A top Chinese rocket scientist has defected to the United States with the help of the United Kingdom’s intelligence agency MI6, carrying with him vital pieces of information regarding China’s hypersonic, nuclear-capable missile program.

This defection is key for the United States and its allies in defending and developing its own arsenal of hypersonic weapons, where the military has been struggling to keep up with. The defector in question is affiliated with the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), a state-owned aerospace and defense company in charge of developing the Chinese Armed Forces’ weaponry. The AVIC was alleged to have obtained classified information from the Joint Strike Fighter program in 2009, information that they have allegedly used to make the Chengdu J-20 and Shenyang Fc-31.

In October 2021, it was reported that hypersonic missiles were now live and actively being tested in Beijing. These missiles are known to have nuclear capabilities, circling the Earth at low orbit, then speeding up toward their designated target. The US had underestimated the Chinese’s development for this technology and swore that it would keep up with the Chinese’s pace.

Why Is This Weapon So Important?

Hypersonic weapons are weapons that travel five times faster than the speed of sound. These weapons can fly as fast as 20 times the speed of sound as technology becomes more advanced. Ballistic missiles, which can either be short-ranged or launched sub-orbitally (Intercontinental ballistic missiles, ICBMs), travel at hypersonic speeds.

The US, China, Russia, and other countries developing the new line of advanced weaponry are after the maneuverability and speed so that they can hit targets not just with high impact force and precision.

Guided ballistic missiles offer the military more control over its re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. As the name suggests, boost-glide missiles glide toward the at high speeds. Hypersonic cruise missiles have engines that propel them towards the target remaining in the Earth’s atmosphere. However, this comes with significant design challenges. The skin of the missiles becomes superheated from friction melting the internal electronics; at these high speeds, an envelope of plasma forms around the missile that blocks the reception of navigation guidance signals to correct the missile in flight. A recent test by the Chinese of a hypersonic missile that missed the target by more than two dozen miles was probably due to the problem of penetrating the plasma envelope with guidance signals not yet being solved by their engineers.

Chinese Defector Developed Hypersonic Boost-Glide Missile

The defector in question, who was not named by any reports to protect his identity, helped develop a mid-range hypersonic boost-glide vehicle for the recently developed Dongfeng-17 (DF-17). This medium-range ballistic missile uses the DF-ZF Hypersonic Glide Vehicle, which gives China an upper hand in trajectory as it can reach 2,500 kilometers away from its launch site. The Russians have a similar glide vehicle, the Avangard.

 The Dongfeng-17 (DF-17) hypersonic weapon system on parade in Beijing, October 2019 (Wikimedia Commons).
The Dongfeng-17 (DF-17) hypersonic weapon system on parade in Beijing, October 2019. Photo by PLA/Wikimedia Commons

In September 2021, the Chinese defector contacted the British via the government in Hong Kong, which then contacted MI6 at Vauxhall Cross. He offered the top-secret information of the Chinese hypersonic boost-glide missile in exchange for asylum for him and his family. Apparently, the defector was passed on for a promotion, which led to his dissatisfaction with the Communist Party in Beijing.

Working jointly with the MI6 and the CIA, the two government agencies verified the defector’s identity and information before he was green-lighted to seek asylum in the United States. He was also able to smuggle vital technical data required to build these hypersonic weapons.

These developments are quite a coup for the United States and the United Kingdom in terms of the learning capability and development phases of both Chinese and Russian hypersonic missiles. The information will be valuable in developing countermeasures and even electronic countermeasures to defeat them in flight.

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