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By Kris Osborn - President & Editor-In-Chief, Warrior Maven

Video Above: Hypersonic Weapons

A new Pentagon report on China says the country is developing dual-use hypersonic weapons, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles able to attack as both conventional and nuclear strikes.

China has recently successfully tested its DF-17 hypersonic glide vehicle, according to DoD’s 2021 “Report on Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China”

DF-17 Hypersonic Glide Vehicle

“The DF-17 passed several tests successfully and is deployed operationally. While the DF-17 is primarily a conventional platform, it may be equipped with nuclear warheads,” the Pentagon China report states. The report also says that the DF-17 is intended to attack foreign military bases and fleets in the Western Pacific. This would suggest that its primary use is likely to be conventional, yet a nuclear-armed hypersonic glide vehicle would introduce a paradigm-changing threat for U.S. and allied forces in the Pacific. 

DF-17

DF-17 on parade in Beijing, October 1 2019. Photo: PLA

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A nuclear weapon used regionally within the Pacific could be a “lower-yield” weapon and operate with an ability to strike quickly as it would not have to travel between continents. An attack weapon traveling at hypersonic speeds within the Pacific region seems nearly impossible to defend. Commanders within the Pacific region would have little or no time with which to track an approaching hypersonic attack and either try to intercept it or launch a counterattack. 

Essentially, catastrophic nuclear damage could be inflicted at truly unprecedented speeds, something which greatly compounds the threat equation for U.S. forces in the Pacific. While the U.S. does have some Patriot Missiles and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptors, they simply might not be fast enough to stay on track targeting a hypersonic glide vehicle.

The well known DF-26 anti-ship missile is also slated to be nuclear-capable, the Pentagon report also said. This weapon has gained notoriety and much media attention for being nicknamed a “carrier killer” weapon. This is because the missiles are reported to operate with an ability to travel as far as 2,000 miles to hit a U.S. Navy carrier operating at safe standoff distances from the shore.

“The multi-role DF-26 is designed to rapidly swap conventional and nuclear warheads and is capable of conducting precision land-attack and anti-ship strikes in the Western Pacific, the Indian Ocean, and the South China Sea from mainland China,” the Pentagon report on China states.

A companion Chinese weapon, called the DF-21D, can also reach long distances in the range of 1,000 miles against moving ship targets at sea such as carriers and other large U.S. Navy warships.

All of these weapons certainly reinforce a point made in the Pentagon report which is that China also intends to overcome and destroy the U.S. Navy ballistic missile defenses. A hypersonic glide vehicle or long-range anti-ship missile would clearly introduce the possibility that ship-based Aegis radar systems could be attacked, jammed or overwhelmed by Chinese attacks.

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.