Southeast Asia | The dangers presented by China's hypersonic weapons build-up

The dangers presented by China’s hypersonic weapons build-up

Bill Gertz May 2, 2016 12:25 AM (UTC+8)
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Back just three years ago, in February of 2013, a high-ranking US naval official remarked that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was preparing to wage, if called upon, what he called “a short sharp war to destroy Japanese forces in the East China Sea …”

Capt. James Fanell, then deputy chief of staff intelligence and information operations for PACFLEET, made the remark in reference to training exercises being conducted by China when it came to Japanese holdings in the East China Sea. Such remarks took the press by storm, clearly a sign of the dangers presented by Beijing’s rapid military modernization as well as its constant saber-rattling over the Senkaku Islands.

But just like all strategic challenges, threats can evolve — and in the case of the broader Asia-Pacific, the region is a far more dangerous place than it was in 2013. Indeed, the amount of places that China is now challenging the status quo — in the East China Sea, once again pushing back against Taiwan and in multiple places within the South China Sea — is a troubling sign of not only Beijing’s reckless approach towards its neighbors, but further evidence of an unyielding quest to dominate the region all the way to the first and likely second-island chains.

So what would be the instruments used to wage such a short, sharp war in any of these above contested bodies of water if the unthinkable occurred? The most likely weapon of choice would be China’s much discussed anti-access/area-denial strategy (A2/AD). Such a strategy — loaded with various scores of cruise and ballistic missiles — would rain down on allied bases throughout the first island chain all the way to Guam as well as on any incoming US naval assets in the region and deploying to any possible combat zone China would conceivably want to wage war in. Various experts within the Pentagon that I have spoken to personally over the last several years worry Washington is not ready for the challenges presented by an asymmetric Chinese strategy that has been crafted to cause large losses of men and material very quickly or, what Beijing ultimately hopes for, an America deterred by the scale of the A2/AD threat that stands down — abandoning critical allies in the process. China hopes to win quickly … or simply not fight at all.

A mysterious weapon:

Unfortunately for Washington, China’s A2/AD strategy is about to become even more deadly — thanks to the growing sophistication of Beijing’s hypersonic weapons program, or in layman’s terms, missiles that can move 5 more times faster than the speed of sound (Mach 5+).

Artist's conception of Chinese WU-14 hypersonic glide vehicle
Artist’s conception of Chinese WU-14 hypersonic glide vehicle

Such weapons are not exactly new and have been sought after by various nations like Russia as well as India for some time now. But with Beijing now having tested such systems on seven different occasions, America must now consider the possibility that in the next few years Washington and its allies will face considerable challenges in any sort of kinetic conflict with Beijing — a conflict that could see missiles moving at incredible speeds that will present tremendous problems for allied planners.

Up until recently, we have known little about the nature of China’s hypersonics program. Thanks to the great reporting of Bill Gertz at The Washington Free Beacon/Washington Times and others, we have been provided  a small window into the frequency and nature of Beijing’s efforts–efforts that seem to be on par or possibly even surpass current US efforts.

But while important press reports are certainly needed on this topic, deeper intellectual analysis has been missing. For example: what are the possible strategic plans for such weapons? What would they be able to do on the battlefield? How could they be used in combination with other Chinese weapons?

Lifting the veil:

Thanks to a new report in the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief journal, two researchers at The Potomac Foundation have attempted to answer many of the deeper intellectual questions when it comes to China’s hypersonic weapons — and with some very frightening conclusions Asia hands will be pondering for sometime to come. (Note: I am also a fellow at The Potomac Foundation).

Authors Erika Solem and Karen Montague provide one of the strongest research studies of China’s hypersonic weapons programs to date. As the authors explain:

“China has conducted six DF-ZF tests [now seven] in the past year and a half. Although frequency does not determine test quality, it does demonstrate that China is dedicated to the successful development of this technology. Its 10th Research Institute (also known as the “Near Space Flight Vehicle Research Institute”), which is under the China Aerospace Science Industry Corporation (CASIC) 1st Academy, is the sole entity responsible for the development of HGVs [hypersonic glide vehicle]. This unique concentration of the entirety of the program into the 10th Research Institute seems to have facilitated a remarkably quick development of China’s DF-ZF.”

And why would China seek such quick development and deployment of such a weapon? Fear of current and possible future US missile defenses in the region:

“China’s primary goal for the HGV is to have it travel fast enough while making use of the HGV’s unique flight characteristics to evade BMD (Ballistic Missile Defense) systems. China has expressed its frustration with deployed US BMD in the Western Pacific for over a decade due to the perception that such a system would degrade China’s limited nuclear deterrent … Most of China’s HGV tests have attempted to travel distances up to 1,750 kilometers (1,087 miles) and have been launched from Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center, located in Shanxi province. The intended distance of these tests is a strong indicator that China is either less advanced in its HGV development than the United States or is focused on addressing regional threats. If China successfully designs an operational short-range HGV, it will have a better chance of delivering successful missile strikes against its regional adversaries. Given China’s strategic focus on regional security issues—particularly on developing the ability to defeat Taiwan militarily—a shorter-range HGV addresses China’s more immediate needs.”

Indeed, when it comes to negation of important missile defense investments, the above mirrors an interview I conducted back in 2014 with experts from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA). When I asked them about the utility of US missiles defenses against hypersonic weapons they explained:

“Defensive missiles have very limited time and a finite amount of energy available to position themselves to intercept an incoming offensive missile. Like most guided weapons they constantly compute and re-compute the point in space where they will intercept the incoming missile and fly toward that point. If the incoming missile is truly a ballistic missile, then its trajectory is essentially fixed and the interceptor will not need to maneuver much because the calculated intercept point will be quite stable. However, if the incoming missile can maneuver, the interceptor will need to maneuver as well. Given the high speeds and short timelines involved, hypersonic glide vehicles have the potential to make defensive missiles less effective than they might be against non-maneuvering targets.”

US B-52s and other aircraft at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam
US B-52s and other aircraft parked at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam

And from there it just gets even more worrisome for US forces and their allies. According to Solem and Montague:

“One major application of a hypersonic glide vehicle could be to deliver a “decapitating strike,” which is an attack on an adversary’s command-and-control centers. An example would be to strike the US’s military bases in Asia, hoping to render American forces vulnerable and incapable of an immediate retaliatory response. If conducted successfully, this approach causes an opponent to be unable to retaliate with its own weapons. Some aspects of Chinese strategy already emphasize these tactics, for example, network attacks to paralyze an opponent’s communications at the outset of a conflict. The DF-ZF could provide “hard” kill capability against hardened infrastructure or leadership facilities to complement cyber-attack “soft kills” against infrastructure.”

Dangerous times for America and vital allies — especially in a crisis:

Besides other applications, such as use as a platform for a nuclear weapons strike, China’s possible use of hypersonic weapons as it relates to its A2/AD strategy becomes quite clear through the above research conducted by Solem and Montague. It is widely surmised that there is a strong likelihood Beijing would use devastating ‘saturation strikes’ in any war with America and its allies. Using a combination of cruise and ballistic weapons fired from land, air and sea allied forces could be in for a rough time defending against the sheer amount of Chinese volleys being fired. However, adding in hypersonic strikes, moving at such speed that at present seems quite challenging to defend against, Beijing would gain a clear advantage in such a conflict. When combined with cyber attacks on command and control nodes and other asymmetric strikes, US and allied efforts to launch a successful counter strike could be severely compromised — with Beijing possible winning a short and very sharp conflict thanks to the edge gained by hypersonic weapons.

The future is now:

US Navy railgun test
US Navy railgun test

Thankfully, Washington and its allies do have options on the table for dealing with hypersonic weapons. Experts at CSBA back in 2014 explained that “options for bolstering defenses include the electromagnetic railgun and directed-energy technologies currently under development.” Also, they noted that additional “countermeasures include using jammers or other electronic countermeasure techniques to deny targeting data to the attacker or to confuse the hypersonic glide vehicle’s own sensors as it attempts to hit its target” could be helpful.

However, common sense would suggest an even better idea: making sure Washington is further ahead in the research and deployment of such weapons–ensuring Beijing is also confronted with all of the above potential challenges as well.

Harry J. Kazianis (@Grecianformula) is a Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Center for the National Interest as well as at The Potomac Foundation and author of the new monograph The Tao of A2/AD: China’s Rationale for the Creation of Anti-Access, now available on Amazon here.

Bill Gertz
Bill Gertz is a journalist and author who has spent decades covering defense and national security affairs. He is the author of six national security books.
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