Is Russia helping China build hypersonic weapons?

As the U.S. ramps up its military presence in Asia, Beijing is increasingly interested in Moscow’s hypersonic glide developments.
Nuclear explosion
Russia’s calculations might shape China’s decisions on its own hypersonic glide vehicle programme. Source: Global Look Press

The race to build the world’s fastest nuclear delivery system – the hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) – has gained steam. While the United States is clearly in the lead, Russia and China aren’t too far behind, with reports suggesting that Moscow – in a reprise of the friendly 1950s – is influencing Beijing’s HGV programme.

In a new study titled ‘Factoring Russia into the US-Chinese Equation on Hypersonic Glide Vehicles’, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) says Russia is a factor that is shaping Chinese hypersonic research.

In the backdrop of the growing intersection between China’s and Russia’s strategic postures and threat perceptions – particularly in the Asia-Pacific – it is possible that there is some correlation between their hypersonic programmes.

According to SIPRI, two signs point to a Russia-China nexus. One, there are as many as 872 Chinese-language texts on HGVs that mention Russia, constituting 52 per cent of the total number of Chinese articles and papers on hypersonic glide. Secondly, China’s flight test of its DF-ZF hypersonic glide system in April 2016 occurred just days after Russia carried out its own test.

“This is more than mere coincidence. A review of more than a decade of Chinese writing on hypersonic and boost-glide technologies reveals growing interest in and research on Russia’s hypersonic glide vehicle programme,” says the SIPRI report.

“Combining this trend with both countries’ shared concerns over U.S. missile defences suggests that it is time to start factoring in how Russia’s calculations on its own prompt global strike programme might shape China’s decisions on future nuclear and conventional payloads, targets and the range of its own HGV.”

Professor He Qisong, a defence policy specialist at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, agrees that Russia’s calculations might shape China’s decisions on the targets and range of its own hypersonic glide vehicle programme.

“The hypersonic tests by China and Russia are aimed at causing a threat to the U.S., which plans to set up a missile defence system in South Korea,” he told the South China Morning Post.

“China has no other choice, especially as the U.S. has taken a series of provocative moves to get involved in China’s territorial disputes with other Asian countries in the South China Sea,” Li said. “The (HGV) is so far one of the offset weapons owned by China that could break the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system.”

Need for nexus

Unlike ballistic missiles that travel in a parabolic – and predictable – path to the target, HGVs glide through the stratosphere after they are released from their missile boosters. The glide phase allows HGVs to accelerate to speeds of 11,000 kph or higher and manoeuvre aerodynamically to evade interception.

HGVs are highly destabilising weapons because unlike intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMS) that could take up to 30 minutes to reach their targets on the other side of the world, hypersonic vehicles could do the rendezvous in a fraction of that time. This gives the other side very little warning time. For instance, if there is a false alarm, one is faced with the dilemma of launch or die.

The U.S. is currently the leader in space-based weapons technology. Its hypersonic glide programme is intended as a key component of its Conventional Prompt Global Strike (CPGS) system, which aims to hit any target on the globe in less than 60 minutes.

While currently, there may not be more than basic academic or theoretic collaboration in hypersonic systems between Russia and China, America’s actions are driving the two countries closer. For instance, the first elements of a THAAD battery to be deployed in South Korea arrived at the Osan air base on Mar. 8, 2017.

According to Lt-General Viktor Poznikhir of the Russian military’s General Staff, the view in Russia and China are veering around to the view this new breed of weapons could provide the U.S. with the power to launch a decapitating first strike on them while also deflecting Russian and Chinese missiles.

Poznikhir said both Moscow and Beijing have begun preparing countermeasures against the U.S. These included drills held in 2016 to fend off missile strikes under the protection of a missile defense system near their borders. Both countries will conduct a similar exercise in 2017.

China’s changing posture

The defining nature of the Chinese nuclear deterrent has been defensive. Currently, Beijing keeps most of its ICBMs in silos while the nuclear warheads are “de-mated”— meaning that the warheads are kept separate from their fissile cores and their delivery systems. This is done in order to avoid setting off alarm bells in the Pentagon and entering a wasteful missile race with the U.S.

But China is changing tack. For instance, it was believed that its hypersonic glide weapons would be mounted on the carrier-killer DF-21D missiles as a form of A2AD (anti-access, area denial) system. It now appears Beijing is emulating the stated Russian posture that Moscow should have the capability to launch a first-strike on targets in the U.S.

SIPRI explains: “However, if the ultimate goal of China’s hypersonic glide systems is more in line with that of Russia and targeted on defeating U.S. missile defences, this suggests a nuclear payload. This latter trend could alter not only how ‘rapid response’ and ‘active defence’ are defined, but also China’s postural bedrock of no first use. This bedrock is being eroded by the very systems identified in the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review as the USA’s deterrent against China and Russia, namely missile defence and prompt global strike.”

There is also an emerging similarity between the force structures of the two countries. China has renamed its Second Artillery Corps as the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force, which is now thought to be on an equal footing with the all-powerful People’s Liberation Army. This name change and restructuring mirror Russia’s own Strategic Rocket Force, which is the most prestigious of all the military forces commanded by the Kremlin.

Nuclear weapons are at the core of the Russian and Chinese perceptions of power. U.S. advances in HGVs have the potential to create a window of vulnerability that places Moscow and Beijing’s arsenals as well as command, control and communication systems at risk. In this backdrop a convergence of interests between the two in the hypersonic sector cannot be ruled out.

Rakesh Krishnan Simha is a New Zealand-based journalist and foreign affairs analyst, with a special interest in defence and military history. He is on the advisory board of Modern Diplomacy, a Europe-based foreign affairs portal. He tweets at @byrakeshsimha. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of RBTH.

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