China, Russia ramping up tests of hypersonic gliders to counter new US strategy: analysts

Acceleration of programmes is response to Pentagon’s increased presence in South China Sea and its push to maintain an innovation advantage, say experts

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 April, 2016, 7:45pm
UPDATED : Friday, 29 April, 2016, 11:20am

China and Russia are ramping up their advanced hypersonic glide vehicle programmes to counter a US plan to deploy an anti-missile system in South Korea and its push towards a leaner but tougher military, mainland analysts say.

Beijing carried out the seventh successful test-flight of its DF-ZF glider last Friday, The Washington Free Beacon reported on Wednesday, citing Pentagon sources. The glider was mounted on a ballistic missile fired from the Wuzhai launch centre in Shanxi province, it said.

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Three days earlier, Russia carried out the second test of its 3M22 Zircon glider, according to the Beacon.

“The hypersonic tests by China and Russia are aimed at causing a threat to the US, which plans to set up a missile defence system in South Korea,” said Professor He Qisong, a defence policy specialist at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.

He was referring to the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system, which the US says is needed to protect its regional allies from North Korea. Beijing views the deployment as a threat to its military.

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China and Russia were also concerned about the US’ shift towards the “Third Offset” strategy. The approach calls for the Pentagon to do more with less, as its traditional military advantages – such as a larger army and navy, as well as technological superiority – are steadily eroded.

The three countries have kicked off a new arms race
He Qisong, defence policy specialist

The key areas where the Pentagon will focus its budget under this strategy are anti-access and area-denial, guided munitions; undersea warfare; cyber and electronic warfare; and new operating concepts.

The US hopes this will provide ways to neutralise threats from China and Russia’s militaries, which are growing increasingly sophisticated but continue to rely heavily on conventional weapons.

Last week, the Chinese Defence Ministry confirmed another Beacon report that Beijing had tested its newest intercontinental ballistic missile, the DF-41 which has a range of at least 12,000km – on April 12.

The Third Offset strategy and glide vehicle tests by China and Russia were “signs that the three countries have kicked off a new arms race”, He said. China said in its annual defence white paper last year it would not engage in an arms race in outer space or with nuclear weapons.

Beijing-based military expert Li Jie said China was trying to use the DF-ZF test to warn the US that the PLA had another powerful weapon capable of countering the THAAD system.

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“China has no other choice, especially as the US has taken a series of provocative moves to get involved in China’s territorial disputes with other Asian countries in the South China Sea,” Li said.

He pointed to the US deployment of six powerful A-10 Thunderbolt fighter jets to conduct a drill near the Scarborough Shoal, which China occupies but Manila also claims.

“The DF-ZF is so far one of the offset weapons owned by China that could break the THAAD system,” Li said.

The glider can travel up to 11,300km/h, said the Beacon, citing Pentagon officials familiar with details of the test.

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The Pentagon has kept a close eye on the development of the DF-ZF since it was first tested in January 2014. The programme was progressing rapidly and could be ready for deployment by 2020, according to the latest annual report submitted to congress by the Sino-US Economic and Security Review Commission. A more powerful version was also in development and could be fielded by 2025, it said.

Russia’s 3M22 vehicle was expected to enter into production in 2018, according to the US diplomatic and defence magazine The National Interest.