China’s hypersonic vehicle: Yet another ‘Assassin Mace’ Weapon?

IITM CSC Article #71
24 February 2014


                 China’s hypersonic vehicle: Yet another ‘Assassin Mace’ Weapon?

The age of hypersonic arms race has already begun. Firstly, the United States started to work on hypersonic vehicles in order to be able to reach any target in the world in less than one hour. Russia has followed suit. India is also developing a hypersonic version of the BrahMos cruise missile. It was inevitable that China would not be left behind in this race. Early in January 2014, China tested a hypersonic glide vehicle, the Wu-14, which could be launched atop an intercontinental ballistic missile and can travel at ten times the speed of sound.

China’s hypersonic glide vehicle is undoubtedly a component of Beijing’s Anti Access Area Denial strategy formulated to check the growth of the United States in the Asia Pacific region. Beijing takes the view that the missile is just an example of its “scientific research” and that it was not hinted at any particular country. Such vehicles are also being developed by the United States as part of for its Prompt Global Strike strategy.

A hypersonic glide vehicle atop an intercontinental ballistic missile makes detection and interception far more difficult than a normal intercontinental ballistic missile. China had time and again resisted a US ballistic missile defence in the Asia Pacific region, especially in Taiwan. Hypersonic glide vehicles could enable the Chinese to be able to nullify US ballistic missile defence shield in the Asia Pacific region. The ability of the vehicle to be able to maintain a low altitude and a flat trajectory enables the vehicle to evade a missile defence system.

Reports have confirmed that there could be chances that Beijing is developing two kinds of hypersonic vehicles. One vehicle is to be mounted atop an intercontinental ballistic missile while the other could be a scramjet engine powered vehicle to be launched from a bomber. According to Mark Stokes, an analyst with the Project 2049 Institute, the vehicle is a “part of China’s aerospace weaponry designed to blend the characteristics of space transiting ballistic missiles with ground-hugging cruise missiles”.

This technology would be an amalgamation of high speed coupled with high precision. According to Aviation Week report, the pull-up maneuver in the vehicle after it enters the atmosphere will make the vehicle further difficult to be intercepted, thereby increasing its ability to hit the target assigned to it. This gliding technology will further extend the range of the missile. Thus the midcourse defence phase could also be probably easily evaded with such systems.

In fact, the hypersonic glide vehicle on a ballistic missile would enable the missile to have an extended range. This could solve the problem that Beijing had been facing with MIRVs which tend to reduce the range of ballistic missiles. There could be a possibility of China depressing or lofting the trajectory of their ballistic missiles in order to evade a ballistic missile defence. However, such adjustments will also have a negative impact on the range of the missiles. Hypersonic glide technologies on the other hand, enable the ballistic missile to evade a ballistic missile defence without having to compromise with the range of the missiles.

Moreover, such systems also give the ballistic missile the flexibility to carry heavier payloads. Beijing’s ballistic missile capabilities are capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear warheads. This would be an added advantage in case of heavier conventional payloads.

Even though the vehicle is reported to be mounted atop ICBMs, Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation argued that it was more likely that the vehicle would be “intended more for anti-ship or tactical purposes” and for “maneuvering targets” than “for strategic bombardment” of American cities. This means, the system could be mounted on China’s DF-21Ds. With an enhanced range due to the HGVs, the DF-21Ds could pose a serious challenge to the US aircraft carriers.

The United States has raised serious concerns over the hypersonic glide vehicle test which could pose a threat to US military’s “technology edge. The United States is investing a lot on missile defence systems, both theatre and national missile defence system. Hence, such systems put a huge burden on the missile defence system. Coupled with it, if aircraft carriers are put to threat by Beijing, it would affect Washington’s rebalancing strategy in the Asia Pacific region to a considerable extent.

Debalina Ghoshal,
Associate Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi