China successfully flight tested its new high-speed maneuvering warhead last week, days after Russia carried out its own hypersonic glider test, according to Pentagon officials.
The test of the developmental DF-ZF hypersonic glide vehicle was monitored after launch Friday atop a ballistic missile fired from the Wuzhai missile launch center in central China, said officials familiar with reports of the test.
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The maneuvering glider, traveling at several thousand miles per hour, was tracked by satellites as it flew west along the edge of the atmosphere to an impact area in the western part of the country.
It was the seventh successful flight test of the revolutionary glider, which travels at speeds between 4,000 and 7,000 miles per hour.
U.S. intelligence officials have assessed that China plans to use the glider to deliver nuclear weapons through increasingly sophisticated missile defenses. The DF-ZF also could be used as part of a conventional strategic strike weapon capable of hitting targets around the world within an hour.
Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Bill Urban declined to comment on the latest DF-ZF flight test. "But we do monitor Chinese military modernization carefully," Urban said.
Rep. Randy Forbes (R., Va.), chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on seapower, said China’s hypersonic missile tests are a concern.
"China’s repeated test of a hypersonic glide vehicle demonstrates Beijing is committed to upending both the conventional military and nuclear balance, with grave implications for the stability of Asia," Forbes told the Washington Free Beacon.
Adm. Cecil Haney, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, said Jan. 22 that the new hypersonic glide vehicle is among an array of high-technology missiles and weapons, both nuclear and conventional, being developed and deployed by Beijing.
China "recently conducted its sixth successful test of a hypersonic glide vehicle, and as we saw in September last year, is parading missiles clearly displaying their modernization and capability advancements," Haney said.
China has kept details about the DF-ZF program secret. In March 2015, a Defense Ministry spokesman confirmed one of the hypersonic missile tests after the test was reported in the Free Beacon. The spokesman said the missile test was not aimed at any country and was done for scientific research.
Earlier DF-ZF tests were carried out Nov. 23, Aug. 19, June 7, and on Jan. 9, 2014, Aug. 7, 2014, and Dec. 2, 2014. During at least one test, the maneuvering glider conducted what a defense official said were "extreme maneuvers" at speeds between Mach 5 and Mach 10.
All the tests were first disclosed by the Free Beacon.
Extensive testing and reported successes are indications the new weapon is nearing initial operating capability, although deployment may be years away.
The congressional U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission stated in its most recent annual report that the hypersonic glide vehicle program was "progressing rapidly" and that the new strike weapon could be deployed by 2020.
A powered version also is in development and could be fielded by 2025.
"The very high speeds of these weapons, combined with their maneuverability and ability to travel at lower, radar-evading altitudes, would make them far less vulnerable than existing missiles to current missile defenses," the commission report said.
Li Bingyan, a researcher at China’s National Security Policy Committee, stated in a defense industry journal article published Jan. 27 that hypersonic weapons offer increased speed of attack. "Only by matching the real-time information with the zero-time firepower can one achieve the operational result of destruction upon detection," Li stated.
China also is taking steps to strengthen its underground missile silos and facilities to withstand precision strikes by hypersonic missiles, such as those planned under the Pentagon’s Prompt Global Strike program.
The latest Chinese hypersonic glide vehicle test was conducted three days after Russia carried out a flight test of its experimental hypersonic glide vehicle. That glider test involved the launch of an SS-19 ballistic missile fired from a missile base in eastern Russia.
The two tests highlight what many analysts have called a new hypersonic arms race among China, Russia, and the United States. India also is working on hypersonic arms.
As radar, sensors, and missile interceptors used to counter missile threats increase in capability, hypersonic maneuvering missiles are viewed as a technological leap in strike capabilities to overcome them, analysts say.
Mark Schneider, a former Pentagon strategic forces specialist, said the new Chinese hypersonic glider is a serious threat.
"In testimony before the congressional China commission, an Air Force intelligence analyst revealed that it is nuclear armed although there could also be a conventional version," Schneider said.
"The Chinese probably see this as one of their ‘assassin’s mace’ weapons which are designed to defeat the U.S."
According to Schneider, a National Academy of Science study concluded that hypersonic speed was the equivalent very high levels of radar-evading stealth features against air and missile defenses.
"Hypersonic speed also gets you to the target very fast which may be decisive in dealing with mobile targets," he said.
Retired Navy Capt. Jim Fanell, a former Pacific Fleet intelligence director, said the latest flight test of the DF-ZF represents another demonstration of China’s commitment to aggressively develop asymmetric power projection capabilities and a weapon that could undermine U.S. missile defenses.
"The threat of hypersonic missile attack not only impacts conventional warfare scenarios like we are seeing develop in the South and East China Sea, but it also puts U.S. nuclear defense strategies at risk as well," Fanell said.
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin told the newspaper Kommersant in October 2012 that the nation that masters hypersonic weapons first would revolutionize warfare. He compared the strategic significance of the high-speed weapons to development of the first atomic bombs.
By contrast, the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency is doing little to deal with the emerging hypersonic missile threat.
Vice Adm. James Syring, the agency director, told a Senate hearing April 13 that two countries he did not name have created major worries about the growing hypersonic missile threat.
Syring said for future missile threats, his agency is looking at upgraded Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, missile defenses.
Yet despite its $7.5 billion budget for fiscal 2017, the agency has not funded any direct programs to counter hypersonic arms. In the current budget, $23 million was requested for a low-powered laser capable of targeting hypersonic missiles, Syring told a House hearing.
The first test of the laser, however, is not planned until 2021, after China is expected to field its first DF-ZF.
Compared to China’s seven tests, the April 19 hypersonic missile test was the second known test of Moscow’s new high-speed glider.
Stephen Welby, assistant defense secretary for research and engineering, said the Pentagon is increasing investment in hypersonic weapons by 50 percent. The increase is intended to "take those systems from being technology demonstrators to being no-kidding weapons that we could actually think about deploying with our force," Welby told a Senate hearing April 12.
U.S. hypersonic arms are part of a Pentagon strategy to use highly-advanced technology to enhance U.S. strategic military advantages. Other technologies include robotics, biotech, cyber defenses, and electronic warfare weapons.
An Army hypersonic missile blew up shortly after launch in August 2014.
Other U.S. hypersonic weapons include a missile-launched glider and a scramjet-powered strike vehicle.