China: Hypersonic Weapons Programs Punch Through Technological Barriers

3 MINS READDec 28, 2017 | 18:22 GMT
Forecast Update

Stratfor has previously highlighted how hypersonic weapons will figure prominently in the years and decades ahead as the technology behind the missiles becomes more accessible and feasible. We've also noted that the United States and China were at the forefront of the technology, and that we expect both to field mature designs by 2025. The appearance of China's DF-17, the first missile with a hypersonic glide vehicle slated for operational deployment, confirms this analysis.

China is further along in developing hypersonic weapons than previously expected. According to reports in The Diplomat on Dec. 28, China conducted two tests in November of a new ballistic missile, designated as the DF-17, which is equipped with a hypersonic glide vehicle. U.S. sources said the missile tests were successful and that the DF-17 is expected to reach initial operational capability around 2020. Previous hypersonic glide vehicle tests, such as the Chinese DF-ZF and the U.S. Hypersonic Test Vehicle, focused on experimental designs and prototyping. The DF-17 is now the first missile slated for operational deployment to be equipped with a hypersonic glide vehicle.

A number of countries — particularly major military powers such as the United States, China and Russia — are investing in hypersonic missile technology. For the United States, hypersonic missiles offer a means by which it can gain its desired capability of striking anywhere in the world in less than an hour, an effort known as Prompt Global Strike. While intercontinental ballistic missiles (which are themselves hypersonic missiles) can technically already fulfill such a mission, their primary role is as a nuclear deterrent. Using them in a conventional military capacity is too risky, as foreign states may interpret their flight as an incoming nuclear strike. For China and Russia, hypersonic missiles could provide a tool to overcome well-developed U.S. anti-ballistic missile defense systems and a potent way to threaten U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups and other force projection assets in their regions of influence.

China's successful step forward with the DF-17 will further galvanize voices in the U.S. national security establishment that have called for increased spending on the military. The United States, however, isn’t far behind China. As recently as Oct. 30, the United States successfully tested a submarine launched missile equipped with a new glide vehicle. And, like China, the United States is also on the cusp of being able to deploy operational hypersonic weapons. These latest tests, as well as Russian progress with hypersonic missiles using airbreathing propulsion, highlight how hypersonic weapons are both coveted and within reach as scientific advances overcome technological constraints to make them work.

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