China’s recent deployment of three types of hypersonic missiles poses a serious threat to Taiwan’s defenses and U.S. forces in the region. If these turn out to be as accurate as they are fast, one such missile could — for instance — take out Taiwan’s $1.4 billion early-warning radar situated on a mountain in northern Taiwan, only minutes after being launched in China.
Taiwan does of course have multiple air-defense missiles and radar-aimed autocannons to protect this vital and large PAVE PAWS-type radar installation, and it would be interesting to see how effective these defensive systems would be at stopping China’s hypersonic missiles. The big problem with hypersonic missiles is that they move so fast that they give very little reaction time, and they can maneuver to change direction, which makes it very hard for current defensive projectiles to get into position for an intercept kill.
To be called a “hypersonic” missile, the weapon must be able to move at at least five times the speed of sound (Mach 5) while also being able to maneuver. The ability to maneuver differentiates it from ballistic missiles like nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that can fly at over Mach 20 while in space, but follow a simple trajectory that can be calculated from tracking data — allowing the opponent to intercept the warhead as it falls back into the Earth’s atmosphere.
Modern hypersonic missiles can fly at speeds of more than Mach 20 (25,000 kilometers per hour), so the fact that they can also change direction makes it very hard to calculate where a missile will be once an intercept missile arrives at the projected intercept point. Any missile designed to intercept these missiles will have to be faster than most current air-defense missiles, while also being able to maneuver more sharply and calculate faster.
Russia currently has the most experience with deploying these weapons, and Moscow claims to have three flagship hypersonic systems. The first of these is the Avangard, which it calls an “intercontinental hypersonic glide vehicle.” This missile uses the large booster rocket of an ICBM to power it to supersonic speeds and an altitude of 100 kilometers, where the glide vehicle separates. Russia claims the glide vehicle can be fitted with a large nuclear or conventional warhead and is designed to maneuver while gliding at over Mach 20 — even as it glides back into the lower, more dense layers of Earth’s atmosphere.
Russia says the Avangarde glide vehicle can fly more than 6,000 kilometers, but apart from some inconclusive Russian propaganda videos not much is publicly known about the glide vehicle’s true capabilities.
The Kh-47 Kinzhal is a more well-known Russian hypersonic missile. It is basically a ballistic missile with maneuvering capabilities that is dropped from a bomber plane before it ignites and accelerates to Mach 10, according to Russian officials. The Russian Ministry of Defense claimed it used a Kinzhal missile against a Ukrainian target on March 10, 2022.
The most publicized Russian hypersonic weapon is the 3M22 Zircon, which is built around a “scramjet” engine. The scramjet gets its name from being a “supersonic combustion ramjet” — meaning that air is forced into its combustion chamber at supersonic speeds and extremely high pressure. The scramjet is basically a more extreme version of the ramjet, which uses the speed of the vehicle to compress air that is then mixed with fuel vapor and combusted. This differs from a normal jet engine, which uses fast-spinning fan blades to compress the air. While air flows through a ramjet at subsonic speeds, air flows through a scramjet at supersonic speeds. Ramjet vehicles operate at speeds of Mach 3 to Mach 6, while scramjet vehicles can reach speeds of over Mach 15.
Unlike with ramjets, the scramjet missile must first be accelerated to supersonic speed in order to ignite the scramjet. The scramjet combustion chamber is optimized for a specific altitude and air density, so scramjet missiles like the Zircon would favor a fixed altitude during the majority of the trajectory. Russia says the Zircon scramjet missile can reach Mach 8 and has a range of up to 1,000 kilometers. Test launches from Russian warships and submarines started in 2021, and the missile is scheduled to enter into service this year.
China’s three hypersonic missiles consist of two ballistic missiles with warheads that can maneuver — the DF-21 and DF-26 — and one ballistic missile fitted with a hypersonic glide vehicle, the DF-17.
The DF-21D and DF-26B missiles are standard ballistic missiles that are boosted into space, where the low friction allows them to reach speeds of around Mach 10. What makes them more special than regular ballistic missiles is that their warheads can maneuver as they fall back to Earth. China claims these warheads cannot just maneuver, they can also target and track moving warships as they fall down to Earth, which is why these two ballistic missiles have been dubbed “carrier killer” missiles.
These two missiles can hit targets as far away as 3,000 kilometers, making them capable of hitting U.S. bases on Guam Island when fired from the Chinese mainland. China has published illustrations showing DF-21 missiles slung under its H-6N strategic bomber, suggesting that the missile can be launched from airplanes, which would greatly increase its range. Recent photos show what looks like a version of the DF-21 slung under just such a bomber.
The DF-17 also uses a standard ballistic booster rocket to get its warhead going, but it differs in that its warhead is encapsulated inside a hypersonic glide vehicle. This vehicle detaches from the booster and then glides at speeds of up to Mach 10 to targets as far away as 1,700 kilometers. China hinted that it plans to adapt this missile to also be launched from an H-6N bomber. A video posted online in October 2020 seemed to show a DF-17 slung under an H-6N.
The good news for China’s opponents is that these three hypersonic missiles first have to get boosted to high altitudes by huge rockets, before detaching and striking down. This phase of the missile’s flight takes more time and therefore gives the opponent more time to prepare its defenses. However, while the DF-21D and DF-26B warheads can maneuver over a small area as they slam down, the DF-17 glider can maneuver over much larger areas. It is therefore a lot easier to predict the DF-21D and DF-26B’s actual target when they are launched, than it is to predict where the DF-17 would end up striking.