This week, the People’s Republic of China successfully conducted a sixth flight test of its DF-ZF (previously known as WU-14) hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV), Bill Gertz of The Washington Free Beacon reports.
The DF-ZF is an ultra-high-speed missile allegedly capable of penetrating U.S. air defense systems based on interceptor missiles.
The launch of the DF-ZF took place at the Wuzhai missile test center in central China’s Shanxi Province. A ballistic missile transported the DF-ZF HGV near the edge of the atmosphere, where it separated from its launcher and then glided to an impact range a few thousands kilometers away in western China, according to The Washington Free Beacon.
“The DF-ZF flight was tracked by U.S. intelligence agencies and flew at speeds beyond Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound,” Gertz notes. Previous tests of the DF-ZF took place on June 7, January 9, and August 7, 2015, and December 2, 2014.
As I noted in my previous piece, the DF-ZF warhead is carried to the boundary between space and Earth’s atmosphere, approximately 100 km above the ground, by a 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 phase enables the HGV not only to maneuver aerodynamically – performing evasive actions and evading interception – but also extends the range of the missile.
Furthermore, I explained:
[U]nlike 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.
It still remains unclear whether the DF-ZF HGV, which allegedly can reach speeds of between Mach 5 and Mach 10, or 6,173 kilometers (3,836 miles) per hour and 12,359 (7,680) miles per hour, will be armed with nuclear or conventional warheads.
“Whether China arms its hypersonic weapons with nuclear or conventional payloads — or both — will provide more information regarding how it intends to incorporate hypersonic weapons into PLA planning and operations,” according to the 2015 U.S.-China Economic and Security Review report. The report also notes that the weapon could be deployed as early as 2020 and would provide China with a global precision strike capability.
The DF-ZF HGV could also be launched atop an anti-ship ballistic missile to target naval assets. For example, a DF-21 armed with a DF-ZF HGV would extend the missile’s range from 2,000 to over 3,000 km (2,485 miles). However, China is likely more than two decades away from fielding such a weapon.