Development of China’s new-generation hypersonic weapons and aircraft is expected to get a boost with construction of a wind tunnel simulator to test vehicles and missiles at many times the speed of sound – with more such facilities in the pipeline. Recent announcements and tests involving vehicles and spacecraft suggest China has accelerated its hypersonic arms race with the United States as Beijing tries to gain a generation’s edge, according to defence experts. China, the US and Russia have been locked in a hypersonic technology competition. The term hypersonic relates to speeds between Mach 5 and 10, or five to 10 times the speed of sound. Hypersonic weapons glide and travel in a low orbit and are more manoeuvrable than conventional intercontinental ballistic missiles, making them harder to track and destroy by the US’s global missile-defence network. The Aerodynamics Research Institute (ARI), under the state-owned Aviation Industry Corp of China (AVIC), announced last weekend that the FL-64 – a one-metre-class hypersonic aerodynamic wind tunnel – had passed major calibration tests after two years of development. This indicated that it was ready to for testing hypersonic weapons and equipment. Chinese hypersonic test included ‘path-breaking second missile launch’ In a statement on its WeChat account on November 21, AVIC said the FL-64 – at twice the diameter of the institute’s first such facility, FL-63 – could simulate flight speeds from Mach 4 to 8 at an altitude of 48,000 metres (157,480 feet) under a total temperature of 900 Kelvin (626.85 degrees Celsius or 1160 Fahrenheit). The cave-like facility could operate for longer than 30 seconds, AVIC said, adding it could test a range of functions, including “separation and release” of weapons and vehicles from hypersonic aircraft. The news came after state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) reported on August 22 that the powerful JF-22 shock tunnel – dubbed the world’s fastest hypersonic wind tunnel, capable of simulating conditions for vehicles at speeds up to Mach 30 and up to 100,000 metres altitude – was expected to be in use next year. The JF-22 was developed by the country’s mechanics research cradle – the Institute of Mechanics, Chinese Academy of Sciences (IMCAS) – in 2018. The JF-22 will extend test facilities of another IMCAS project, the JF-12 wind tunnel, a testing platform with speeds of up to Mach 9 that started operating in 2012. The active JF-12 wind tunnel has aided ground tests for the country’s most advanced J-20 stealth fighter jet and the DF-17 medium-range hypersonic missile, as well as other aircraft, spacecraft and missiles. “The world [has] now found the answer to why China is able to develop so many hypersonic weapons and launch intensive and specific tests … in recent years,” said Lu Li-shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Naval Academy in Kaohsiung. “Thanks to its efforts … pouring tremendous investment into developing wind tunnels, this became the strong foothold for its hypersonic missiles and new-generation aircraft.” US is ‘years behind’ China on hypersonic weapons, Raytheon head says In its annual report to the US Congress , the Pentagon highlighted US concern over China’s recent advances in hypersonic missile technology, saying they represented a “fundamental change” in the military balance of power – one that forced the US to achieve a similar leap in technological preparedness. US military officials were stunned in the summer when China conducted two hypersonic vehicle tests , including the launch of a globe-circling guided hypersonic missile with a nuclear-capable warhead falling into the South China Sea on July 27, according to the Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal . “Beijing will try all efforts on wind tunnel construction and other weapon projects to strengthen its hypersonic technology superiority,” Lu said. In June last year, CCTV also revealed that AVIC had started operating its FL-62 large-scale transonic wind tunnel, as part of another strategic programme to help deliver the country’s next-generation fighter jet by 2035, the PLA’s deadline to be able to contest US operations throughout the Indo-Pacific region. China’s rapid rate of hypersonic weapon development will definitely trigger another wave of arms rivalry and sharpen ongoing tensions between Beijing and Washington, according to Zhao Tong, a senior fellow with the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy in Beijing. “I have doubts about whether China is able to keep a long-term advantage in hypersonic technology development, while the US has amassed strong technical expertise,” Zhao said. “The US, which feels a strong sense of crisis over China’s achievement in hypersonic weapon technology, has kicked off investment to reboot its hypersonic industry. “China needs to seriously consider whether it will keep up the symmetrical competition with the US, which may cause an unexpected consequence.” On November 19, the Pentagon announced it had selected Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon to research and develop a missile system that could defend the US against a hypersonic weapon attack. The US still leads the world’s wind tunnel projects, with China second but with some specific advantages. AVIC and its subsidiary ARI have built about a dozen tunnels in the past six decades.