China test launches hypersonic weapon using waverider technology

Speed and trajectory make it very difficult for regular antimissile systems to knock out

Aviation open day in Changchun City, northeast Chinas Jilin Province. Military expert Song Zhongping has described the waverider’s maiden flight as a “technological breakthrough”. Photograph:  TPG/Getty Images

Aviation open day in Changchun City, northeast Chinas Jilin Province. Military expert Song Zhongping has described the waverider’s maiden flight as a “technological breakthrough”. Photograph: TPG/Getty Images

 

China claims to have successfully tested a new hypersonic aircraft that could eventually be used to carry warheads at six times the speed of sound, the latest technological advance by the country’s fast-growing military sector.

The aircraft, known as Xingkong-2 or Starry Sky-2, uses an experimental design known as “waverider” for its ability to ride on the shock waves it generates.

Hypersonic missiles are launched into space, and then descend to follow a flight path similar to an airplane.

The first test of the Starry Sky-2 was carried out in an airfield in northwestern China last week, the Beijing-based China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics said in a statement, and the test was a “great success”.

The waverider reached a top speed of Mach 6 – six times the speed of sound, or 7,344km/h, the academy said, and reached an altitude of 30km before landing, intact, in the area designated.

For comparison, a Boeing 747-400ER, which is the fastest commercial airliner, has a top speed of about 1,000km/h.

The US and Russia are also working on developing hypersonic weapons, which are highly manoeuvrable and extremely difficult to intercept, and there are growing fears of an international hypersonic arms race breaking out.

Multistage rocket

The agency said the Starry Sky-2 took off using a multistage rocket, and then separated leaving the aircraft travelling under its own power. It performed extreme turning manoeuvres and maintained velocities above Mach 5.5 (5½ times the speed of sound) for more than 400 seconds, before reaching a top speed of Mach 6.

Speaking to the Global Times newspaper, military expert Song Zhongping described the waverider’s maiden flight as a “technological breakthrough”.

The waverider was expected to undergo more frequent tests, then would be handed over for deployment to the People’s Liberation Army, Mr Song said.

The test is the first time that China has officially confirmed it is carrying out research into waverider technology.

The waverider can eventually be fitted with a nuclear warhead, and the speed and trajectory of the vehicle make it very difficult for conventional antimissile systems to knock out.

Nuclear warheads

While Russia and China are said to be leading the field in developing waveriders that can carry nuclear warheads, the US is further advanced in developing aircraft that can carry conventional payloads.

In June, Russian president Vladimir Putin said his country’s Kinzhal hypersonic missile system had reached speeds of Mach 20, and the US this year allocated $1 billion (€860 million) to develop a hypersonic missile that can launch from a military aircraft.

The technology also has civilian applications. The US aircraft manufacturer Boeing is said to be developing a hypersonic passenger aircraft that could technically fly the 8,300km from Dublin to Beijing in 1½ hours.