China’s DF-21D hypersonic anti-ship missile represents a significant enough potential threat to American Naval forces that its existence alone has forced the United States to employ multiple strategies aimed at extending the reach of carrier-based aircraft to keep its Nimitz and Ford class supercarriers outside of the missile’s operational range. The missile, which is capable of traveling at speeds in excess of Mach 5, is simply too fast to be intercepted by America’s existing ship-based missile defense apparatus, and as such, it has created an operational bubble around Chinese shores that American carriers would avoid penetrating if ever a conflict were to break out.
Now, China has announced testing of another hypersonic missile platform that could further exacerbate America’s troubles, as the U.S. Air Force reports that America’s own hypersonic efforts are still at least two years away from operational testing.
China’s new Xingkong-2, which translates loosely to Starry Sky-2, has been described as a hypersonic “waverider” vehicle that is capable of sustaining speeds as high as Mach 6. In a test of the platform last Friday, the vehicle was launched from a multi-staged solid fuel rocket before separating and relying on onboard propulsion systems. The Starry Sky-2 then executed a series of large angle maneuvers at altitudes as high as 18 miles while maintaining Mach 5.5 for 400 seconds and achieving a top speed of approximately Mach 6 before landing in a pre-designated target area. Mach 6, as a frame of reference, is around 4,600 miles per hour.
Of course, all of these figures were released by Chinese state-owned media outlets, which suggests that it may be best to take these numbers with a grain of salt — but China isn’t quite as keen on making entirely unsubstantiated claims about their developmental systems as Russia is, and their choice to make this announcement likely suggests that the People’s Liberation Army has already made a number of important breakthroughs in the development of this new platform.
“The test confirms that China possesses reliable and advanced technologies for a hypersonic vehicle, as it relied on its own propulsion for a 400-second hypersonic flight－as opposed to such vehicles in other nations that didn’t use their own propulsion in the first flight-test,” Wang Yanan, editor of Aerospace Knowledge magazine told Chinese media. “The test also showed that we have reached a world-class level for a hypersonic vehicle’s key equipment, such as separation devices, thermal protection, flight controls and communications apparatus.”
Hypersonic missile technologies have become a focal point of defensive endeavors for China, Russia, and the United States in recent years, with America trailing behind its competitors in terms of development. While the United States has tested at least one hypersonic platform with ally Australia, recent assessments of the program’s maturity suggest that the U.S. is still a long way away from fielding any such platform in an operational capacity, with Lockheed Martin securing nearly a billion dollars worth of additional funding aimed at closing this gap earlier this year. Russia’s Kinzhal hypersonic platform has already begun testing.
“If you look at some of our peer competitors, China being one, the number of facilities that they’ve built to do hypersonics … surpasses the number we have in this country. It’s quickly surpassing it by 2 or 3 times. It is very clear that China has made this one of their national priorities,” DARPA director Steven Walker told Defense One in March, “We need to do the same.”
Featured image: Chinese paramilitary policemen stand in formation on Tiananmen Square after attending a ceremony to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2017. Xi issued a tough line on national sovereignty Tuesday amid multiple territorial disputes with his country’s neighbors, saying China will never permit the loss of “any piece” of its land to outsiders. | AP Photo/Andy Wong, Pool