China Is Expanding Its Effort to Launch Weapons From Hypersonic Missiles
China is expanding its capacity to develop weapons that can be fired from hypersonic missiles, suggesting a test this summer that surprised U.S. military officials with its technological accomplishment is part of a program to create new threats for U.S. missile defenses.
The state-controlled AVIC Aerodynamics Research Institute said it is set to open a new wind tunnel capable of replicating the speeds and high temperatures faced by hypersonic missiles. The new wind tunnel’s roles include testing the “separation and release” of weapons from hypersonic vehicles, the institute said in a news release Sunday.
A hypersonic glide vehicle is a maneuverable warhead that sits on the tip of a long-range missile and, once released, glides to its target on an unpredictable path that makes it difficult to intercept. In a test in July, U.S. officials said, China fired a missile that traveled around the globe in a low-earth orbit before releasing the glide vehicle. That glide vehicle then separately fired a projectile of its own, they said—a feat that pushes the boundaries of physics.
No other country has demonstrated the ability to launch projectiles from hypersonic glide vehicles. Doing so poses a steep technical challenge, missile experts said, because the launch takes place while the vehicle is traveling around five times the speed of sound, meaning the projectile is immediately subject to very high pressure and heat.
The exact role of the second projectile isn’t known. Missiles that can be fired from glide vehicles in flight could make them even more difficult to defend against. Possibilities include firing a decoy to confuse missile defenses or launching a missile to destroy a secondary target.
“Until there’s data made public, it is still fairly opaque,” said Melissa Hanham, an expert on missile technology formerly at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.
The new wind tunnel is twice as wide as the institute’s first such facility and can simulate conditions up to eight times the speed of sound, it said. The tunnel has been under construction for two years and recently passed tests to ensure it is ready for use, the institute said.
The tunnel will “bolster the research and development of China’s hypersonic weapons and equipment,” it said. The institute and China’s defense ministry didn’t respond to requests for comment. Another entity, the China Aerodynamics Research and Development Center, also conducts research into hypersonic weapons.
U.S. military officials concede that America’s hypersonic weapons-development program trails China’s. During the past five years, the U.S. has conducted nine hypersonic tests, while China has launched hundreds, according to Air Force Gen. John Hyten, who was until recently vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
China already has hundreds of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles that travel high into space and back down faster than hypersonic glide vehicles. They include missiles that can launch up to a dozen warheads at different targets, likely overwhelming U.S. defenses. Military analysts say Beijing’s goal appears to be developing new weapons and delivery methods to ensure it retains an advantage.
“I think China is concerned about the future of U.S. missile defense,” including possible space-based interceptors, said Zhao Tong, a Beijing-based nuclear-arms expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
China conducted another hypersonic missile test in August, according to U.S. officials. Analysts say one objective of the summer tests could have been to develop the ability to threaten the U.S. from the south, avoiding the majority of U.S. missile defenses, which are positioned to counter attacks from missiles fired over the North Pole.
China’s race to perfect the ability to fire missiles from hypersonic glide vehicles may increase pressure on the U.S. to more rapidly bolster its missile defenses. The Biden administration is scheduled to issue an update to U.S. missile defense policy early next year, along with a new National Defense Policy.
On Friday, the Pentagon said the Missile Defense Agency has given Raytheon Technologies Corp. , Lockheed Martin Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp. contracts to develop prototypes of systems to destroy hypersonic glide vehicles during their descent.
Military leaders in the Asia-Pacific region say adding new missile defenses are among their top priorities.