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A hypersonic glide vehicle undergoes testing in a wind tunnel in a special feature on Chinese state television. Photo: Handout

China’s hypersonic DF-17 missile threatens regional stability, analyst warns

  • With its glider technology and nuclear capability, the medium-range weapon will be able to penetrate US missile shields

China’s development of a hypersonic ballistic missile – capable of reaching well above the speed of sound and penetrating US missile shields – is a threat to stability in the region, a military analyst has warned.

A source from the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) said the DF-17 missile, currently in development, would be capable of hypersonic speeds and delivering a manoeuvrable re-entry vehicle which could shift targets in flight, making it less vulnerable to interception by other countries’ defence systems.

“And the DF-17 will be capable of delivering both nuclear and conventional payloads,” said the source, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the topic.

“There are now two institutions under CASIC that are competing to develop these advanced features,” the source added.

China fires up new hypersonic missile challenge to US defences

The US intelligence community has assessed that the DF-17 is expected to reach initial operational capability by 2020. In addition to China, the United States and Russia are also developing the hypersonic glider technology behind the Chinese DF-17.

Adam Ni, a military researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney, said the developments in the DF-17 enhanced China’s nuclear deterrence since it would be capable of penetrating existing US missile shields.

“But the race to develop hypersonic missiles such as DF-17 risks destabilising the region since hypersonic weapons reduce the time of decision-making before landing to just a few minutes, forcing leaders to make consequential decisions within a very short period of time,” Ni said.

The DF-17 is China’s first medium-range ballistic missile with a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV). The HGV payload was designed specifically for the DF-17, and was also “the first HGV test in the world using a system intended to be fielded operationally”.

Traditional ballistic missiles fire their warheads into space and they are then carried on trajectories calculated to arrive at their targets. HGV technology allows a missile to fly much lower in its final stages of flight, better preventing detection by an adversary’s radars.

China conducted two tests of the DF-17 in November 2017, with the first one launched from the Jiuquan Space Launcher Centre in Inner Mongolia. It travelled around 1,400km (870 miles).

The calculated flight time of the HGV in that test was estimated to be nearly 11 minutes at a depressed altitude of around 60km. Following completion of the ballistic and re-entry phases, the HGV successfully landed near Qiemo in Xinjiang Province, reportedly “within metres” of the intended target, according to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a US think tank.

In June, CASIC released an animated video showing a simulated animation of a boost-glide vehicle on its official account on social media platform Douyin.