This week, China has successfully carried out a fourth test of the WU-14 hypersonic glider vehicle (HGV) that conducted “extreme maneuvers” designed to overcome U.S. missile defense systems, Bill Gertz over at The Washington Free Beacon reports.
According to Gertz, the WU-14 high-speed warhead is “a high-technology strategic weapon capable of delivering nuclear or conventional warheads while traveling on the edge of space.” Additionally he noted that the HGV is “assessed as traveling up to 10 times the speed of sound, or around 7,680 miles per hour.”
What makes this week’s test launch, which occurred at a test facility in western China, different from previous ones that took place last year – on January 9, August 7, and December 2 – is that the WU-14 allegedly performed “extreme maneuvers”, according to intelligence officials that Gertz spoke to.
The W-14 warhead is carried to the boundary between space and Earth’s atmosphere approximately 100km above the ground, by any type of large ballistic missile booster. Once it reaches that height, it begins to glide in a relatively flat trajectory by executing a pull-up maneuver and accelerates to speeds of up to Mach 10.
The gliding phases enables the W-14 HGV not only to maneuver aerodynamically – performing “extreme maneuvers” and evading interception – but also extends the range of the missile “so that the relatively vulnerable mid-course phase of its flight can occur farther from the target and its defenses,” an Aviation Week article explains.
Consequently, unlike conventional reentry vehicles, which descend through the atmosphere on a predictable ballistic trajectory, hypersonic glider vehicles are almost impossible to intercept by conventional missile defense systems, which track incoming objects via satellite sensors and ground and sea radar.
However, as Gertz points out, the W-14 “ threatens to neutralize U.S. strategic missile defenses with the unique capability of flying at ultra high speeds and maneuvering to avoid detection and tracking by radar and missile defense interceptors.” U.S. officials have so far neither denied nor confirmed that the W-14 HGV could potentially penetrate defense systems based on interceptor missiles.
A Popular Science article discusses the possibility of W-14 HGVs being installed on the DF-41 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) currently under development in China. This, the authors note, would provide Beijing for the first time with a precision strike capability to hit any target in the world within an hour.
Nonetheless, “the WU-14 is likely to be carried by DF-21 intermediate range ballistic missiles in the short term,” Popular Science notes. The DF-21 is one China’s notorious “carrier killer” weapons. Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation concurs: “I suspect that the HGV is intended more for anti-ship or other tactical purposes than as a strategic bombardment system against American cities. An HGV might help resolve difficulties of hitting maneuvering targets with a ballistic missile.”
According to some military experts, a DF-21 armed with a WU-14 HGV – rumored to be called the DF-26 – would extend the missile’s range from 2,000 to over 3,000 km (2,485 miles). The development of such an anti-ship HGV, however, could still take up to two decades, Aviation Week states. This is due to a myriad of technical challenges:
Hitting a ship with either a maneuvering or HGV warhead is not simple. The target has to be detected, identified, precisely located and tracked. Data must be passed from sensors to a command system, and perhaps to the missile, for mid-course correction. The missile’s guidance system must be able to find the target within a zone of uncertainty that depends on how far the target can move in the time between location and intercept. The guidance system must resist jamming and discriminate between types of ships, such as carriers and destroyers. The fuse, if there is one, must not be disrupted.
For now, this is good news for the United States Navy which apparently will have difficulties fielding one of the most effective countermeasures to HGVs – directed energy weapons systems – for some time (see: “US Navy’s Deadly New Gun Won’t Be Ready for Some Time”).