Russia’s repeated use of advanced hypersonic missiles as part of its bombardment of Ukraine may be getting the bulk of the West’s attention, but United States defense officials say it is China that has the world’s leading hypersonic arsenal.
“While both China and Russia have conducted numerous successful tests of hypersonic weapons and have likely fielded operational systems, China is leading Russia in both supporting infrastructure and numbers of systems,” the Defense Intelligence Agency’s chief scientist for science and technology told U.S. lawmakers Friday.
“Over the past two decades, China has dramatically advanced its development of conventional and nuclear-armed hypersonic missile technologies and capabilities through intense and focused investment, development, testing and deployment,” said the DIA’s Paul Freisthler, testifying in front of the House Armed Services Committee.
Unlike ballistic missiles, which fly at hypersonic speeds but travel along a set trajectory, hypersonic weapons are highly maneuverable despite flying at Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound.
According to U.S. defense officials, that high-speed maneuverability makes hypersonic weapons especially difficult to detect and, therefore, difficult to stop.
According to the DIA and information gathered by the Congressional Research Service, China operates two research sites for hypersonic weapons, with at least 21 wind tunnels. Some of the wind tunnels can test vehicles flying at speeds of up to Mach 12.
China’s hypersonic arsenal includes the DF-17, a medium-range ballistic missile with a hypersonic glide vehicle that has a range of 1,600 kilometers.
It also has the DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile, which also carries a hypersonic glide vehicle. During a test of the system in July 2021, the hypersonic weapon circumnavigated the globe, prompting a top U.S. defense official to compare the incident to the start of the original space race in the 1950s.
Beijing also has the DF-ZF hypersonic glide vehicle, with a range of close to 2,000 kilometers, and the Starry Sky-2, a nuclear capable hypersonic prototype.
Russia’s missile attack against Ukraine on Friday included about six of Moscow’s hypersonic Kinzhal missiles. The Kinzhal travels at speeds of up to Mach 10 and has a range of about 2,000 kilometers.
Russia also has the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle, which it claims can travel at speeds of more than Mach 20 with a range of more than 10,000 kilometers, and the ship-launched Zircon hypersonic missile, with a top speed of Mach 8 and a range of 1,000 kilometers.
The DIA’s Freisthler said Friday that Moscow is also developing an air-launched hypersonic missile (the Kh-95) and has announced plans to place a hypersonic glide vehicle on its Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile.
The U.S. military has been developing a range of hypersonic weapons, all of which are still in testing or development. Officials have said that, unlike China and Russia, Washington has no plans to arm any of its hypersonic weapons with a nuclear warhead.