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Strategy at Mach 5: Hypersonic Weapons in Chinese Military Strategy

Wild Blue Yonder --

Hypersonic weapons have become an almost daily topic in the media. It is one of the latest in a long string of ideas that have moved from science fiction to science fact. Several countries, such as the United States, Australia, and India, have active hypersonic research programs. Unfortunately for the United States, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is also aggressively developing hypersonic weapons. This paper will first briefly explain the new scientific fact of hypersonic weapons. What exactly are they, and how will they potentially be used? A summary of Chinese military strategy will show there has not been a dramatic change from that adopted in the early 2000s. Hypersonic weapons will bring massive advantages in speed and range to the Chinese military. These advantages will greatly support China’s military strategy to further Chinese strategic objectives and ambitions. The development of hypersonic weapons is a key enabler of China’s military strategy of Limited Regional War of Informatization to ensure China’s defense by projecting long-range offensive operations, using superior capabilities, to attack an adversary’s weak points.

The term supersonic has long been in the English lexicon and refers to speeds greater than the speed of sound, known as Mach 1. The term hypersonic has only recently entered common usage. Hypersonic refers to speeds greater than five times the speed of sound, or Mach 5.1 Hypersonic speeds are a subset of supersonic speeds. Scientists and engineers have set the transition at Mach 5, however, due to differences in the physical interactions of a body as it travels through the air. 2 Although the specifics are not relevant, hypersonics are all about speed, but the design of hypersonic objects addresses the different and strange laws of physics that emerge above Mach 5.

Hypersonic system design has developed along two lines: hypersonic glide vehicles, also known as tactical boost glide, and air breathing hypersonic cruise missiles.3 “Glide vehicles are the cousins of ballistic warheads: they are lofted on high velocity boosters, separate, then use momentum and control surfaces to skip and glide through the upper atmosphere before crashing onto their targets.”4 Think of glide vehicles as ‘piggybacking’ on another system to gain great heights, then ‘glide’ unpowered into the target while attaining great speeds. Hypersonic cruise missiles power themselves to hypersonic speeds.5 Engineers in China, the United States, and other countries are researching and developing both types as potential hypersonic weapons.6

The advantages of hypersonic weapons, and the challenges faced by the United States, are described later in relation to strategy. Although unclassified specifics are scarce, Defense Undersecretary for Research and Development Mike Griffen declared hypersonic development a top priority for the United States.7 Unfortunately, he “warned that China has conducted 20 times more tests than the US.”8 As early as 2014, China tested a hypersonic glide vehicle designated DZ-FZ but also known as the WU-14.9 In 2016, they tested a hypersonic cruise missile fired from a J-16 fighter aircraft.10 In 2018, they displayed the CM-401 at Airshow China, the country’s largest military exhibition.11 This is an anti-ship hypersonic cruise missile capable of being launched from shore or ships.12 China intends to use hypersonic technology across a wide spectrum of military uses.

Military applications of hypersonic vehicles have driven research along six main themes.13 Surface-to-surface hypersonic glide vehicles allow strikes at ranges beyond 1,500 nautical miles (2,780 kilometers).14 Hypersonic cruise missiles are being researched for both strike against ground and maritime surface targets, as well as intercepting air targets such as aircraft and other missiles.15 Hypersonic applications to intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) are being researched.16 Hypersonic air mobility applications to transport materiel and/or personnel into orbit or rapidly across the globe are possible.17 Lastly, electromagnetic railguns, which propel projectiles at hypersonic speeds, are being researched for air defense and long-range artillery applications.18

From this broad overview of hypersonic weapons and recent development, how do hypersonics fit within Chinese military strategy and doctrine, particularly with respect to the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF)? Since grand strategy determines military strategy, grand strategy must be addressed first. This immediately becomes difficult as Stig Stenslie and Chen Gang state, “China has not had an officially known written grand strategy since” the 1960 Sino-Soviet split.19 They do, however, contend that multiple studies “suggest that as China grows stronger, it likely will become more assertive globally.”20 Although not the only means, the military is obviously one method that China can become “assertive globally.” In addition, a recent RAND report states, “The overarching end state of Beijing’s grand strategy is to achieve national rejuvenation and in so doing realize the ‘China Dream.’”21 According to the 19th Party Congress, the “grand strategic priorities are to: maintain political control and ensuring social stability, promote continued economic development, advance S&T [Science & Technology], and strengthen and modernize national defense.”22 No specific mention is made of hypersonic technology or hypersonic weapons, but their research easily falls within the final two priorities.

Determining China’s military strategy is much simpler than grand strategy. The July 2019 publication of China’s National Defense in the New Era provides the official PRC military strategy. The stated “fundamental goal of China’s national defense” is “resolutely safeguarding China’s sovereignty, security, and development interest.”23 Further, the basic military guideline “adheres to the principles of defense, self-defense, and post-strike response, and adopts active defense” while underscoring “the unity of strategic defense and offense at operational and tactical levels.”24 So China will be acting more globally assertive with a military unifying strategic defense with operational and tactical offense. This still does not directly point to hypersonic weapons. Therefore, delving deeper into the specifics of military strategy is required.

You Ji traces the transition to the current “Limited Regional War of Informatization” military strategy to the early 2000s.25 He states the NATO-led Kosovo operation in 1999, “enlightened PLA [People’s Liberation Army] researchers to contemplate the PLA’s future mode of war fighting.”26 Three new concepts emerged that affect hypersonic weapons: 1) Non-Engagement Warfare, 2) Frontier Defense, and 3) Asymmetric Warfare. Non-Engagement Warfare is the view that an enemy of China will not attack in Asia via an invasion with land forces.27 Instead, as in Kosovo, the enemy “will launch long-range, beyond vision, and precise saturated strikes against [China] by aircraft and missiles.”28 Thus, the priority for defense of China changed to preventing these strikes. You Ji explains “the notion of frontier defense in the informatization strategy is…to project long-range offensive operations at the strategic level and in multiple dimensions including space and cyber space. Ultimately, its implementation is dependent on superior capabilities.”29 Finally, asymmetric warfare—or gaining advantage against a stronger adversary through attacking weak points—must be “carefully designed” into the informatization strategy.30 You Ji explains, “These measures include offensive strikes or defensive operations from geographic proximity, using weapons systems with relative technological advantage against the weak point of the enemy’s main battle platforms, hitting the enemy’s ‘soft underbelly.’”31 Put more concisely, the PLA must ensure China’s defense by projecting long-range offensive operations using superior capabilities to attack an adversary’s weak points. This requirement of the informatization strategy now starts to point toward development of hypersonic weapons.

The PLA Air Force develops doctrine to fulfill China’s national military strategy. You Ji states the PLAAF has two strategic objectives in support of this military strategy: “catch up with the global trend of integrating air power with space power in informationized warfare; and transform itself from a tactical homeland defensive force to one that is capable of strategic offensive missions beyond national borders.”32 To protect China’s population centers, the PLAAF now plans missions and capabilities to reach a distance of 3,000 kilometers from the coast.33 This area encompasses Guam and surrounding islands with US bases that can strike the Chinese mainland.34 The PLAAF is now “the primary force to strike the enemy’s forward bases.”35 To reach this distance with strategic effects, “the previous combat focus on high-altitude dog-fighting for territorial defense has been de-emphasized while beyond the horizon air engagement, ground strikes, and air assaults against maritime targets are now the priority of the PLAAF’s war planning and training.”36 Hypersonic weapons are one of the means that enable the PLAAF to reach these distances with strategic effects.

The speed and precision of future hypersonic weapons will bring two main tactical advantages: increased survivability and decreased reaction times by those being attacked. Currently, and in the near future, hypersonic weapons have greatly increased survivability as no current system can intercept them.37 WGCDR Travis Hallen, from the Royal Australian Air Force, states, “Against hypersonic vehicles, contemporary and currently foreseeable active DCA [defensive counter air] measures will be ineffective: the future hypersonic vehicle is likely to penetrate and survive contemporary air defence systems.”38 This is an asymmetric capability—that is, the ability to use an indefensible capability to attack an enemy’s weak point. Hallen states, “Accordingly, hypersonic strike, ISR, and air mobility systems are likely to be capable of penetrating and transitioning through contested and denied battlespaces without needing first to gain air superiority; they will have de facto air superiority by virtue of their speed.”39

The second tactical advantage of hypersonic weapons is compressing the time the defender has to react. Alan Cummings gives the example of a DF-17 hypersonic glide vehicle traveling at Mach 15 striking a target 1,500 miles away. The flight time is only nine minutes.40 Hallen states “the consequences that any latency or inefficiency in a force’s ISR system will have in a hypersonic-enabled battlespace” are crucial.41 “Delays of only a few minutes at any stage of the ISR process, from collection through to a decision being made on the information, can make a decisive difference when facing a hypersonic threat.”42

Attacks with hypersonic weapons can be synchronized with slower weapons to strike a wide array of targets near simultaneously. Cummings highlights this scenario: “Weapons launched from Chinese warships and shore batteries could be synchronized to simultaneously cripple U.S. naval assets in the South China Sea, air and amphibious forces on Okinawa, and 7th Fleet Headquarters in Sasebo.”43 This capability poses a great problem to even an integrated, joint, widely dispersed adversary such as the United States. “While the threat of hypersonic weapons to high value targets like aircraft carriers is concerning, the deeper problem is an improved Chinese ability to hit those high value targets as well as other units simultaneously and with very little warning.”44 Strategic effects are now realized through hypersonic weapons’ ability to simultaneously reach adversary ships and airbases across the region without opposition and with minimal time for the adversary to react.

The main strategic objective of hypersonic weapons will be deterring adversaries in the region from interfering with Chinese actions. The inability to defend against hypersonic weapons drive decision-makers to strike pre-emptively. Hallen explains, “As hypersonic systems are currently only vulnerable before their launch, the only effective defence against a hypersonic system is to destroy it left of launch.”45 The decision to oppose Chinese actions must be done offensively to avoid, or minimize, their damage. Again, Hallen states, “When faced with a hypersonic threat, Airmen must adopt a more offensive mindset in confronting their adversary, which may even extend to preferring pre-emptive and preventative actions.”46 With China developing hypersonic weapons capable of being launched from ground sites, aircraft, and ships at sea, with production assumed at large scale, this pre-emptive strike option will be extremely difficult. The threat of wide-scale hypersonic weapons thus becomes a strong deterrent. Cummings goes so far as to state, “This makes hypersonic weapons a helpful tool for a fait accompli, a move so decisive (perhaps unexpected) that it instantly achieves the Clausewitzian ‘culminating point of victory’ against opposition that is either unable or unwilling to fight back.”47

The primary adversary toward which China is developing hypersonic weapons is the United States.48 Cummings states, “What’s obvious is that the audience for China’s hypersonic weapons is first and foremost the United States, who Beijing seeks to deter from interfering in portions of the Western Pacific that it sees as a privileged sphere of influence.”49 Regional states such as Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam, will likely also be intimidated by China’s threat of hypersonics.50 Cummings reinforces the likely deterrent nature of Chinese hypersonic weapons by stating, “China would rather use these weapons to demonstrate backyard dominance without resorting to war. They want the United States to conclude that the benefits to maintaining its regional interests are not worth the costs of armed confrontation.”51

The development of hypersonic weapons is a key enabler of China’s military strategy of Limited Regional War of Informatization. The PLA will use hypersonic weapons to ensure China’s defense by projecting long-range offensive operations, using superior capabilities, to attack an adversary’s weak points. Hypersonic weapons fully support China’s military guidelines of active defense and post-strike response, as well as “the unity of strategic defense and offense at operational and tactical levels.”52 Western powers such as the United States should not be surprised by China’s development of hypersonic weapons as it fully supports China’s stated military strategy. Western powers should be extremely concerned, however. A defense against hypersonic weapons must be researched and developed. Until then, the United States should continue and accelerate its own research of hypersonic weapons. Deterring China through the threat of hypersonic weapons, in the same manner as China intends to deter the United States, may be the only near-term, achievable solution.

Ralph Bentley

Mr. Ralph Bentley is a Headquarters, US Air Force civilian operations analyst recently graduating the Air War College, Air University, Maxwell AFB, AL. Mr. Bentley retired from the US Air Force in September 2013 with over 24 years of active-duty service. His military assignments included instructor and evaluator Weapons System Officer duties in the F-15E and F-111 and the Air Staff. Prior to attending Air War College, Mr. Bentley served as the Deputy Division Chief, Combat Air Forces Requirements Division (AF/A5RC) in the Pentagon where he supported USAF fighter and bomber aircraft capability development and establishment of formal capability requirements.

NOTES

1 Travis Hallen and Michael Spencer, Hypersonic Air Power (Canberra, AU: Royal Australian Air Force Air Power Development Centre, 2018), 10, https://airpower.airforce.gov.au/.

2 Hallen and Spencer, Hypersonic Air Power, 11–15.

3 Yasmin Tadjdeh, “Hypersonic Missiles,” National Defense 104, no. 788 (July 2019), 28–31, http://digital.nationaldefensemagazine.org/.

4 Alan Cummings, “Hypersonic Weapons: Tactical Uses and Strategic Goals,” War on the Rocks, 12 November 2019, https://warontherocks.com/.

5 Cummings, “Hypersonic Weapons.”

6 Hallen, Hypersonic Air Power, 2.

7 Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., “US Must Hustle on Hypersonics, EW, AI: VCJCS Selva & Work,” Breaking Defense (blog). 21 June 2018, https://breakingdefense.com/.

8 Freedberg, “US Must Hustle on Hypersonics.”

9 Hallen, Hypersonic Air Power, 6.

10 Hallen, Hypersonic Air Power, 6–7.

11. Ryan Pickrell, “China Has a New Hypersonic Anti-Ship Missile That It Claims Could Destroy a US Warship in One Hit,” Business Insider, 7 November 2018, https://www.businessinsider.com/.

12 Pickrell, “China Has a New Hypersonic Anti-Ship Missile.”

13 Hallen, Hypersonic Air Power, 8.

14 Hallen, Hypersonic Air Power, 9.

15 Hallen, Hypersonic Air Power, 9.

16 Hallen, Hypersonic Air Power, 9.

17 Hallen, Hypersonic Air Power, 9.

18 Hallen, Hypersonic Air Power, 9.

19 Stig Stenslie, and Chen Gang, “Xi Jinping’s Grand Strategy: From Vision to Implementation,” In China in the Era of Xi Jinping: Domestic and Foreign Policy Challenges, edited by Robert S. Ross and Jo Inge Bekkevold (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2016).

20 Stenslie, and Gang, “Xi Jinping’s Grand Strategy.”

21 Andrew Scobell, et al., “China’s Grand Strategy: Trends, Trajectories, and Long-Term Competition,” RAND Corporation, 24 July 2020, https://www.rand.org/, 18.

22 Scobell, “China’s Grand Strategy,” 18–19.

23 The State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China, China’s National Defense in the New Era (Beijing, China: Foreign Languages Press Co. Ltd, 2019), 6.

24 China’s National Defense in the New Era, 8.

25 You Ji, China’s Military Transformation (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2016), 133.

26 China’s Military Transformation, 135.

27 China’s Military Transformation, 135.

28 China’s Military Transformation, 135.

29 China’s Military Transformation, 138.

30 China’s Military Transformation, 140.

31 China’s Military Transformation, 140–41.

32 China’s Military Transformation, 144.

33 China’s Military Transformation, 147.

34 China’s Military Transformation.

35 China’s Military Transformation, 146.

36 China’s Military Transformation, 150.

37 Hallen, Hypersonic Air Power, 27.

38 Hallen, Hypersonic Air Power, 28.

39 Hallen, Hypersonic Air Power, 27.

40 Cummings, “Hypersonic Weapons.”

41 Hallen, Hypersonic Air Power, 25.

42 Hallen, Hypersonic Air Power.

43 Cummings, “Hypersonic Weapons.”

44 Cummings, “Hypersonic Weapons.”

45 Hallen, Hypersonic Air Power, 28.

46 Hallen, Hypersonic Air Power.

47 Cummings, “Hypersonic Weapons.”

48 Cummings, “Hypersonic Weapons.”

49 Cummings, “Hypersonic Weapons.”

50 Cummings, “Hypersonic Weapons.”

51 Cummings, “Hypersonic Weapons.”

52 China’s National Defense in the New Era, 8.

53 Mark A. Stokes, “China’s Quest for Joint Aerospace Power: Concepts and Future Aspirations,” In The Chinese Air Force: Evolving Concepts, Roles, and Capabilities edited by Richard P. Hallion, Roger Cliff, and Phillip C. Saunders (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 2012).

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