China Shows Off Hypersonic Vehicle Test Model After US Navy Weapon Test

Both countries are steadily working toward operational designs for this revolutionary class of high-speed weapons.

CCTV capture

Chinese state media has shown what appears to be the first ever images of a physical test object associated with the design of the WU-14 hypersonic glide vehicle, also known as the DF-ZF. Though the two events did not appear to be related, this followed the U.S. Navy’s official disclosure that it had successfully test fired a hypersonic missile design of its own that could fit inside the standard launch tube on an Ohio-class submarine.

On Oct. 8, 2017, state-run broadcaster China Central Television, or CCTV, aired a special that dealt in part with the country’s JF-12 hypersonic wind tunnel. This is the largest testing setup of its kind in the world and can produce air speeds up to Mach 9 thanks to its pulse detonation engine. Interestingly, visible at one point in the presentation was a test shape that looks very similar to artist’s renderings and mockups of the DF-ZF hypersonic vehicle, which is likely the first time the Chinese government has shown an actual test article associated with the program. There are also computer-generated renderings of what appears to be a blended wing body aircraft or drone and a clip of technicians work on what could be a reentry vehicle, or a representative test shape of one, for a nuclear-armed ballistic missile.

On Twitter, Raymond Wang, a graduate research assistant at the Centre for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, who was among the first to spot the object, noted that the narrator never specifically mentions the DF-ZF or hypersonic boost-glide vehicles at any point. Wang also highlighted that the wind tunnel appeared to have significantly sharper angles than any known mockup of the Chinese design.

The DF-ZF has likely been in development since at least 2013. In January 2014, the Chinese Ministry of National Defense announced a successful test of a hypersonic vehicle for “scientific” purposes. Since then, there have been at least five more launches, with the most recent event reportedly occurring in April 2016.

The Chinese have never officially disclosed the exact purpose of the vehicle, but it could have a wide range of both strategic and tactical applications. We at The War Zone touched on these various capabilities when we examined the potentially game changing nature of hypersonic weapons – which fly at speeds five times the speed of sound or faster, by definition, and don't have a largely predictable trajectory like most long-range, ballistic missiles – in depth, which you can find here.

Below is the CCTV clip with the images in question. You can fast-forward to the 7:38 mark to see them if the video does not automatically start there.

For China, hypersonic craft could help make sure the United States’ ballistic missile defense shield doesn’t undermine the credibility of the country’s nuclear deterrent. Such a design could also present a short- or no-notice conventional threat to an opponent, even in a more remote area, such as the South China Sea. Like maneuvering ballistic missiles, many have suggested a Chinese hypersonic design could be a legitimate challenge to the power of American aircraft carrier strike groups and other surface warships in various parts of the Western Pacific.

These characteristics would makes this class of weapon ideal for strikes on mobile targets that can rapidly reposition themselves, as well as for other time sensitive attacks, too. A hypersonic vehicle could conceivably upend established notions of how long it takes a military force to go from identifying a threat to engaging it, even at extremely long distance, allowing for response times measured in minutes rather than hours.

This means that it would be easier for China, or anyone else with such a weapon, to turn actionable intelligence about very precise targets, such as leaders of a hostile regime or small groups of high-ranking terrorists, into a conventional stand-off strike. At present, it can take hours, if not days, to get conventional, long-range weapons into position, by which time the window of opportunity for an attack is likely to have closed.

via Wikimedia

An artist's depiction of the DF-ZF hypersonic boost-glide vehicle.

And while the DF-ZF was an unpowered boost-glide vehicle, essentially a hypersonic glider, experts saw it as a clear stepping stone to an operational weapon system. Though there haven’t been any reported tests of this specific design since 2016, it’s hard to imagine the Chinese military has lost interest in the concept.

“I'm concerned about Chinese and Russian hypersonic weapons development, and I expressed those concerns in the right places,” U.S. Navy Admiral Harry Harris, head of U.S. Pacific Command, told American legislators in May 2017. “What we can do is to develop our own hypersonic weapons and improve our defenses against theirs.”

The U.S. military has been actively working on hypersonic boost-glide vehicles and powered designs since at least 2003, when the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the U.S. Air Force teamed up on FALCON, or Force Application and Launch from Continental United States, a technology demonstration project. Even earlier experiments date back to the 1960s.

In 2017 along, however, there has been a flurry of American hypersonic developments. In May 2017, DARPA hired Boeing to begin work on a potentially revolutionary hypersonic spacecraft called the XS-1. In theory, a large rocket will launch the reusable, plane-like first stage to get it up to speed in the upper atmosphere in order to toss a detachable payload vehicle – which could contain a satellite or a weapon – fully into orbit.

Then, in July 2017, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) led the latest test in the Hypersonic International Flight Research Experimentation, or HIFiRE, which also includes representatives from the Australian government and various defense contractors. That same month, the Air Force put out a market research request to gather information about potential extant air-launched hypersonic weapons or associated technologies.

The next month, Generation Orbit Launch Services said it was preparing to conduct a number of captive-carry flight tests of its GOLauncher 1 hypersonic test bed. The company has received funding from both the Air Force and NASA to continue its developments. There has also been a lot of talk about larger manned or unmanned hypersonic aircraft.

Below is a video of an earlier flight test of Generation Orbit's Flight Experiments Testbed (FET).

But most notably, earlier in November 2017, the U.S. Navy’s Strategic Systems Program (SSP) revealed it had test fired a hypersonic vehicle from the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Hawaii. Though the service offered few details about the experiment or the craft itself, it is almost certainly a prototype conventional weapon rather than a purely research design.

“I’m very proud to report that at 0300 on Monday night SSP flew from Hawaii [Pacific Missile Range Facility] … the first conventional prompt strike missile for the United States Navy in the form factor that would eventually, could eventually be utilized if leadership chooses to do so in an Ohio-class tube,” U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Terry Benedict, director of SSP, said on Nov. 2, 2017, according to USNI News. “It’s a monumental achievement.”

Pentagon spokesperson U.S. Navy Commander Patrick Evans confirmed the test, formally called Intermediate Range Conventional Prompt Strike Flight Experiment-1 (CPS FE-1), to USNI. “The test collected data on hypersonic boost-glide technologies and test-range performance for long-range atmospheric flight,” he explained, suggesting this new vehicle could be another unpowered glider.

The Navy will now take that data to help in future ground testing, as well as for modeling and simulating hypersonic flight characteristics. Evans said the design could potentially fit in with a wide array of unspecified “Conventional Prompt Strike concepts.” These would likely be the kind of time-sensitive situations we have previously discussed, including critical enemy facilities, specific weapon systems, or even a specific individual or group of individuals.

USN

The Ohio-class guided-missile submarine USS Florida.

Arming an the Ohio-class submarine, which can stay largely hidden underwater for weeks at a time, with this type of weapon would only make it more flexible and harder for an opponent to detect and react to the strike. One obvious scenario for one of these hypersonic weapon-armed subs would be as part of the opening salvo of any attempt to neutralize North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities in the event of an actual conflict on the Korean Peninsula. 

The fast-flying weapons could take out wily ground-mobile ballistic missiles as they are being fueled for launch or air defense sites ahead of sorties by B-2 bombers carrying the GBU-57/B Massive Ordnance Penetrators that would be necessary to actually have any chance of hitting at the primary targets, which the North Koreans have buried deep underground, from the air. One of the Ohio-class guided missile boats, the USS Michigan, made a visit to South Korea's port city of Busan in an apparent show of force in October 2017.

It's unclear whether the Navy is planning to make the hypersonic weapon an option for the four Ohio-class boats configured as conventional missile submarines or for the class as a whole, including the nuclear-capable members. At present, of the legs of the U.S. military's nuclear triad, only the U.S. Air Force's strategic bombers have this dual capability mission

Critics have long argued that a hypersonic boost glide vehicle, which requires what is essentially a ballistic missile to get up to speed, could be a destabilizing weapon. Their main concern is that a peer state competitor would detect the launch of a submarine-launched ballistic missile and would be unable to distinguish it from a nuclear first strike, and would be likely respond as if it were.

Smaller countries with limited deterrent capabilities might feel especially threatened and be likely to adopt a worryingly aggressive alert posture to launch a retaliatory strike just upon detecting a potentially hostile launch, according to a report the RAND Corporation released on the topic in September 2017. The think tank argued broadly for international nonproliferation agreements between countries developing such weapons, akin to nuclear weapons.

Using the Ohio-class as the launch platform is only likely to increase these fears, since the conventional-only and nuclear-armed types are virtually indistinguishable, especially to someone tracking them via a long-range sensor at extreme distances, such as with an early warning satellite or underwater sonar network. A counter argument might be that similar fears exist about dual-purpose, long-range cruise missiles, but that the U.S. military has employed conventional types in combat without any dangerous confusion. It certainly hasn't stopped the United States from pushing ahead with such projects.

 “We know hypersonic warfighting is here,” U.S. Air Force Colonel Colin Tucker, the military deputy to deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for science, technology, and engineering, told Aviation Week in July 2017, explaining that the service was building a hypersonic weapons roadmap. “We know we have got to get there, and we know we have to get some transition strategies to go forward.”

With SSP, there are now three publicly known hypersonic projects in progress. The other two are DARPA's Tactical Boost Glide (TBG), a successor to FALCON in which Lockheed Martin is seeking to turn those lessons learned into a tactical weapon, and the Hypersonic Air-Breathing Weapon (HAWC). As of July 2017, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin were competing for the latter program, which DAPRA and AFRL are running as a follow-on to tests of the X-51A Waverider hypersonic vehicle that occurred between 2010 and 2013.

All of these developments are likely to spur further work in China, as well as other potential near-peer competitors to the United States, such as Russia. It seems likely that we will only continue to see more hypersonic vehicle tests, and reveals of existing technologies, in the near future.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com