Analysis: China’s Ballistic Missile Defence and Hypersonic glide vehicle program

Hong Kong: On March 27, India conducted its first successful ASAT missile test, storming into an elite club of 3 nations- the United States, Russia and China, with a capability to disarm and disable enemy satellites.

However, countries like China have had a head start in this technology propelled by a robust Ballistic Missile Defence program and heavy investment and development into hypersonic propulsion programs that have worried countries with similar designs, particularly the United States.

Reports published by the United States Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), with “China Military Power” being the latest one shed light on the secretive development of these projects greenlit by Beijing.

The report asserted that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has formed military units trained for space attacks. Other missiles may be tested for attacks in geosynchronous orbit at ranges of up to 23,000 miles. The DIA also warned, “The PLA unit responsible for conducting signals intelligence has supported cyberespionage against US and European satellite and aerospace industries since at least 2007.”

China is also developing a ballistic missile defense (BMD) system, in which satellites play a key role. The Pentagon assessed: “China is working to develop ballistic missile defenses consisting of kinetic-energy exo-atmospheric and endo-atmospheric interceptors. In 2016, official media confirmed China’s intent to move ahead with land- and sea-based midcourse missile defense capabilities.”

China has at its disposal the HQ-19 midcourse interceptor that can target ballistic missiles possessing ranges of up to 3,000km. The US Department of Defense was of the opinion that “an HQ-19 unit may have begun preliminary operations in western China”.

Lower in capability and better suited for point defense against tactical missiles is the HQ-9 surface-to-air missile (SAM). Newly delivered S-400 SAMs from Russia will also permit the PLA to engage missiles, while ground-based radars such as the JY-27A and JL-1A can track incoming ballistic missiles.

China performed a successful BMD test using a DN-3/KO09 hit-to-kill midcourse interceptor on 5 February 2018, where it hit a DF-21 target. China has been testing the DN-3 since 2010, and it is analogous to the American SM-3 missile, although it has not yet hit an intermediate-range or intercontinental ballistic missile. As an exo-atmospheric midcourse kinetic interceptor, the DN-3
could also act as an ASAT platform.

China has ballistic missiles possessing multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle warheads as well as maneuverable reentry vehicles.

China also continues to develop hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV), essentially a warhead that separates from a ballistic missile and proceeds to travel at speeds beyond 7,000 miles per hour on the edge of space. These can perform both nuclear and conventional attacks, and their incredible speed and maneuverability ensure they render existing missile defenses basically useless.

Beijing successfully tested its Xing Kong-2 HGV on 3 August 2018. It is one of two confirmed Chinese HGV programs, the other being the DF-ZF that has been tested at least seven times since the first on 9 January 2014. All are launched from the Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center, with the 10th Research Institute of CASIC’s 1st Academy in charge of this project.

An HGV could be launched from existing Chinese missiles such as the DF-11, DF-15, DF-16, DF-21 or DF-26. However, the 1,500km-range DF-21 seems best suited for China to add HGVs, bringing all of East Asia within reach when the HGV’s own 1,000km range is added to the missile’s range. HGVs could be fitted with either conventional or nuclear weapons. Even the mere kinetic impact of a device hitting a target at Mach 5 would destroy hardened underground facilities. They could thus perform decapitation strikes against key command nodes.

Only China, Russia, and the USA are currently researching HGVs, as it is an extremely expensive endeavor. The USA is believed to be leading this field of research, as well as scramjet-powered hypersonic cruise missiles. The latter could take off from a runway and reach anywhere on the globe within 1-2 hours.

A report by The Jamestown Foundation think-tank assessed, “If China successfully designs an operational medium-range HGV, it will have a better chance of delivering successful missile strikes against its regional adversaries. Given China’s regional focus – particularly on developing the ability to defeat Taiwan militarily – a shorter-range HGV addresses China’s more immediate needs.”

The same article speculated that the first DF-ZF missiles could be stationed in Base 61 of the PLA Rocket Force. It suggested that the brigades formerly numbered 807, 817 and 819 would be most likely tapped to field HGVs given their proximity to Taiwan. Nevertheless, such missiles carried on mobile launcher vehicles can be easily deployed around China.

If China added scramjets, HGV missile units would have greater reach anywhere in the world. The country is known to be researching this complex technology.

It is unclear, however, when China might deploy HGVs. Professor Dennis Gorley from the University of Pittsburgh, testifying before a US-China Economic and Security Review Commission Hearing, stated, “The extent to which China has achieved anything beyond copycatting to demonstrate interest or intention remains to be seen. At the moment, neither the United States nor China appears close to deploying either HGVs or hypersonic cruise missiles.”

The Jamestown Foundation authors concluded: “Based on an analysis of China’s HGV development, the authors speculate that the PRC’s main priority for the DF-ZF is to bypass regional BMD.” We may expect China to perform regular tests of the DF-ZF, simply to display its military power and remind neighbors of its prowess.

Meanwhile, India is catching up to the dragon in this field as well. In August of 2016, ISRO announced the first successful test of the scramjet engine critical for the development of this propulsion technology.

Key agencies involved in China’s counter-space programs are CASIC (China Aerospace Science & Industry Corporation), CASC (China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation ) the China National Space Administration (operated by the PLA Air Force). The defense analyst organization IHS Jane’s assesses counter-space technologies to be the most important to China over the next decade, even more so than hypersonics and directed-energy weapons.