The world has just entered a new phase of warfare.

It's one where no potential target is safe.

It's one where reaction times are miniscule.

It's one where the United States not longer holds the technical lead.

Advertisement

China has just successfully conducted flight tests of the production model of what is called the DF-17 ballistic missile. What makes this weapon different to other ballistic missiles is that it is designed to carry what is known as a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV).

"Hypersonic missiles are a new class of threat because they are capable both of manoeuvring and of flying faster than 5000 kilometres per hour, which would enable such missiles to penetrate most missile defences and to further compress the timelines for response by a nation under attack," a recent report from international affairs think-tank RAND Corporation warns.

These gliders are finely engineered, arrow-shaped craft capable of carrying nuclear or conventional warheads at incredible speeds.

They travel so fast through the atmosphere (greater than 5000km/h) they must be built to withstand temperatures that would melt meteors, and must be engineered perfectly to avoid tumbling wildly out of control.

But not only can they travel unbelievably fast, they may also be able to guide themselves towards an intended target.

The Diplomat reports an anonymous US government source as confirming the recent test launch of two of the missiles — one on November 1, and another on November 15.

"The missile is explicitly designed for operational HGV implementation and not as a test bed," the source told The Diplomat. It was "the first HGV test in the world using a system intended to be fielded operationally".

The tests had been timed shortly after the Communist Party's 19th Party Congress in October where President Xi Jinping cemented his hold on power.

Advertisement

Leaping ahead

The first missile was reportedly launched from the Jiuquan Space Launch Center in Inner Mongolia. The DF-17 ballistic missile boosted the glide vehicle to hypersonic speeds during its re-entry phase.

This then detached before the unpowered glider used its momentum and height to travel the remainder of the 1400km to a test range in Xinjian Privince in just 11 minutes before it struck within meters of its target.

US intelligence agencies reportedly believe the ballistic missile / hypervelocity glider combination has a maximum range of between 1800 and 2500km. They expect fully operational examples to be deployed by 2020.

It marks the end of a successful experimentation program which began in 2014. China had conducted seven known hypersonic vehicle tests before November.

In October, images of what Beijing-controlled state media described as a hypersonic glide vehicles were released for the first time. It is not known if any represent the glider carried by the new DF-17 ballistic missile, or earlier test craft.

China is by no means the only nation striving to achieve a functional and reliable hypervelocity missile. Russia has been working on its 3M22 Zircon, planning to deploy the weapon system aboard two of its enormous battlecruisers — the Pyotr Velikyi and Admiral Nakhimov — and its next-generations of submarine.

The United States has also been working on its own designs, as has Australia. A series of joint-tests were conducted in Outback Australia in July.

But many developmental tests in recent years by the US, Russia and other nations have ended in failure.

Only China appears to have reached the point of mass producing such a weapon.

Images released by Chinese state-run media show what appear to be a hypervelocity glide vehicles, similar to two successfully tested by new intercontinental ballistic missiles in November. Photo / Supplied
Images released by Chinese state-run media show what appear to be a hypervelocity glide vehicles, similar to two successfully tested by new intercontinental ballistic missiles in November. Photo / Supplied

Lethal weapon

Apart from its speed, what makes a hypervelocity glider such a desirable new weapon is its flat trajectory.

Conventional ballistic missiles follow a predictable loop. It slowly picks up speed as it arcs upwards before plunging back down above an intended target.

This profile makes it vulnerable in its slow boost phase. But the trajectory it follows as it comes back down is also within the capabilities of interceptors positioned near the target, such as the US THAAD and SM6 systems, to rise up and meet it.

A ballistic missile carrying a hypersonic glider can re-enter the atmosphere at a much greater distance, and at a complicating angle, before loosing its hypervelocity glider to fly towards the target at a much lower altitude.

Radars will have less time to detect it because of the curve of the Earth. Its approach angle is less predictable, potentially making it a much harder target for interceptor systems.

But hypervelocity gliders have one drawback. They glide. This means they steadily burn-off speed. The further the warhead must travel towards its target, the slower it is upon arrival. This could make them vulnerable to new-generation point-defence systems (short range missiles and guns designed to protect a specific object, such as a ship).

Self-propelled hypervelocity craft are, however, in development. These suck air into a ramjet or scramjet engine to maintain their speed after being boosted by an ICBM.

Proliferation potential

A recent report by international think-tank the RAND Corporation warned the race to develop hypersonic weapons has ominous implications.

"Their proliferation … could result in other powers setting their strategic forces on hair-trigger states of readiness — such as a strategy of 'launch on warning' ," their report reads. "And such proliferation could enable other powers to more credibly threaten attacks on major powers.

Such proliferation is already underway, it warns.

Australia, Japan, India and European nations have already begun the design and testing of hypersonic technologies.

The RAND report called on major players to formulate and sign an international non-proliferation agreement, blocking the export of complete hypersonic missile systems and their components as well as controlling related hardware and technology exchanges.

"There is probably less than a decade available to substantially hinder the potential proliferation of hypersonic missiles and associated technologies," it warns.