China has an anti-access/area-denial strategy (A2/AD) [a lot of missiles] for combating the US Navy and airforce. 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+).
China, the United States and Russia are pursuing various iterations of hypersonic glide vehicle (HGVs) and all three have developed prototypes of this high-tech weapon. The X-51A, Yu-71, and DF-ZF are the current HGV prototypes for the U.S., Russia and China, respectively. This new class of weapons has prompted each nation to adopt different approaches, with each model using a different engine, fuel type, and delivery method, but all HGV weapons’ core characteristic is sustained and controlled Mach 5 (3,836 mph) flight
China has conducted seven hypersonic tests and six have been successful 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. 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. Unlike the United States, China is assumed to be using a medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) transporter erector launcher (TEL) as the delivery method for all of its HGV tests. This design launches the boost-glide vehicle into the atmosphere along a trajectory similar to a traditional ballistic missile. After the vehicle reenters the earth’s atmosphere, it boosts itself back into the upper atmosphere. It then performs a pull up maneuver to control speed and altitude before gliding into its target (Next Big Future, August 1, 2015). The up-and-down trajectory of the HGV is believed to be able to confuse current ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems as the projectile’s erratic course prevents the system from locking onto its target. Countries in East Asia with BMD available to intercept a Chinese HGV include Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, each with U.S.-supplied PATRIOT-3 (PAC-3) batteries, along with India, Pakistan and Russia, each of whom has its own indigenous BMD, as well as BMD purchased from other countries. The DF-ZF’s unpredictable flight path and ability to be launched from a variety of missiles, each with different range capabilities, shows that China’s goals for its HGV is to evade ballistic missile defense systems that threaten its ability to launch a successful offensive or defensive strike.
The DF-ZF does not currently use a scramjet engine like Boeing’s X-51A. However, the PRC recently announced that it is now the second country to possess this technology. Since the announcement, there have not been reports of scramjet engines being tested in the DF-ZF (Sina Military, October 9, 2015). Since scramjet engines, when successful, have the potential to travel very long distances, they are optimal for obtaining rapid global strike capability with HGVs. The majority of U.S. tests using scramjets, for example, have attempted to travel around 3,800 km, supporting the idea that the U.S. is aiming for a very long-range strike with their weapons.