The China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics in Beijing, which happens to be part of the State-run China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, announced last week that it had successfully launched the country’s first hypersonic aircraft that could one day play a lead role in the nation’s defense system, reports China’s state-run news site China Daily.
According to the academy, Starry Sky-2, also known as Xingkong-2, is China’s first hypersonic experimental waverider vehicle that was dispatched on its first test flight on August 3 from an undisclosed testing facility in north-western China.
Shaped like a wedge, or an arrow, a waverider aircraft, as the name suggests, has the ability to ride its own shockwaves to counter drag on the vehicle, thereby enabling it to achieve speeds of up to six times the speed of sound, or Mach 6, which translates to 4,563 mph, or 7,344 km/h.
Xingkong-2 was carried atop a multi-stage solid-propellant rocket and after about ten minutes into the launch the waverider separated from its launcher and continued independently on its own steam.
It soon reached Mach 5.5 and maintained the speed for more than 400 seconds before hitting a top speed of Mach 6, reported China Daily.
Xingkong-2 was able to carry out some large-angle maneuvers as well as a series of tests on advanced technologies, including a domestically developed heat-balance thermal protection system.
The hypersonic vehicle then touched down at the designated target zone, completing a mission that was hailed by witnesses as a “huge success,” China Daily reported.
The China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics confirmed that Xingkong-2 was able to provide useful test data and that it was recovered “whole.”
The academy statement said that the test had “laid a solid technological foundation for engineering applications of the waverider design.”
Although still at an embryonic stage, once fully developed, the waverider will be able to carry weapons at hypersonic speeds, defeating any anti-missile defense systems currently in use, as it is designed to switch its trajectory as it screams through the skies.
Zhou Chenming, a Beijing-based military analyst, said that it could take anywhere between three to five years before the waverider technology can be used for weapons development, adding that the hypersonic aircraft would probably be used to deploy conventional warheads rather than nuclear-tipped missiles.
He also said that in addition to delivering weapons systems, other military applications for the cutting-edge technology were also being explored.
“I think there are still three to five years before this technology can be weaponized,” Chenming said.
“As well as being fitted to missiles, it may also have other military applications, which are still being explored,” he added.
Speaking to China’s Global Times, military expert Song Zhongping stated that the success of the experimental flight brings China at par with the United States and Russia, in so far as hypersonic weapons systems are concerned.
Meanwhile, the United States is in the process of developing its own hypersonic weapons systems, including the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon and the Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Air Force announced a one-billion-dollar allocation for the designing and building of a hypersonic missile that could be launched from a warplane.
As recently as June this year, American global aerospace, defense, security and advanced technologies company Lockheed Martin confirmed that it had been awarded a $928-million contract by the U.S. Air Force to develop a Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon (HCSW) – a new weapon system that could be launched from the air.
“Our goal is rapid development and fielding of the HCSW system, and this contract is the first step in achieving that goal,” said John Snyder – Vice President of Air Force Strategic Programs at Lockheed Martin – in a statement.
“Design, development, production, integration and test experts from across Lockheed Martin will partner with the Air Force to achieve early operational capability and deliver the system to our warfighters. We are incredibly proud to be leading this effort,” he said.
As far as the Russians are concerned, President Vladimir Putin claimed in June this year that the Kinzhal hypersonic missile system had successfully achieved Mach 20 speeds.
The Russian president also said that a new hypersonic glide vehicle, the Avangard, which he believes is “absolutely invulnerable to any missile defense system,” would become operational as early as next year, and by 2020, a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile will also become a reality.
Hypersonic flight specialist Thomas Juliano, who is also an assistant professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Notre Dame, says that developing a propulsion system for a vehicle that can withstand hypersonic speeds and the temperatures they generate is no mean feat.
Hence, the design that the Russians have been working on seeks to do away with the need of a propulsion system altogether, relying, instead, on a glider system atop an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, or ICBM.
“Designing a successful propulsion system at Mach 10 or above is extraordinarily challenging,” Juliano said.
“By putting the glider on top of an ICBM, you avoid the need to design a successful hypersonic air-breathing engine,” he added.
The speed with which China is progressing in the hypersonic weapons systems race is fast becoming a cause for worry for the United States, as has been expressed by Steven Walker – Director for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Speaking to Defense One earlier this year, Walker said:
“If you look at some of our peer competitors, China being one, the number of facilities that they’ve built to do hypersonics… surpasses the number we have in this country. It’s quickly surpassing it by 2 or 3 times. It is very clear that China has made this one of their national priorities. We need to do the same.”