The Financial Times originally reported on October 16 that China had tested a hypersonic nuclear missile in late August that was launched in low earth orbit, circled the earth and then failed to hit its target, although it came close. According to the FT, the weapon was on board a Long March rocket.
China has denied it launched a hypersonic missile, saying that this report was about a routine spacecraft test, used for developing reusable spacecraft technology.
Russia already has a hypersonic glide vehicle that can be carried as part of the payload on one of its heavy ICBMs. Called Avangard, it was first announced by Vladimir Putin in 2018 and first deployed in 2019. The hypersonic glide vehicle itself is not powered and features an ability to maneuver as it heads to its target, making interception difficult. Avangard claims a top speed of 20 Mach (15,348 mph or 24,700 kmph) made possible by the use of new types of ceramic composite materials that can sustain 2,000 degrees centigrade (3,632 degrees Fahrenheit).
Russia also has the Kinzhal (“Dagger”) air launched ballistic missile with a range of 2,000 km (1,200 miles) that can be armed either with a conventional or nuclear warhead. Introduced in 2017, Kinzhal reaches around Mach 10 (7,673 mph). Kinzhal capable bombers and fighter bombers (Tu-22M3 bombers and MIG-31K fighter bombers) are now deployed in southern Russia and in the Arctic region.
The alleged Chinese hypersonic missile test is said to have featured a hypersonic glide vehicle, nominally the DF-ZF where DF stands for the launch vehicle (originally DF-17, a medium range ballistic missile) and ZF for the glide vehicle. The U.S. calls the Chinese hypersonic glide vehicle and rocket the Wu-14. China claims the DF-ZF became operational in 2019. It reaches between Mach 5 and Mach 10.
The Long March series of rockets (used for both Chinese ICBMs, for military and commercial satellite space launch) is a series of different relatively heavy ICBMs. There are at least 10 different models of Long March rockets. The most likely candidate for a hypersonic glide vehicle would be the Long March 11 (Chang Zheng-11), a four stage solid fuel ICBM that is based on the DF-31 A/AG/B. The DF-31 is a three stage ICBM capable of delivering a 1 megaton nuclear warhead. Long March 11 would likely be selected because it is solid fuel, can be deployed rapidly and from roadways, railways or even at sea, making it hard to destroy its launchers. Other Long March rockets are either all or partly liquid fueled.
If the reports of the Chinese low orbit launch of a hypersonic glide vehicle are true, then China is testing an ICBM version of the DF-ZF, meaning that China’s hypersonic glide vehicle could hit targets in the United States.
Washington should not be surprised by Chinese testing of an intercontinental version of the DF-ZF. The U.S. has no missile defenses against ICBMs or submarine-launched SLBMs. In fact, the only domestic U.S. missile defense systems are forty four Ground Based Interceptor missiles (GBI) located in California at Vandenberg Air Force Base and in Alaska at Fort Greely. The GBI system has not performed adequately in tests and the interceptor missiles probably need to be replaced (these are exoatmospheric hit-to-kill vehicles). The GBI system is primarily focused on North Korean ICBM and (more recently potential) SLBM launches.
The U.S. posture on strategic missile defenses is not to have any, or at best keep only a minimal number to deal with rogue nation threats. But even here the U.S. has reduced its profile, pulling the one THAAD system (Theater High Altitude Air Defense) deployed in Saudi Arabia out of the Middle East, removing any possibility of intercepting Iranian intermediate and long range missiles aimed at targets in the Middle East and Europe. In her recent visit to Moscow, Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland proposed to the Russians the idea of a reduction or elimination of missile defenses, something the Russians must have found especially amusing. Unlike the United States, Russia has an extensive air and missile defense system deployed and is adding new capabilities all the time, most recently starting to deploy the S-500 system.
The Chinese argument that the launch was a test of a reusable space vehicle also does not make terribly much sense, since reusable rockets can be tested without orbiting the earth, as SpaceX has now demonstrated multiple times.
Testing low earth orbit hypersonic glide vehicles is extraordinarily dangerous. The U.S. has failed to directly complain to either Russia or China about the inherent risks generated by such tests and the danger the tests could be misinterpreted. If China in fact tested an ICBM-based hypersonic glide vehicle that “circled the earth” there can be little doubt that U.S. radars and space sensors saw the launch and followed the projectile. Did Washington cover up the entire matter, preferring not to confront the Chinese or reveal U.S. inadequacies in missile defenses?
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