China is one of the few major powers that have achieved several milestones in hypersonic technologies’ development. The United States (US) remains at the centre stage to develop China’s hypersonic capabilities. The US presence, threats to China in the Western Pacific Ocean, and the increasing sophistication of the US strategic missile defence systems primarily drive the modernisation of Chinese nuclear and conventional capabilities. While hypersonic missiles can also carry nuclear warheads, their role in conventional deterrence and warfighting cannot be underestimated. Hypersonic missiles’ utility in anti-ship, bunker-buster, and command & control centres, along with their ability to hit moving targets, make their conventional use equally desirable.
China developed nuclear weapons to put an end to the US nuclear blackmail in 1964. Its nuclear doctrine is also enriched with minimum deterrence while maintaining a no-first-use pledge. It has avoided getting engaged in a nuclear weapons arms race with the US. At the same time, China has focused on developing cyber, space, and hypersonic technologies. In the future, hypersonic weapons are set to play a crucial role in China’s military strategy by increasing the risks for the US to interfere in China’s affairs with its neighbours, thus neutralising the US missile defences at the strategic level. Hypersonic weapons in conventional warfighting give China an edge against the intrusion of US naval forces in the South and East China Seas while the nuclear-capable missiles increase the chances of penetrating the US national missile defences.
China’s Hypersonic Developments
China is developing hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs) of various ranges. HGVs are launched by a ballistic missile or rocket in space or atmosphere before they start to glide towards their target. They are designed to fly at lower altitudes and manoeuvre to avoid detection and interception. China has also tested the DF-ZF HGV, which can glide towards its target at Mach 5-10 speeds. It has reportedly become operational in 2020 and is the most mature of all. Another HGV, Starry Sky-2, was tested in 2018; however, details about its range are not public yet. To launch the gliders towards their targets, China has carried out several successful DF-17 medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) tests with an 1800-2500 km range. Reportedly, the HGV could also be carried out by the currently underdeveloped DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The HGVs can carry both conventional and nuclear warheads, depending on the nature of the target. The DF-17 is primarily relevant to Chinese strategy to counter the US interference in the East and South China Seas. At the same time, the DF-41 can effectively neutralise the advantage of the US national ballistic missile defences.
The FOBS is a weapons system that places the warheads into the low-earth orbit and then de-orbits them to hit the target, using an onboard retrorocket.
The other type of hypersonic weapon is the hypersonic cruise missile. The hypersonic cruise missile uses a scramjet engine. China is reportedly also developing this kind of missile and is using the Ling Yun engine with Mach 6+ speed as a testbed for future developments.
Fractional Orbital Bombardment System
According to a report by the Financial Times, China had tested a hypersonic weapon that circled the globe before hitting its target. The report claimed that the development of this kind of weapon system has caught US officials by surprise. The missile is based on the Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS), which was first developed and deployed by the Soviet Union from 1969 to 1984 during the Cold War.
The FOBS is a weapons system that places the warheads into the low-earth orbit and then de-orbits them to hit the target, using an onboard retrorocket. In the Soviet Union case, the warhead used on the FOBS was like any other traditional ballistic missile warhead; however, China has reportedly tested a hypersonic glide during the test. The testing of hypersonic glide on the FOBS is a new phenomenon. It is unknown which glide was tested on the missile and what might be its range compared to the DF-ZF. For the FOBS, the primary rationale was to hit the US from the backdoor. The US has mostly concentrated its warning systems for the North Pole threat; however, the FOBS uses the South Pole to strike the US homeland using a much longer path where there are fewer chances of detection by the US systems.
The incorporation of glide on the FOBS complements the value of avoiding detection. The glides themselves are designed to fly and manoeuvre within the atmosphere to avoid detection from above the horizons. Like the Soviet Union’s FOBS, China’s system can also carry nuclear warheads, thereby increasing the deterrence value of Chinese nuclear capability. Yet, the test had missed its target by a few miles. The glide vehicles, if used for delivering nuclear warheads, do not necessarily need much accuracy. However, pinpoint accuracy or a lower Circular Error Probable (CEP) becomes a critical necessity if the aim is to carry out a conventional strike. Most modern warheads are developed with an inbuilt guidance system like inertial guidance systems using aerodynamic forces to guide the course of the warhead. For example, the US has its own conventional hypersonic strike program called Prompt Global Strike (PGS) Mission. The underlying principle for the PGS is to give the US capability to strike a target located anywhere in the world within less time using conventional weapons instead of relying on its overseas military bases. Various hypersonic glide vehicles are being developed and tested by all three US military services as a part of PGS. However, unlike FOBS, the PGS does not rely on orbiting the earth to strike a target.
In a nutshell, China’s hypersonic efforts are primarily centred on the threat posed by the US, be it from its naval forces and bases in the Western Pacific theatre or the missile defences at the strategic level. In addition to the spectrum of threat from regional to strategic, China’s hypersonic weapons also present both conventional and nuclear deterrence against the US, depending on the nature of the threat from it.