Did China put on a show of its Starry Sky-2 hypersonic vehicle just to impress the US?
As Beijing wrestles with a trade war and rising tensions over Taiwan and the South China Sea, public announcement was probably intended as a rallying call, observers say
Strategic competition with the United States is pushing China to speed up the development of new hypersonic vehicles and driving its desire to showcase its achievements in the field, observers said.
The China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics announced on Monday that its experimental “waverider” Starry Sky-2 had completed its first test flight and that it was a “huge success”.
With Washington and Beijing locked in a trade war, and tensions rising over Taiwan and the South China Sea, the announcement might well have been intended as a rallying call, according to an academic who specialises in security issues.
“The Chinese probably need a boost of morale and increase of strategic confidence as the relationship with the US is hitting a wall,” said Zhao Tong, a fellow with the nuclear policy programme at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy in Beijing.
“Russia also has been publicising their hypersonic missiles,” he said.
China’s defence ministry has been testing hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs), capable of flying at more than five times the speed of sound (Mach 5) since 2014, but has never provided any details.
According to the US Department of Defence, the vehicles, which it refers to as WU-14, could be used to deliver missiles, both nuclear and non-nuclear, past any anti-missile defence system currently available.
Beijing has never officially confirmed or denied Washington’s claims.
But the public announcement of Starry Sky-2’s capabilities – it has a top speed of Mach 6, or 7,344km/h (4,563mph) – was probably made out of political and technological considerations, another observer said.
Song Zhongping, a Hong Kong-based military affairs commentator, agreed that the public announcement of Starry Sky-2’s test flight had been driven by the current political situation, but said it also indicated that China’s researchers had “reached the next step” in their development of the technology.
After being carried by a rocket to an altitude of 30km (18 miles), Starry Sky-2 and China’s other HGVs “glide” at high speed, like stones skipping through atmospheric layers. The waverider’s wedge shape gives it unique aerodynamic characteristics, which means it can ride on the shock waves generated by its own flight.
Despite the latest announcement, China’s understanding and development of HGVs still has some way to go, Song said. Russia’s Avangard missile and the United States’ HTV-2 both have a top speed of Mach 20.
“The US and Russia had been working on hypersonic weapons for decades,” he said. “But China only began its research this century.”
Regardless of the slow start, China’s scientists, supported by heavy government investment, are catching up quickly. They are also currently developing the world’s fastest wind tunnel, which can simulate hypersonic flight at speeds of up to Mach 35.
Song said China’s hypersonic weapons would probably be ready for combat use by 2020.
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.
Earlier this year, the US Air Force budgeted US$1 billion for the design and development of a hypersonic missile that can be launched from a warplane.