China claims to have successfully tested hypersonic capabilities last week. Hypersonic weapons, which travel several times faster than the speed of sound, have long been a concern for the United States military because they can get through current U.S. missile defenses systems.
The test of the missile, named “Starry Sky-2,” was carried out by the China Academy of Aerospace and Aerodynamics, which is linked to the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation and based in Beijing.
According to state media reports, the test was in northwestern China last Friday. ‘The Starry Sky 2’ was first carried airborne by a solid-propellant rocket. After separation, it glided back down to Earth at speeds reaching 7,344 km per hour (4,563 mph), displaying a high degree of maneuverability along the way.
The US’s existing missile defense systems, criticized for their high price and spotty track record, struggle to intercept more conventional projectiles, much less hypersonic aircraft, which travel in a less predictable manner and are hard to detect.
China’s state media describes Starry Sky 2 in vague terms, describing it as a “wave rider” (uses the aerodynamic shape of the fuselage to generate lift) but not actually attributing an engine, like a scramjet, to the vehicle. As a result, Starry Sky 2 appears to be a so-called “boost-glide” weapon.
Boost-glide weapons hitch a ride on a rocket to high altitudes, but unlike ballistic missiles, they fall short of sending their payloads all the way to low Earth orbit. The weapon then glides down to the target at thousands of miles an hour.
Like China, both the US and Russia have experimented with various hypersonic vehicle systems. Russia is expected to deploy its ‘Avangard’ hypersonic boost-glide vehicle on the country’s ‘Sarmat’ intercontinental ballistic missile within the next year or so. And last month, Russia claimed to have successfully tested a hypersonic cruise missile, the ‘Kinzhal’, which has a top speed of Mach 10 and can be carried by a MiG-31 fighter jet.
China’s progress in this area is particularly alarming for the US, as evidence suggests that the development of these systems is a state-level priority. With Admiral Harry Harris, former head of the US Pacific Command and now the ambassador to South Korea, said in February, “China’s hypersonic weapons development outpaces ours… we’re falling behind.”
The US Missile Defense Agency asked for $120 million in its 2019 budget to develop hypersonic missile defenses, up from $75 million in this year.