China and Hypersonic Glide Vehicles – Resetting Washington’s Global Hegemony

A recent article on the Financial Times website provides us with a glimpse of the evolving multipolar reality and how the United States is rapidly falling behind.  In this posting, we'll take a brief look at the event that triggered alarm in Washington and how Beijing views the American attitude toward its accomplishment.

Here is a screen capture of the article in FT:

Here are some brief quotes with my bold:

"China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile in August that circled the globe before speeding towards its target, demonstrating an advanced space capability that caught US intelligence by surprise.

Five people familiar with the test said the Chinese military launched a rocket that carried a hypersonic glide vehicle which flew through low-orbit space before cruising down towards its target. 

The missile missed its target by about two-dozen miles, according to three people briefed on the intelligence. But two said the test showed that China had made astounding progress on hypersonic weapons and was far more advanced than US officials realised. 

The test has raised new questions about why the US often underestimated China’s military modernisation. “We have no idea how they did this,” said a fourth person."

Let's look at some background information on hypersonic missiles aka hypersonic glide vehicles as found on the Satellite Observation website:

1.) What is a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV)? 

"Whereas a supersonic vehicle flies above the speed of sound (Mach 1, around 1000km/h or 650 knots), a hypersonic one flies above Mach 5. But it not only the speed that makes hypersonics attractive: indeed, ballistic missiles routinely achieve speeds of up to Mach 25 and are 1960s technology. The true appeal of hypersonics is the combination of speed and maneuverability, which makes them extremely difficult to defend against, and allows for compressed engagement timelines against elusive targets."

Here is a video on hypersonic glide vehicles/weapons from The RAND Corporation:

2.) How detectable are hypersonic glide vehicles/weapons?

"Hypersonic glide vehicles are something entirely different (than ballistic missiles). They are launched by a ballistic missile and are completely unpowered after separation. However, instead of flying on a predictable ballistic arc like traditional reentry vehicles, they dive back in the atmosphere. There, they experience drag, which slows them down. However, due to their shape, they also experience aerodynamic lift, which allows them to glide on the atmosphere, and counterbalances their weight. Thus, they can fly as far if not further as a warhead on a ballistic trajectory launched on the same booster.  The first benefit of such a trajectory is that they stay closer to the ground, as their altitude is around 30km to 100km, so it is harder to detect them from the ground: radar and optical sensors being blocked by the curvature of the Earth, they can approach their target without being detected until the last moment, which makes defending against them much more complicated as shown on this graphic:

The maximum radar detection range against a vehicle flying at 30km is 700km. Also, because of they maneuverability, glide vehicles do not have to fly on a straight line: they can take the long route around radars or interceptors to avoid engagement, or to hide their true target."

Currently, China, Russia and the United States are involved in HGV research with China widely being viewed as the leader in the field as quoted here:

"China is one of those countries that is focused on both fields. It is widely acknowledged to be the leader in the field of hypersonic systems, having already fielded such weapons in the form of the DF-17 hypersonic glide vehicle.

The DF-17 HGV made its first public appearance at a military parade held in China’s capital Beijing in late 2019. The weapon appears to use a standard ballistic missile booster in its first stage for the initial boost of a glide vehicle, which is used to attack a target following reentry.

The DF-17s at the parade were mounted on a wheeled, five-axle transporter-erector-launcher. This makes the system road-mobile like much of the ballistic missile arsenal of China’s People’s Liberation Army. This could potentially complicate any attempt by an adversary to strike the systems prior to launch.

U.S. government sources have said China carried out several tests of HGVs, including the DF-17, since 2014. The DF-17 is the first system of its type known to be operational in the world, although several other nations including the U.S. are developing similar systems.

In addition, China is also believed to be developing an air-launched HGV, with a video briefly posted on Chinese social media in October last year showing a People’s Liberation Army Air Force Xi’an H-6N bomber landing at an air base carrying what appeared to be a boost-glide HGV — or at least a mock-up used for carriage and other flight tests."

Here is a video showing China's DF-17 from the aforementioned 2019 military parade:

With that background in mind, let's look at what China had to say about Washington's response to its latest test of its homegrown HGV as quoted from the Global Times, the Chinese Communist Party's mouthpiece with my bolds:

"The Financial Times (FT) quoted on Saturday several sources saying that "the Chinese military launched a rocket that carried a hypersonic glide vehicle" in August and judged it to be a "nuclear-capable hypersonic missile." According to the FT article, the missile "flew through low-orbit space" and could help China "negate" US missile defense systems which are designed to target the fixed parabolic trajectory of a ballistic missile. The progress of the Chinese military has "caught US intelligence by surprise," the report said.

The US generally has the ability to monitor global missile launches. If the FT report is to be believed, it means that there is a key new member in China's nuclear deterrence system, which is a new blow to the US' mentality of strategic superiority over China. According to the FT, the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology announced the 77th and 79th launches of the Long March 2C rocket, but there was no announcement of a 78th launch. The report believes the 78th "secret launch" may be to test the above-mentioned hypersonic missile.

It is meaningless to discuss the credibility of the FT report. But it is important to note the unstoppable trend that China is narrowing the gap with the US in some key military technologies as China is continuously developing its economic and technological strength. China doesn't need to engage in an "arms race" with the US – it is capable of weakening the US' overall advantages over China by developing military power at its own pace.

In the long term, the comparison between the military powers of China and the US will be in the following paradigm:The US' overall military advantage will be maintained, while its air force and navy have higher quality and its global deployment and projection capabilities will be unmatched by China's. Meanwhile, China won't have any will to globally challenge the US' dominant position in military sphere, and the US shouldn't worry about losing its military hegemony."

The op-ed piece goes on to note that China has no intention of launching a nuclear race with the United States and that it has no intention of building a nuclear force to rival that of the U.S. despite what American lawmakers would have us believe. China's military buildup will focus on the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea as quoted here:

"It is inevitable that China will take an upper hand over the US military strength in these areas thanks to the geographical proximity and the continuous increase of China's input. Chinese society has not only strong expectations for this, but also strong determination and corresponding ability to realize this reversal. The US' conventional military superiority around the world will not translate into a guarantee of superiority in these regions."

Here is a closing quote from the op-ed:

"The future strategic balance between China and the US cannot be achieved by carrying out an extreme "arms race." The two sides need to rebuild a certain strategic mutual trust, which is the key to forming a security buffer zone between China and the US. Can't major powers with different political systems cooperate with each other to achieve a win-win result? Must one overwhelm the other? As China and the US prepare for the worst, we must not give up. Both sides must explore a political and security framework that can accommodate the major long-term interests of both countries for the benefit of both countries and the world at large and never yield in that."  

With China's latest test of its high tech weapons, it is clear that the global balance of power, particularly in the Far East, is shifting quickly and that any threats that the United States poses to the historical relationship with China and Taiwan and China's territorial claims in the South China Sea will be met with force.  While American educators and legislators squabble over political correctness in the education system, particularly when it comes to mathematics, China is using its superior science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) educational framework to achieving its goal of military superiority with great success.

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