High Speed Threat

Pentagon intelligence official says Chinese hypersonic weapon poses major challenge
Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) sailor / AP

Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) sailor / AP


China’s new high-speed maneuvering warhead is a “great concern” because it appears designed for use with both nuclear and conventional Chinese military forces, a Pentagon intelligence official said Thursday.

Lee Fuell, a technical intelligence specialist with the Air Force National Air and Space Intelligence Center, said during a congressional China commission hearing the recently tested hypersonic glide vehicle “is basically a ballistic missile-launched system that gets the target—or gets the payload fast and high, pitches over, dives to hypersonic speed, and then basically just glides to the target.”

“At this point, we think that’s associated with their nuclear deterrent forces,” Fuell said. “Of great concern would be if they were to apply the same technology and capability with a conventional warhead or even just without a warhead because of the kinetic energy that it has.”

Combined with medium-range ballistic missiles “hypersonic vehicles of any kind—whether they’re glide vehicles or cruise missiles—are extremely difficult to defend against because just the time is so compressed between initial detection, being able to get a track, being able to get a fire control solution,” Fuell said.

The ultra high speeds make the maneuvering missiles difficult to counter with missile defense interceptors, he added.

“If that’s combined with more traditional ballistic missile attacks forcing a target to defend against very high aspect warheads coming in this way at the same time they have to defend against low altitude, very high speed targets coming in this way, it makes the defense problems orders of magnitude better,” he said.

The Washington Free Beacon first disclosed the test of an experimental hypersonic glide vehicle on Jan. 9. The vehicle appears to be an unpowered maneuvering vehicle that is lofted to near space and then is guided to its target at speeds of up to Mach 10 or nearly 8,000 miles per hour.

Chinese military commentators said the vehicle is planned for use in potential attacks against aircraft carriers at sea.

Fuell’s comments expressing concerns about the hypersonic threat contrast with those of Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, who said last week that he was not particularly concerned by the Chinese hypersonic weapon. Locklear later acknowledged to reporters that the high-speed weapon would be a factor in “the calculation of how we’re going to maintain a peaceful security environment in the future.”

Commission member Larry Wortzel, who asked Fuell about the hypersonic weapon, said China is developing the high-speed vehicle as an outgrowth of its anti-ship ballistic missile, the DF-21D.

“It’s a big deal,” Wortzel said in an interview.

Wortzel said that unless the U.S. military develops directed energy weapons, including lasers and pulsed rail guns “we don’t have a counter” to the hypersonic missile threat.

“It really forces us further away from China’s coasts,” he said.

In a prepared statement for the hearing, Fuell said China is developing a range of systems designed to counter ballistic missile defenses, including maneuverable reentry vehicles, or MaRVs, and multiple independently-targetable reentry vehicles, or MIRVs. The hypersonic glide vehicle is considered a maneuvering re-entry vehicle.

Other anti-anti-missile systems include decoys, chaff, jamming, thermal shielding, and anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, he said.

“Together with the increased mobility and survivability of the new generation of missiles, these technologies and training enhancements strengthen China’s nuclear force and enhance its strategic strike capabilities,” Fuell said.

New long-range mobile missiles and China’s beginning of strategic missile submarine patrols are expected to give the Chinese military more sophisticated command and control systems.

On China’s multiple warhead missiles, Fuell said the additional warheads will bolster the capability of its strategic nuclear forces.

“MIRVs provide operational flexibility that a single warhead does not,” he said. “Specifically, they enable more efficient targeting, allowing more targets to be hit with fewer missiles, more missiles to be employed per target, or a larger reserve of weapons held against contingency.”

China is expected to use its MIRVs to be able to hit more targets and allow a greater number of weapons to be held in reserve.

He did not say whether China has deployed multiple warheads only that it appears to be preparing to do so in the future.

The use of multiple warheads is likely to renew debate within U.S. intelligence circles about the number of China’s nuclear warheads. U.S. intelligence agencies claim China has around 200 to 300 warheads.

However, outside analysts insist that, based on the number of strategic missiles and the estimated large amount of fissile material produced by China, Beijing’s strategic warhead stockpile is far larger, perhaps between 600 and 1,000 warheads.

Fuell testified that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is steadily building up both ballistic and cruise missiles that are increasing in range and precision.

“PLA ballistic and cruise missile development is progressing at a steady pace,” he said in prepared remarked. “The PLA is expanding its conventional medium range ballistic missiles to increase the range at which it can conduct precision strikes against land targets and naval ships, including aircraft carriers, operating far from China’s shores out to the first island chain.”

Conventional intermediate-range missiles, like the maneuvering DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile is also being developed and will “increase [China’s] capability for near-precision strike out to the second island chain” – hundreds of miles from Chinese coasts.

China is also building long-range air- and ground-launched cruise missiles, he said.

“In the sense that China is developing a large number of new precision guided weapons, whereas 10 years ago they had very few, there has been an acceleration in modernization,” Fuell said.

“New precision guided munitions and conventional missiles continue to emerge and will continue for the foreseeable future as Chinese investment in these technologies remains high.”

Land-attack cruise missiles (LACM) will be combined with ballistic missile strikes in combat, Fuell said. The weapons combine the capability of hitting targets at long distance with high accuracy, he said.

“These weapons are likely to reduce the burden on ballistic missile forces, as well as creating somewhat safer strike opportunities for Chinese aircrew, allowing them to engage from much longer distances and/or from advantageous locations of their own choosing,” Fuell said. “This in turn will complicate their adversaries’ air and missile defense problem.”

By combining attacks with both cruise and ballistic missiles, the Chinese will be able to hit a range of targets while making it more difficult for missile defenses, he said.

On China’s naval forces, Jesse L. Karotkin, senior intelligence officer for China with the Office of Naval Intelligence, said China’s navy is expanding from a coastal force to a modern, high-tech force, with an aircraft carrier, large numbers of submarines, and advanced warships.

The new Chinese navy is preparing for a conflict with Taiwan and the enforcement of its broad maritime claims.

The PLA Navy “currently possesses approximately 77 principal surface combatants, more than 60 submarines, 55 medium and large amphibious ships, and roughly 85 missile-equipped small combatants,” Karotkin said.

Last year over 50 naval ships were laid down, launched, or commissioned and a similar number is expected for this year.

“Major qualitative improvements are occurring within naval aviation and the submarine force, which are increasingly capable of striking targets hundreds of miles from the Chinese mainland,” he said.

In particular, anti-ship cruise missiles and China’s DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile “will allow China to significantly expand its ‘counter-intervention’ capability further into the Philippine Sea and South China Sea over the next decade,” he said.

“Many of these capabilities are designed specifically to deter or prevent U.S. military intervention in the region.”

China is also building up its naval aviation forces and has deployed armed drones, he said.

China’s aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, is still being developed and has limited capabilities, Karotkin said.

“The Liaoning is suited for fleet air defense missions, rather than U.S.-style, long range power projection,” he said.

China’s most modern submarine is the Yuan class attack submarine. Eight of the submarines, which are equipped with an advanced and quiet air-independent power propulsion, are currently deployed and up to 12 more are being built.

Its nuclear submarines include three JIN-class missile submarines that will begin operational deployments this year. They are armed with JL-2 submarine-launched missiles.

“With a range in excess of 4,000 nautical miles (4,600 miles), the JL-2 submarine launched ballistic missile, will enable the JIN to strike Hawaii, Alaska, and possibly western portions of [the continental United States] from East Asian waters,” he said, noting that a total of five submarines are planned.

Chinese military drones (UAV) include several strike and intelligence aircraft.

“For well over a decade, China has actively pursued UAV technology and they are emerging among the worldwide leaders in UAV development,” Karotkin said. “China’s latest achievement was the unveiling of their first prototype unmanned combat aerial vehicle, the Lijan, which features a blended-wing design as well as low observable technologies.”

Karotkin warned that China intends to settle its several maritime disputes through diplomatic means but is preparing to use force in the future.

“In the event of a crisis, the PLA [Navy] has a variety of options to defend its claimed territorial sovereignty and maritime interests,” he said. “The PLA [Navy] could lead an amphibious campaign to seize key disputed island features, or conduct blockade or [sea lanes of communication] interdiction campaigns to secure strategic operating areas.”

Rick Fisher, a China military affairs specialist, said the testimony by the two intelligence officials was significant.

“It seems that the Obama administration is turning a corner on its willingness to disclose China’s military buildup,” Fisher said.

“Following on Undersecretary of Defense Frank Kendall’s stark warning on Monday that China could overtake U.S. military technology in five years, both the Office of Naval Intelligence and the Air Force’s National Air and Space Intelligence Center have provided their most detailed assessments of China’s rapidly improving naval and air power,” he said.

“It is this level of detail that should also be reflected in the Pentagon’s annual report to the Congress on PLA modernization.”