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The planned anti-ship missile will be able to travel at five times the speed of sound. Photo: ATLA

Japan is working on a hypersonic anti-ship missile that may be a threat to Chinese navy activities

  • Defence ministry plans to deploy an early version of the weapon in 2026, followed by an upgrade after 2028
  • With warheads designed to penetrate aircraft carrier decks, it will be used to defend ‘remote islands’ in the southwest – including the disputed Diaoyus

Japan is developing a hypersonic anti-ship missile, a weapon that can cruise at high altitudes and could pose a threat to Chinese aircraft carriers in the East China Sea.

The Ministry of Defence has said it would be a hyper velocity gliding projectile (HVGP) and it planned to deploy an early version of the missile in 2026, followed by an enhanced version after 2028.

The planned missile would be able to travel at five times the speed of sound, meaning it would be a hypersonic weapon. With such a missile in service, Japan would be the fourth country in the world armed with hypersonic gliding technology, after China, Russia and the United States.

The technology allows a missile to glide at high speed in the upper atmosphere – a weak spot for air defence systems – and to follow complex trajectories, making it difficult to intercept with existing anti-missile shields.

Japan’s first missile would focus on land targets, while the upgraded version would feature claw-shaped payloads, enhanced speeds and firing ranges to attack large surface ships, the ministry said.

China’s DF-17 hypersonic missile featured in the National Day military parade in October. Photo: AP

The defence ministry’s Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Agency is developing a scramjet engine to power the hypersonic missile with Tokyo-based Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

But its range would be limited to about 500km (310 miles) or less to keep within Japan’s “exclusively defence-oriented policy”.

The ministry has also said the HVGP would carry warheads that could penetrate aircraft carrier decks.

It said the missile was being developed for defence of its “remote islands” in the southwest, referring to the Okinawa Islands and surrounding islets including the disputed Senkaku archipelago – known as the Diaoyu Islands in China.
The uninhabited chain of islands in the East China Sea – about 420km (260 miles) from the main island of Okinawa – is claimed by Japan, China and Taiwan.

Beijing seeks boost for armed police, coastguard as tensions rise in South China Sea

The Japanese government bought three of the islands back from private owners in 2012, claiming the move was aimed at easing tensions over the archipelago, but it angered Beijing and sparked demonstrations in China.

Since then, China’s coastguard has conducted regular patrols near the islands, while the navy has also been increasingly active in the area, using the Miyako Strait – an international waterway between Okinawa and Miyako Island – as its gateway to the western Pacific.

Japan earmarked a total of 18.5 billion yen (US$172 million) for hypersonic missile research across its 2018 and 2019 budgets, and it plans to add another 25 billion yen (US$233 million) this year.

Beijing-based military analyst Zhou Chenming said if Japan successfully developed the weapon, it could be a threat to Chinese navy activities in the area and it may have an impact on strategic balance in the region down the track.

But he noted there had been delays in Japan’s previous weapons programmes.

“There are many uncertainties … from Japan’s internal politics to its diplomatic policy changes, as well as military technologies,” he said. “So we will need to keep an eye on how this programme proceeds over the next few years.”

China and Russia are for now the only countries with hypersonic glide missiles in service. Russia’s nuclear-capable Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle went into operation in December. And China became the first country in the world to announce the deployment of a hypersonic weapon when its DF-17 missile featured in the National Day military parade on October 1.
In March, the US tested a common-hypersonic glide body, or C-HGB weapon, which will be nuclear-capable and could be based on land, air or sea. It hopes to complete the first missile in 2022.