decades – look at the X-15 work in the 1960s. However, it’s always been at the edge of the possible where it does not always behave how you expect. For a weapon that technology has got to be reliable, and it looks like China is getting there.”

Defence made harder

In 1967 America’s X-15 hit a speed of 4,520mph – 6.7 times the speed of sound – when Major William Knight piloted the experimental aircraft over the Mojave Desert. It was a record for the fastest powered flight by a manned aircraft that still stands.

Humans have travelled faster. Re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, spacecraft has touched 17,500mph, while Apollo 10 topped out at almost 25,000mph as it headed back from the moon.

Travelling at more than five times the speed of sound – about 750mph at sea level – is known as going “hypersonic”.

Fired on parabolic arcs, ICBMs hit speeds of 18,000mph once they have pitched over in space at an altitude of about 750 miles and are in their “terminal” phase heading down to their targets.

“The big powers have had hypersonic weapons for decades in the form of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) like Trident,” says RUSI’s Bronk.

The challenge of defending against hypersonics is not so much that they are different, but that they are another element to take on, according to Barrie.

“Hypersonics are not necessarily a game-changer,” he says. “Hypersonics are about making defence harder. To invest across defence now you have to look at ballistic, conventional missiles and now start thinking about hypersonics.”

What about Britain?

Whether the UK is a player in the technology is unclear but at least one British company could be in the frame. Oxfordshire-based Reaction Engines has secured investment from BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, Boeing and the Ministry of Defence to develop its “Sabre” engine capable of operating at hypersonic speeds.

It combines a conventional gas turbine with the properties of a rocket, meaning it can work like a normal jet but switch to rocket-mode fuelled by liquified oxygen at high altitude where the air thins out.

But technology needed for hypersonic gliders could be beyond the UK’s finances or military interests if the country were to act alone.

“Compared with conventional aircraft and missiles, building hypersonics is incredibly expensive,” says Dr Malcolm Clause, senior aerospace lecturer at Kingston University. The speeds they operate create temperatures that would melt many conventional materials, meaning “exotic” variants would need to be created.

“These glide vehicles might be operating at Mach 20 [about 15,000 mph], they are going to be flying in plasma because of the heat they generate,” he says. “You’re not only going to need new materials, but new manufacturing and assembly technologies, as well as the testing infrastructure such as high-speed wind tunnels which we don’t have.

“We might be able to design and maybe build a glide vehicle but Britain got out of the space race 50 years ago when Black Arrow was our last launcher. It would be very expensive to start that up again. We’d probably be looking to buy the launchers from the US.”

At a time where UK military spending is already under intense pressure, Bronk questions whether Britain would want hypersonics.

“The UK certainly has ambitions in hypersonics, but it seems to be tossed into announcements as the new ‘hotness’ of technology,” he says. “It’s incredibly expensive and you have to ask what would we have to give up to afford it.”

No matter how worrying arms developments may be, the race to have the fastest weapons may be one that Britain cannot afford not to enter.

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