By 2020, China Could Have Hypersonic Missiles to Sink U.S. Aircraft Carriers

Robert Farley

Security, Asia

Beijing’s next super weapon? 

By 2020, China Could Have Hypersonic Missiles to Sink U.S. Aircraft Carriers

In November, China tested what may become the world’s first operational hypersonic weapon. While Chinese progress in this area surprises no one, the first operational deployment of the weapon will add another weapon to China’s growing antiaccess toolkit, posing a dilemma for U.S. military planners in the Pacific.

What China Tested

Over the past decade China has conducted several tests of potential hypersonic weapons. This new system, however, appears to be a prototype for a deployable capability. As reported by Ankit Panda of the Diplomat, the first test of the DF-17 ballistic missile took place on November 1, 2017, and the second test on November 15. A hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) detached from the missile during the reentry phase and flew approximately 1,400 kilometers to a target.

The DF-17 appears to be a modified version of a previous People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) missile. It may be possible for the PLARF to modify other, longer-range missiles already in its inventory to carry the HGV. The system can almost certainly deliver either nuclear or conventional payloads, depending on strategic and operational necessity.

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U.S. analysts don’t expect the vehicle to enter service until 2020, but by that point the PLARF may have significantly expanded the means through which it can deploy and deliver an HGV. Longer-range missiles would both expand China’s reach farther into the Pacific and make it more difficult for the United States to attack launch points, by enabling bases deep within the Chinese interior.

What Do Hypersonics Do?

While hypersonic cruise missiles exist, the new Chinese HGV deploys from a ballistic missile, then glides to a target on a flight path much different (and much less predictable) than that of a traditional ballistic missile. The glide path is lower and slower than a normal ballistic-missile payload, although still generally higher and faster than a traditional cruise missile. The HGV may have maneuverable characteristics during its terminal phase, which would allow it to strike mobile targets such as aircraft carriers. In the initial launch phase, the HGV closely resembles a ballistic missile,…

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