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Researchers tested three different design shapes and monitored the performance of each, CCTV reported. Photo:

China takes step towards precision warheads for unstoppable nuclear weapon, state media says

Three hypersonic aircraft designs tested with adjustable speed, enabling better flight control and improved aiming accuracy

China has tested three types of hypersonic aircraft models at the same time, marking another solid step into the development of hypersonic weapons, state media reported.

Tests of three scaled-down models of “wide-speed-range vehicles”, which can fly at from hypersonic velocity to lower than the speed of sound, were carried out on September 21 at the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in northwest China, according to state broadcaster CCTV.

In the news footage, three models representing differently shaped designs, code named D18-1S, D18-2S and D18-3S, were lifted and then dropped from a balloon.

This was China’s first test of this type of hypersonic aircraft, whose speed will be adjustable, meaning its scientists are working on another major aim – precision strike – towards an unstoppable nuclear-capable weapon.

Last month, Chinese scientists conducted their first experimental flight of a hypersonic glider named Starry Sky 2 that was launched by rocket and then flew on its own shock wave at Mach 6 (six times the speed of sound, or 7,344km/h).

Once fully developed, its sheer speed would be capable of penetrating any anti-missile defence system currently available.

The wide-speed-range aircraft, meanwhile, will have additional capability to slow down and fly in a stable mode at a lower velocity, which allows it in the terminal stage to aim, adjust trajectory and position, and strike targets more precisely, according to military observers.

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Whereas the Starry Sky 2 test tried out the hypersonic stage, last week’s test was to verify some technical details around the sound speed.

“Their technologies can be inter-complementary,” said military commentator Song Zhongping, based in Hong Kong. “They can be combined together and make a hypersonic missile.”

Researchers measured the respective aerodynamic features of three different design shapes, and recorded their processes of falling, accelerating, breaking the sonic barrier, aerodynamic rebound, parachute opening, landing and retrieving, while collecting data, the CCTV report said.

Song said it was to compare and choose from the three designs. There will be further wind tunnel tests with larger or real-size models before finalising the aerodynamic configuration of the vehicle.

China has been testing hypersonic glide vehicles since 2014. The Starry Sky 2 was the first to use the “waverider” technology, which has a flatter, wedge-shaped fuselage to improve its supersonic lift-to-drag ratio.

Among the latest models, the two green ones seen in the test video had a shape similar to Starry Sky 2’s waverider design. But the black model had a different shape, with double-deck wings.

In a paper published in February, the Institute of Mechanics of Chinese Academy of Sciences proposed this design, claiming the “I” shape could produce 60 per cent higher lift coefficient than the waverider.

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With a good aerodynamic shape design, there can be more potential military applications for wide-speed-range aircraft. For instance, it could be fitted with its own engine and made into a hypersonic drone, which can carry out many kinds of missions, said Beijing military observer Zhou Chenming.

In the long term, the wide-speed-range aircraft could also be used for civilian purposes, such as aerospace planes or manned hypersonic planes.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: China tests hypersonic aircraft models in further step to precision weapons