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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Fractional Orbital Hypersonic Glide Vehicle

Demetri Sevastopulo and Kathrin Hille reported 16 October 2021 in the Financial Times that "China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile in August that circled the globe before speeding towards its target... The missile missed its target by about two-dozen miles... China generally announces the launch of Long March rockets ... there was no announcement of a 78th launch" of the Long March 2C rocket [with a LEO payload of 2,000 kg] — the type used to launch the hypersonic glide vehicle into orbit.

Michael Gallagher, a Republican member of the House armed services committee, told FT “The People’s Liberation Army now has an increasingly credible capability to undermine our missile defences and threaten the American homeland with both conventional and nuclear strikes... Even more disturbing is the fact that American technology has contributed to the PLA’s hypersonic missile program.

"We know from a recent Washington Post report that Phytium uses US-derived technology to power a military supercomputer that models hypersonic flight. While the Biden administration rightly placed Phytium on the Commerce Department’s Entity List, it has not applied the Foreign Direct Product Rule that was successfully used to counter Huawei. As a result, US-derived technology produced by TSMC still enables Phytium’s malign work."

Not everyone found the FT account convincing. “There’s nothing we know from reliable sources,” Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard astronomer who tracks global space launches, told Bill Broad. “Every aspect of this story has question marks,” he added. David Wright, a physicist at MIT, said that some eements of the story were alarmist. “Any country that can put something into space could do this,” he said. “And we certainly should not be surprised that China could do this given the sophistication of its space program.”

China’s first successful flight test 03 August 2018 of the Sky Star 2 [there does not appear to be a Xingkong-1] rocket, made significant achievements in the manufacture of self-developed hypersonic weapons. But this airbreathing vehicle was much much smaller than whatever was tested in August 2021, operated at much slower speeds [just Mach 6], shorter range and lower altitude [only 30 kilometers].

The DF-17, China's hypersonic missile that was first revealed at the National Day military parade on 01 October 2019, might not be the only hypersonic aircraft program China possesses, a report by the state broadcaster suggested. "From the test subjects that were made available to the public, the Xingkong-2 (Starry Sky-2) might use a different flight pattern to the DF-17," said military expert Ma Jun on Military Time, a China Central Television (CCTV) program on military affairs, on 02 December 2019, without further elaboration.

China's 2020 Project 863-706 Shenlong orbital spaceplane test used a CZ-2F [a rather different booster with a LEO payload of 8,400 kg, over four times that of the August 2021 test]. China also tested a reusable spaceplane on 16 July 2021, before the the announced CZ-2C Y77 & Y79 launches on 19 July and 24 August 2021, but details of this test are sparse.

On 07 August 2021, China established a no-fly zone and a no sail zone in a large area in the South China Sea. But there was no other NOTAM for debris. And the remains of the "orbital hypersonic weapon" launch fell into the East China Sea, not the South China Sea. In any event, the question of how Western intelligence could have determined the distance by which the August 2021 test missed its intended target remains unanswered.


There are two separate components in the purported August 2021 test:

  1. an unpowered aerodynamic Hypersonic Glide Vehicle that could exhibit a range of MAneuverable Reentry Vehicle (MaRV) capabilities - MaRV being a technology dating to the 1960s
  2. a Fractional Orbit Bombardment System (FOBS) delivery technique, that the Soviet demonstrated in the 1960s, which allowed missiles or warheads to remain in orbit, for a period of time, before beginning their descent.

Demetri Sevastopulo and Kathrin Hille reported that the test of the advanced space capability " caught US intelligence by surprise.... the test showed that China had made astounding progress on hypersonic weapons and was far more advanced than US officials realised... The test has raised new questions about why the US often underestimated China’s military modernisation. “We have no idea how they did this,” said a fourth person."

Gee whiz !!! These claims are headline grabbing, but make things a bit clearer than the truth. Both MaRV and FOBS have been around for half a century, and are easily within the reach of even the smallest nuclear power.

A Hypersonic Glide Vehicle could exhibit a range of MAneuverable Reentry Vehicle (MaRV) capabilities, including variation of footprint area with trajectory incidence angle, altitude, and lift capability. The footprint area decreases rapidly as altitude decreases due to the exponentially increasing atmospheric drag. Further, the eccentricity of the footprints depends sensitively on the altitude, incidence angle and velocity, ranging from 0.1 to 0.8. Footprint area increases as lift capability of the MARV increases, roughly as the 3/2 power of lift for a trajectory with an incidence angle of 20 degrees.

The maneuvering reentry vehicle presents serious problems to a missile defense system. Because of its maneuver capability, it can generally evade interceptors, at least over a portion of the battlespace. Because of its large maneuver footprint, it forces the defense to search a large volume of the sky to cover all potential attacks. The performance analysis of maneuverable reentry vehicles (MaRV) in terms of its probability of penetration (PoP) against terminal engagement with a ballistic missile defense (BMD) system and in terms of its associate circular error probability (CEP), at impact is a very complex problem.

The Final Report of the Select Committee on U.S. National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns with the Peoples Republic of China [the Cox-Dicks Report], issued May 25, 1999, noted: "The PRC is expected to pursue one or more PENAIDs in connection with its new nuclear missiles. Given the PRC's aggressive opposition to missile defenses, the Select Committee judges that the PRC is collecting information about U.S. missile defense systems in order to help its development of PENAIDS. Another option for countering U.S. missile defenses would be the development of a maneuvering reentry vehicle (MARV). The maneuvering capability could be used to complicate hit-to-kill or conventional warhead ballistic missile defense systems."

The 2015 U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission Report to Congress [November 2015], noted: "China’s progress in developing maneuverable warheads suggests it is also pursuing maneuverable reentry vehicle (MaRV) technology. Because MaRV-equipped warheads are capable of performing preplanned flight maneuvers during reentry, they are more difficult to intercept and better able to penetrate adversary missile defenses. One example of China’s progress in this area is its development of the DF–21D ASBM, which features a maneuverable warhead. The ability of DF–21D sensors and warheads to survive atmospheric reentry remains uncertain, calling into question its MaRV capability in the absence of successful tests against a moving target at sea. Nevertheless, the missile’s deployment suggests the PLA finds some utility in this technology for its missile forces. Some Western analysts and media reports identify reentry maneuverability as a possible attribute of the ongoing DF–41 and DF–26 and reported DF–31B missile programs as well....

"Due to limited public information, high-confidence assessments of China’s hypersonic weapons program are not possible; however, it appears China’s hypersonic weapons program is in its developmental stages and is progressing rapidly. China’s research into hypersonic weapons has likely focused on two types of propulsion: (1) a boost-glide weapon, which like a ballistic missile is launched from a large rocket on a relatively flat trajectory that either never leaves the atmosphere or reenters it quickly, before being released and gliding unpowered to its target; or (2) a ‘‘supersonic combustion ramjet’’ or scramjet engine..."

To enhance the long-range destructive capabilities of nuclear warheads carried aloft by Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM's), several types of delivery systems and warheads were developed by the US and Soviets. The Multiple Independently Targeted Re-entry Vehicle (MIRV) system allowed a single missile to dispatch numerous nuclear warheads (MIRVs), to separate targets, while in flight. The US experimental rocket- powered re-entry vehicle allowed an individual warhead to change its path as it falls. An earlier system, the Soviet-built Fractional Orbit Bombardment System (FOBS), allowed missiles or warheads to remain in orbit, for a short period of time [eg, 90 minutes for one full orbit], before beginning their descent. FOBS gave the Soviet Union the ability to launch a mass attack against the US from any direction rather than just depending on a ballistic pathway arching over the North Pole.

This "orbital hypersonic weapon" will require a large load to enter orbit and re-enter the atmosphere, resulting in low strike efficiency and not particularly powerful actual combat effectiveness. In Russia, the first two UR-100N UTTX / SS-19 STILLETO intercontinental ballistic missiles with a throw weight of 4,350 kg, equipped with the corresponding Avangard nuclear planning block, would be on pilot combat duty in late November 2019. Only two Vanguard regiments, six missiles in silos in each, should enter combat duty in the RF Armed Forces.

It is important to note that while the minimum speed that qualifies as "hypersonic" is Mach 5, this orbital test reached a speed the equivalent of nearly Mach 24. The Chinese missile "orbital hypersonic weapon" first reached the orbit speed and sent the payload into the low-Earth orbit, while the traditional intercontinental missile does not need to reach the orbit speed, which makes this weapon theoretically able to hit any corner of the world. In the penetration mode, this orbital weapon is also equipped with a hypersonic flying body in the atmosphere, so that it can start hypersonic gliding after returning to the atmosphere far away from the defense zone.

This "orbital hypersonic weapon" can indeed have a strong penetration effect on all existing anti-missile and early warning systems in theory. The existing mid-stage anti-missile early warning system is mainly based on calculating ballistic missiles with fixed trajectories. Effectively intercept the maneuvering spacecraft in orbit. After the orbital maneuver is over and the hypersonic glider is reentered, the aerodynamic control can also be used in the atmosphere to maintain the maneuver in the atmosphere, avoiding the use of mid-stage interceptor bombs for interception by the U.S. military, and due to its extremely fast speed increase, it can still greatly shorten the reaction time of its terminal anti-missile.

Two people familiar with the inside story of the test said that in theory, China's hypersonic glide vehicle can take the Antarctic route to attack the target, which will pose a major challenge to the US military. Because most of the existing early warning radars of the US military are deployed in Alaska bases close to the Arctic and in the north of the United States, they can defend against ballistic missiles along the Arctic route, but they lack early warning in the southern hemisphere and the South Pole. Therefore, this weapon can further reduce the US military's early warning time.

China's foreign ministry said the test was conducted in July and not August as reports claimed. At Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian's Regular Press Conference on October 18, 2021, he stated "As we understand, this was a routine test of space vehicle to verify technology of spacecraft's reusability. It is of great significance to reducing the cost of using space vehicle and providing a convenient and cheap way for mankind's two-way transportation in the peaceful use of space. Several companies around the world have conducted similar tests. After separating from the space vehicle before its return, the supporting devices will burn up when it's falling in the atmosphere and the debris will fall into the high seas. China will work with other countries in the world for the peaceful use of space for the benefit of mankind."

"We have concerns about what China is doing on hypersonic," U.S. disarmament ambassador Robert Wood told reporters in Geneva. "We just don't know how we can defend against that type of technology, neither does China or Russia," he said. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Washington was closely watching new Chinese weapons systems but did not comment on the hypersonic launch.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on 18 October 2021 declined to comment on a report claiming that China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile in August. "I'm not going to comment on the specific report," Psaki said when asked if she could confirm the report that China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile this summer that surprised US officials. Psaki reiterated Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's earlier statement about the matter, underscoring US concerns about China's military capabilities it continues to pursue.

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Page last modified: 20-10-2021 16:01:31 ZULU