(Washington, D.C.) Could a Chinese-fired hypersonic weapon sink or destroy a U.S. aircraft carrier with a single shot, before ship commanders have an opportunity to defend against it?
The exact extent to which the Chinese DF-17 hypersonic missile can do damage, and the state of its progress toward possible operational service, may still remain somewhat unknown. However, saying the U.S. Navy is likely to take the threat very seriously, could probably qualify as an understatement.
Carrier defenses are increasingly layered, multi-domain and equipped with new avenues of protection to include EW, laser interceptors and aerial nodes able to network threat information to surface ships. The question is, just how much could some of these new defensive innovations succeed in finding, tracking and destroying an approaching hypersonic weapon.
An interesting report in The Drive’s Warzone, claims that the DF-17 “carrier killer” can hit speeds of Mach 10, a speed reported to be 7,600 mph. While the DF-17’s guidance system or ultimate range are not specified by the report, The Drive does say that the weapon is capable of “advanced maneuvers,” and posits that a single shot of the weapon could likely disable, sink or destroy a U.S. Ford-class carrier.
Could advanced carrier defenses stop the weapon? Maybe, but any kind of defense would of course first and foremost rely upon an ability to discover, identify, track or simply find the approaching weapon. Is the weapon simply too fast for any integrated ship defense system to perform any kind of functional response? Maybe .. or maybe not.
U.S. Carrier Defenses
Depending upon speed and distance of detection, there are several variables which might offer ship-defenses an opportunity to avoid destruction. Even weapons traveling at Mach 10 will rely upon some kind of guidance system in order to be effective, a factor which introduces the question as to just how precise a weapon moving at that speed could be? That may be unknown, and the fastest weapon of all time, while not useless, is unlikely to accomplish much without advanced guidance and ability to hit moving targets.
The missile will likely emit some kind of electronic signal, at some point in its flight if even its launch point, something which might make it “jammable” or susceptible to some kind of EW defense.
Also, laser-armed ships are no longer a future contingency .. they are here. There are many advantages to lasers, a major one simply being that they are offensive or defensive weapons which travel at the speed of light. Therefore, should a hypersonic missile launch be detected in any capacity, a well-positioned and accurately aimed laser might be able to get there and incinerate or derail the flight path of the DF-17.
This is particularly relevant as a possible interceptor, because even if a hypersonic weapon is seen or found in some capacity at some stage of its flight, any interceptor has to be fast enough to get to it in time prior to impact.
Yet another key area of focus when it comes to hypersonic defense pertains to efforts to disrupt the airflow surrounding the flight path of a hypersonic weapon traveling through space. Due to the aerodynamics and temperatures of hypersonic flight, a disruption in its airflow could derail its flight, according to U.S. military and industry experts tracking this.
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Perhaps most of all, hypersonic weapons generate a massive amount of heat, making proper thermal management a necessary condition of successful flight. Perhaps at launch, during a booster or launch phase or simply traveling through the air, heat sensors might be able to get a track on the weapon. When most people consider the details, threats, risks and damages of being targeted by enemy hypersonic weapons, they tend to regard hypersonic flight as something traveling at five times the speed of sound. What about 30 time the speed of sound? 23,000 miles per hour?
China's Hypersonic Wind Tunnel
Sound crazy? Maybe not, according to a report in the Asia Times which says Britain’s The Sun newspaper is reporting that China has built a hypersonic wind tunnel in Beijing which proponents say could put their military modernization efforts decades in front of the U.S. The paper quotes scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences claiming that the innovation, which involves “simulating” flights at those speeds, puts China as many as 30 years ahead of other great powers.
“Such futuristic aerospace technology could make it possible for super-fast jets to fly anywhere in the world in two hours or less,” the Asia Time writes.
The Asia Time report goes on to cite several of the technologies believed to be responsible for what some are calling a paradigm-shifting breakthrough.
Instead of using mechanical compressors, Beijing uses chemical explosions to generate high speed air flow. “Fuel burns in the JF-22 (hypersonic vehicle) at speeds 100 million times faster than a regular gas stove creating shock waves similar to those experienced by jets at hypervelocity,” the report says.
It may not be clear just how close this may be to any kind of operational status, or even early prototyping as the scientific advances are reported to be in the realm of simulation. However, simulations such as digital engineering, something employed with great effect by the U.S. Air Force, can prove quite accurate when it comes to replicating weapons performance.
As for the potential impact upon combat created by weapons traveling at those speeds, there are likely too many variables to consider. Initially, the question of instant global reach is quite pressing, should it be true that a hypersonic vehicle traveling at 30-times the speed of sound could reach any location on earth within 2 hours or less. Impact Upon Combat of Hypersonic Weapons
That certainly introduces new dynamics to the question of deterrence or counterattack, the most pressing of which may simply be that a country in sole possession of this technology could be positioned to quickly ensure military overmatch.
Essentially, the military advantages afforded by this possibility could easily place a country in a somewhat defining position of superiority, given the extent to which technology of this kind could upend the current status quo or balance of power. Such a possibility would likely mean many things, including an ability to launch weapons in space, conduct missile defense operations or simply remove the need for certain deterrence forces to forward position in close proximity to potential target areas. If anywhere in the world could, in virtually any circumstance, be struck almost instantly, attack forces might not need to operate within specific ranges to hold an area at risk.
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.