(Note for tropics watchers – nothing active anywhere, nothing expected in the next five days.)
There was a surprising flood of media attention over the weekend about a Chinese hypersonic missile test supposedly conducted a couple of months ago …
So, is this what it appears? Was US Intelligence “surprised”? Let’s see what Bender has to say:
It is unimaginable that there was any surprise over this within the community – if any analyst was surprised, they should be fired. Immediately. In fact, any journalist who did not immediately ask “how is it possible to be surprised by this??” should also be sacked. And any editor who would let such a headline through to distribution without more context and questions should be sacked. While the USIC isn’t what it used to be, it’s not that utterly incompetent, so obviously there is something else going on. Let’s look a little deeper …
Hypersonic weapons systems are a hot topic right now. The phrase covers a lot of territory, from short range anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles to land attack weapons and ICBM based systems that can hit targets anywhere in the world within minutes. Hypersonic refers to the speed – generally to be considered hypersonic is to fly faster than Mach 5 (five times the speed of sound). At the high end (literally and technically) are a class of vehicles that fly into space and return. These can range from boost-glide vehicles to vehicles that combine boost-glide with supersonic combustion ram-jet engines (SCRAM jets). There are a lot of technical aspects and considerations in how vehicles are designed, and how altitude and velocity are traded for maneuvering, avoidance, and range.
The first hypersonic boost-glide vehicle was designed in … the early 1940’s. The Silbervogel (“Silver bird”) project was part of the advanced weapons development associated with the V-2 rocket development. After the war, the designers came to America and these concepts were used in everything from the X-20 Dynasoar project (one of the sad, great “what if” projects in history) and the Space Shuttle, as well as modern similar projects like the X-37 today. In terms of weapons development, there were numerous cold war era projects with varying degrees of classification that I will leave to the interested reader to Google so I don’t get in trouble. The Soviets and now Russians have developed and tested – and in recent years deployed – hypersonic boost-glide and fractional orbit bombardment systems such as Авангард (Avangard) that are on combat duty, as well as an array of other hypersonic weapons such as anti-ship and land attack missiles (Циркон, кинжал).
What about the Chinese in particular? Well, the DF-ZF boost-glide vehicle was deployed by the Chinese military and declared operational on … October 1st, 2019. Two years ago – with known tests years before that. They too have hypersonic anti-shipping missiles such as the DF-21, which was supposedly operational as early as 2010.
So even based on public information it’s inconceivable any serious analyst would be surprised by the existence of this thing, therefore there is something else going on aside from the obvious fact that the journalists writing the above news articles are clueless and gullible. While the US has had multiple hypersonic weapons projects over the years, there is an impression it has been lagging well behind Russia for some time. The AGM-183A has had testing problems and is not in deployment, while the Prompt Global Strike program also seems (at least in public) to still be mired in development, although the common hypersonic glide body was successfully tested last year.
So, this isn’t really new. It’s obviously a placed leak for some reason, Why? Probably several reasons: First, at least on paper (and probably in reality) the US is behind in hypersonic weapons system deployment. That is in fact a serious strategic problem, especially for the Navy, as it renders most large navy assets (like Carrier Battle Groups) extremely vulnerable. It also has the potential to negate most of the existing anti-missile systems like the Patriot and render close-in defense systems ineffective. So it makes sense to play up the red threat to get Congress to shovel some more money into these programs, after the huge amounts always already shoveled into these programs, hopefully this time to get some practical results.
Second, there is increasing nervousness over the situation with Taiwan, and the potential for China to move to reassert sovereignty over the island. The “correlation of forces” is already pretty unfavorable for the US to be able to defend the island, so again it makes sense to push potential threats to try to get more funding, redirect assets towards the West Pacific, etc.
And globally China is increasingly asserting itself, with projects not only across Asia but in Africa and Central/South America. So as a strategic threat, China is clearly number one.
In summary, this seems to be an incremental test by the Chinese. If it did in fact miss by “two dozen” miles as reported, that is actually a pretty significant failure in many ways. It makes me wonder about the capacity of systems like the DF-ZF, and how advanced their development really is. For the flood of articles to hit the press this way is a clear indication of an agenda. That’s potentially the real story, and it is distressing that the “news” media doesn’t have the depth to see it.