Prominent Western politicians have launched a global discussion about the risks associated with Russia developing hypersonic weapons. Arms control experts are attempting to estimate the potential of these new weapons, but attempts at this stage are hindered by the absence of important technical data and the lack of specialized terminology in this field.
The discussion of the threats posed by hypersonic weapons was triggered by President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin, who in his address to the Federal Assembly on March 1, 2018, described the impressive capabilities of Russia’s new Avangard and Kinzhal strategic missile systems as follows: “The glide vehicle strikes its target like a meteorite, like a fireball, with its surface temperature reaching between 1600 and 2000 degrees Celsius, while remaining completely controllable at the same time.”
Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs of Germany Heiko Maas attempted to take the lead in discussing the destabilizing new technology. In March 2019, he hastily organized the “2019. Capturing Technology. Rethinking Arms Control” international conference in Berlin. In his opening speech, Maas said: “Manoeuvrable missiles travelling at many times the speed of sound barely leave time for considered human responses. The fact that we are not just talking about science fiction here is demonstrated by Russia’s announcement that the first Avangard systems will be entering service this year. I would therefore also like to seize this conference as an opportunity to establish an international missiles dialogue that takes into account both the challenges posed by new technologies and the dangers of their proliferation. The experts gathered here today could form the backbone of this kind of global Missile Dialogue Initiative.”
However, the subsequent discussion at the conference demonstrated that many of the participants were unfamiliar with the topic of hypersonic weapons. Recognized experts on missile control proved unprepared to hold a substantive conversation about hypersonic technology. As a result, the dialogue was reduced to discussing the INF Treaty.
At the end of the conference, the ministers of foreign affairs of Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden signed a political declaration stressing the “need to build a shared understanding of how technologically enhanced military capabilities may change the character of warfare and how this will influence global security.”
In the United States, where hypersonic technology has already been developing at a rapid pace, including as part of the Prompt Global Strike programme, Putin’s announcement was used as a pretext for investing more in the Pentagon’s projects. “We have lost our technical advantage in hypersonics [but] we have not lost the hypersonics fight,” said Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Paul Selva. Meanwhile, Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin, for his part, has identified hypersonics as his top priority and called for an industrial base to be established that could support the development and production of thousands of deterrence hypersonic vehicles.
Mike White, the Pentagon’s assistant director for hypersonics, announced that the department had a three-step plan for the development of hypersonic weapons that involves investing generously in offensive capabilities, then in defensive systems, and finally, at least ten years from now, in reusable airborne hypersonic vehicles. The Pentagon’s spending on hypersonic projects has increased from $201 million in 2018 to $278 million in 2019, and the overall cost of the program is estimated at $2 billion.
China has been no stranger to this “war of words,” with several fantastic reports emanating from the country about “successful tests of hypersonic flight vehicles,” the creation of a material capable of withstanding temperatures of up to 3000 degrees Celsius, and even the development of a universal engine that can accelerate a vehicle from zero to hypersonic flight. Japan has stated its intent to create a High-Speed Gliding Missile, an equivalent of Russia’s Avangard.
Minister of the Armed Forces of France Florence Parly has announced the country’s plans to use the ASN4G supersonic air-to-surface cruise missile as the baseline for the V-MaX supersonic glider that could travel at a speed of over 6000 km/h. The project is being led by ArianeGroup, a joint venture between Airbus and Safran, and the first test flight could take place in late 2021.
In the meantime, the global expert community has yet to come up with a clear scientific definition for the term “hypersonic vehicle.” Hypersonic flight is conventionally understood to mean atmospheric flight at speeds higher than Mach 5, that is, five times the speed of sound. The second important feature of a hypersonic aircraft is its ability to maneuver with the use of aerodynamic forces, rather than merely adjusting the target accuracy. This entails longer atmospheric flight times and greater susceptibility to the destructive factors associated with atmospheric flight.
At present, only a handful of countries are close to creating effective hypersonic weapons. Hypersonic weapons engineers are faced with some very unique technical challenges. To begin with, there is the problem of ensuring controlled and sustained flight in a rarefied atmosphere whose density varies with altitude. Among other things, this creates difficulties for propulsion systems that consume oxygen.
Also, the friction created by the hypersonic airflow around the vehicle’s surface generates a sheath of ionized plasma, with the nose fairing temperature reaching up to 3000 degrees Celsius. Even vehicles made of ultra-heat-resistant alloys or composites lose their shape and original aerodynamic characteristics due to the heating and ablation. For example, the U.S. Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird high-altitude supersonic reconnaissance aircraft would become 10cm longer in flight owing to thermal expansion, and fuel would seep from its seams on landing.
Controlling a hypersonic vehicle from launch to target impact is a separate problem, as the plasma sheath blocks radio signals. Solving this problem requires complex and expensive research. Even US engineers have not yet found a solution to this problem.
Another challenge is linked to the fact that the plasma sheath significantly complicates navigation, which for a strike vehicle must be autonomous, prompt and very accurate. Plasma makes electro-optical and radio-frequency homing impossible. Inertial navigation systems cannot provide the required accuracy at long distances. A solution to this problem has yet to be found.
The traditional types of aviation fuel (jet fuel and methane) are unsuitable at hypersonic speeds. A hypersonic vehicle needs a special kind of fuel. Also, a universal propulsion engine capable of accelerating a vehicle from zero to hypersonic speeds has not yet been created. At present, militaries have to make do with rocket boosters or supersonic aircraft to accelerate vehicles to speeds at which their supersonic combustion ramjet engines can be engaged.
When it comes to the flight mode, there are three different types of hypersonic vehicles. The first type is an unpowered glide vehicle, which rides a ballistic missile to an altitude of approximately 100km, separates, and performs a maneuverable flight in the upper atmospheric layer at speeds between Mach 8 and Mach 28. By skip-gliding along the atmosphere like a skipping stone along the water surface, such a vehicle can increase its flight range by several times. The second type is a scramjet-powered vehicle, which can only fly in the atmosphere because its engine needs oxygen. The third type is a quasi-ballistic or semi-ballistic missile that mainly follows a shallow ballistic trajectory but can also maneuver to evade enemy missile defenses. One example here is the Russian Iskander-M missile, which flies at hypersonic speeds of between 2100 and 2600 m/sec (Mach 6 to Mach 7) at an altitude of 50km.
Experts sometimes use the term “aeroballistic.” However, this definition is not applied to the speed of flight, but rather to the mode of travel: namely, it implies a combined mode of partially traveling along a ballistic trajectory and partially employing aerodynamic control surfaces and jet vanes for steering. An aeroballistic vehicle does not necessarily have to be hypersonic, as the term can also be applied to slower vehicles, although it is now widely used in the context of the hypersonic Kinzhal and Iskander-M missiles.
Hypersonic vehicles have one distinct feature which traditional exo-atmospheric ballistic missiles do not. While most ballistic missiles develop speeds of dozens of Machs (i.e., they also travel at hypersonic speeds), they are not described as hypersonic unless they or their warheads are capable of aerodynamic maneuvering in the atmosphere.
Some ballistic missile warheads are capable of terminal trajectory corrections. They are not classed as hypersonic vehicles, since the purpose of their maneuvering is not to increase the flight range or evade an anti-missile attack, but merely to reduce the circular error probable (CEP).
All hypersonic vehicles can be subdivided into five categories depending on their mission:
- Manned aircraft (the first and so far only example here is the U.S. North American X-15, which set the world airspeed record of Mach 6.72 in 1967)
- Unmanned vehicles (mainly experimental projects such as the Boeing X-43, which reached Mach 9.6 in 2004)
- Scramjet-powered hypersonic missiles (such as the Russian 3M22 Zircon)
- Hypersonic glide vehicles (the Russian Avangard or the U.S. Advanced Hypersonic Weapon)
- Air- or ground-launched spaceplanes (the Soviet Buran and U.S. Space Shuttle vehicles, which reach speeds of Mach 25 upon re-entry).
Military hypersonic vehicles fall into the following three categories:
1. Reconnaissance vehicles
At present, only one purely reconnaissance hypersonic vehicle is known to be under development: the Lockheed Martin SR-72, which can theoretically travel at speeds of up to 7400 km/h. This vehicle is expected to be better at monitoring mobile missile systems than reconnaissance satellites. It could also eventually be equipped to carry a charge for a pinpoint strike.
Another experimental orbital hypersonic vehicle is the Boeing X-37B. Although little is known about its intended mission, it could also serve as a reconnaissance platform.
2. Hypersonic kill vehicles
Scramjet-powered hypersonic cruise missiles that can be launched by an aircraft, a sea-surface ship or a submarine (the Russian 3M22 Zircon or the U.S. X-51A Waverider, which is currently under development) can be used to destroy enemy missile early warning systems, anti-aircraft and anti-missile defenses, airfields, hardened command posts and critical facilities.
Glide vehicles (the Russian Avangard; the U.S. Lockheed Martin Falcon, HIFiRE and HSSW/TBG [High-Speed Strike Weapon/Tactical Boost Glide]; and the Chinese WU-14/DF-ZF) are primarily intended as nuclear strike weapons.
Quasi-ballistic missiles (the Russian Kinzhal and Iskander-M; the Indian Shaurya tactical missile; and the Chinese DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile) are relatively difficult to detect by radar thanks to their shallow trajectory. Their warheads can change trajectory, so enemy missile defenses cannot calculate the exact target, and the warhead’s maneuverability considerably complicates interception.
3. Hypersonic interceptors
These are surface-to-air missiles designed to intercept ballistic missile warheads, normally in their terminal, atmospheric phase of trajectory. The most advanced interceptors can engage ballistic missiles at exo-atmospheric altitudes and even shoot down low-orbit satellites.
To stand a chance of intercepting a ballistic target, an interceptor must not only develop a high speed, but also launch promptly and maneuver actively. U.S. RIM-161 SM-3 Block IIA missiles of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System can travel at speeds of up to Mach 15.25; the Russian S-400 48N6DM missiles have a speed of Mach 7.5, and the future S500 77N6-N1 missiles will be able to reach speeds of up to Mach 21.
Advantages of Hypersonic Missiles
Hypersonic missiles have several obvious advantages over ballistic missiles. First, they follow significantly shallower trajectories, so ground-based radars detect them later into the flight. Second, thanks to their maneuvering, high speed and unpredictable trajectory, the enemy cannot be certain of the hypersonic vehicle’s target, whereas the trajectory of a ballistic missile is currently fairly easy to calculate. Third, ballistic missile interception experiments have been conducted since the 1960s, and there are plenty of reports on successful trial intercepts. However, intercepting a high-speed maneuvering atmospheric target is extremely difficult and is believed to be impossible at present. Also, the mass production of hypersonic vehicles is expected to be cheaper than that of ballistic missiles. Despite the challenges associated with developing scram engines, such jets have virtually no moving parts and their cross-sections represent special configuration tubing. According to analysts at the U.S. company Capital Alpha Partners, “If hypersonic weapons can be produced with unit costs of $2 million, or less, they will impact some of the outyear weapons plans. A weapon that travels at Mach 5, or faster, and that can maneuver will see strong U.S. demand in the later part of this decade.” Finally, the kinetic energy of a hypersonic missile is so high that its release will be enough to destroy certain types of targets even without using a charge. This gives experts reason to state that hypersonic missiles might become an alternative to nuclear weapons in certain situations.
Shortcomings of Hypersonic Missiles
As for the shortcomings of hypersonic missiles, experts point out that they cannot offer high target accuracy because it is almost impossible to fit such a missile with a homing head, and its high speed will result in an increase in targeting error. A hypersonic vehicle is believed to have a CER of between 30 and 50 meters. Furthermore, high-speed missiles will have a large infrared signature due to frictional skin heating, making them easily detectable by IR sensors. Designers will need to find a compromise between the high impact speed and the high probability of standoff detection. Also, a scramjet-powered missile must be initially accelerated to a speed of about Mach 3. This complicates the use of such weapons, which require a rocket booster or a high-speed air-launch platform. Experts believe that, due to a plethora of technological problems, hypersonic weapons currently have a relatively limited effective range (some 1000km for scramjet-powered missiles). However, the veil of secrecy surrounding this type of weaponry provokes rumors and excessive fears, and this destabilizing factor could prompt the enemy to resort to a pre-emptive strike.
Challenges for International Security and Stability
The U.S. expert community has carefully studied the potential of Russian hypersonic weapons in terms of how they could affect the balance of forces and concluded that, in general, they do not pose an existential threat to major nuclear powers. Thus, fitting Avangard missiles with glide vehicles will not increase the size of the Russian nuclear arsenal, nor will it extend the effective range of the missiles, their range of action or their strike speed. The United States and other nuclear powers will still be able to respond to a Russian nuclear attack.
U.S. experts admit that maneuvering hypersonic vehicles are almost impossible to intercept. However, given that the U.S. missile defense system has very limited intercept capabilities when it comes even to Russian ballistic missiles, the introduction of Avangard hypersonic missiles changes little in the nuclear war scenario. For the United States, this is more of a technological challenge, with which both the Pentagon and the White House are fairly unhappy. Dominance in military technology has remained a priority for the United States for decades, ever since the launch of the first Soviet satellite. Therefore, the news of Russia’s hypersonic achievements does not sit well with Washington. At the same time, it has provided the United States with an opportunity to study the possibility of extending missile defense to near space. Megawatt laser weapons are believed to be capable of destroying both ballistic and hypersonic missiles. The current level of U.S. technology already allows for equipping different types of ground transport with lasers generating in excess of 50kW of power, while sea-based lasers can generate over 150kW. Under the current trend, laser power increases tenfold every three years. In this sense, within five years, we can expect U.S. laser technology to reach a level that where the Pentagon may be confident in the possibility of building lasers that are capable of shooting down hypersonic devices. The next step will then be to deploy laser weapons in the Earth’s orbit.
In light of the above, the emergence of hypersonic weapons will introduce a number of destabilizing factors for international security. First, countries possessing such weapons will have an asymmetric advantage over other developing countries. Second, it will trigger the deployment of the space-based laser component of the missile defense system. Third, it will provoke a new global arms race, including with regard to laser weapons, hypersonic anti-missile systems, cyber-weapons, railguns and unmanned delivery platforms for strike weapons. Moreover, for non-nuclear powers, hypersonic missiles may become a serious instrument of deterrence or power projection. It should also be noted that hypersonic missiles could be used in a pre-emptive strike against an enemy whose main weapons are situated within their effective reach (at present, within a radius of up to 1000km). That is, the deployment of hypersonic weapons can be considered as a critical threat to the country’s immediate neighbors. Finally, there are global risks to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). The secret hunt for missile components such as fuel, alloys, electronics and airframe blueprints has never stopped. In the new environment, even those countries that are signatories to the MTCR are interested in obtaining prompt global strike technologies.
The current leaders of hypersonic weapons research are, in addition to Russia, the United States and China.
Despite its ambitious statements, China has not yet rolled out a reliable prototype of a hypersonic vehicle. Chinese engineers have developed the YJ-12 supersonic anti-ship cruise missile, but the country’s military currently only has subsonic ground-based cruise missiles in service. It may be the case that Beijing hopes to leap from subsonic straight to hypersonic, skipping supersonics altogether.
China is believed to be working on at least two hypersonic programs. Since 2014, it has been testing the DF-ZF (dubbed Wu-14 in the United States) hypersonic glide vehicle complete with the DF-17 medium-range ballistic missile for the launch vehicle (eventually to be replaced by the DF-31 missile). The second project, the air-launched CH-AS-X-13 missile, is primarily intended against aircraft carriers. According to a representative of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Mechanics has created a turbine-based combined-cycle engine capable of accelerating a vehicle to Mach 6.
As part of the High Speed Strike Weapon (HSSW) program, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the United States Air Force are working on three hypersonic concepts. The Tactical Boost Glide (TBG) combat vehicle riding a solid-fuel rocket booster, under development by Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, is planned as an equivalent to Russia’s Avangard. The Boeing Hypersonic Air-Breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC) will have a combined-cycle engine (the turbine will accelerate the vehicle to Mach 2, after which the scramjet will further propel it to hypersonic speeds). According to some reports, the vehicle may be reusable. Northrop Grumman Corporation is working to design the combined-cycle Advanced Full Range Engine (AFRE) for HAWC under a contract with DARPA. Finally, the reusable unmanned craft under development as part of the HyRAX project and the XS-1 Experimental Spaceplane program will be used as an inexpensive launch vehicle to insert dual-use satellites into low-Earth orbits.
The HSSW program is aimed at designing and testing a hypersonic strike vehicle by 2020. The key specifications include speeds of Mach 6 to 10, an effective range of over 1000km, a CEP of under 5m and a variety of warhead types (penetrator, HE-fragmentation or cluster).
The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory is looking into the possibility of creating a combined-cycle propulsion system for reusable vehicles, including by way of integrating scramjets with reheated bypass turbojets.
In addition to DARPA, hypersonic weapons are being developed by the United States Army Space and Missile Defense Command in conjunction with the Sandia National Laboratory under the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon project, which calls for the creation of a hypersonic glide vehicle with a precision terminal guidance system.
Russia’s breakthrough in the hypersonic weapons race may have shaken the global balance of forces, but it has not reshaped it. The United States is not far behind Russia technologically, and may even be ahead in certain aspects of hypersonic weapons, including when it comes to making combined-cycle or hybrid propulsion systems for hypersonic vehicles that would allow a reusable reconnaissance/strike vehicle to be created. Nevertheless, the Russian achievements came as an unpleasant surprise for all the leading world powers.
The situation appears different for those nations that do not command massive nuclear arsenals. The Russian example opens a window of opportunities for them. Hypersonic weapons may appear to be an excellent solution for ensuring a decisive military advantage over a technically lacking adversary. Those countries lagging behind in the arms race may perceive hypersonic weapons as a critical and potentially disarming threat to an unfriendly neighbor.
In the art of war, uncertainty often drives progress. As the leading analytical centers are working to collect relevant information and understand the scale of possible threats, politicians and militaries are approving investment in new defense programs. A new item on defense budgets around the world has appeared.
From our partner RIAC
A Glimpse at China’s Nuclear Build-Up
The People’s Republic of China is now the second largest military spender after the United States, and the country has proven that it has the technical capability to develop revolutionary outer space technology, which is often related to military purposes. Nevertheless, China’s armed forces continue to lag behind when it comes to nuclear military technology, as Beijing only has 270 to 350 nuclear warheads, slightly more than the French armed forces.
Thus, China is investing in innovative research on civilian thorium nuclear facilities to become a leader in civilian nuclear, while it is reportedly not investing as much in the military nuclear sector.
This article explores the latest developments concerning “Made in China” nuclear weapons to explain why China’s armed forces are rather sluggish to increase the number of warheads due to the parallel development of other components of the military (e.g. nuclear submarines).
A brief history of Chinese nuclear weapons
China’s first nuclear weapons experiment took place in 1964, followed by its first hydrogen bomb test in 1967. Further development continued well until 1996, when China signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).
In order to do so, China started building uranium enrichment plants in Baotou and Lanzhou as early as 1958, followed by a plutonium facility in Jiuquan and the Lop Nur nuclear test site in 1960. It is no secret the Soviet Union assisted in the early stages of the Chinese programme by sending advisers to the fissile material production facilities, having even agreed to provide a prototype bomb, missiles and related technology in October 1957.
In 1958, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev told Mao that he planned to discuss arms control with the United States and Great Britain, while Beijing was adamantly opposed to Khrushchev’s policy of “peaceful coexistence” after the fall of Stalin. Although Soviet officials assured the Chinese leadership that the country will remain under the Soviet nuclear umbrella, the disagreements widened the emerging Sino-Soviet rift. In June 1959, the two nations formally terminated their military and technological cooperation agreement, and all Soviet assistance to China’s nuclear programme was abruptly terminated by July 1960, with all Soviet technicians withdrawn from the programme.
This brief history of nuclear weapons in China tells us a lot about the current reason for Chinese weak nuclear capabilities, which had to be developed without the support of the USSR since the 1960s. Moreover, the desire for nuclear capabilities is closely related to the conflict with Taiwan and, as such, Beijing does not need to radically increase its capabilities since the island remains a non-nuclear territory to this day. Furthermore, increasing capabilities would worry the United States and Russia, the other two major nuclear powers—and Beijing had no interest in doing so, especially during the Cold War.
China’s nuclear posture and policy
The Chinese approach is focusing on quality over quantity, which explains the low number of warheads to this day. As of today, most nuclear warheads built during the Cold War can be intercepted by anti-missile systems in NATO and Russia as they are relying on outdated technology, which explains Russia’s desire to build the hypersonic glide vehicle such as the “Avangard”.
The same is true for China. As the U.S. strengthens its missile defenses capabilities, China is likely to further modify its nuclear posture to first ensure the credibility of its retaliatory strike force, including deploying hypersonic glide vehicles rather than increasing the number of warheads.
Meanwhile, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has maintained a “low alert level” for its nuclear forces and keeps most of its warheads in a central storage facility in the Qinling Mountain Range, although some are kept in smaller regional storage facilities around the country. Although there are rumors that China has coupled warheads to some of its missiles to increase their availability, we have not seen official sources confirming this. In fact, the latest Pentagon report explicitly states that “China almost certainly retains the majority of its peacetime nuclear force—with separate launchers, missiles, and warheads”.
Both the United States and Russia operate early warning systems to detect nuclear attacks and launch their missiles quickly, and a Chinese early warning system could also potentially be designed to enable a future missile defense system to intercept incoming missiles. The latest Pentagon report indicates that China is developing an HQ-19 mid-course missile defense system that could intercept Intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBMs) and possibly intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBMs), although this would take many more years to develop. In addition, the Chinese government has a long-standing policy of not using nuclear weapons first and not using nuclear capabilities against non-nuclear countries or nuclear-weapon-free zones.
Military nuclear capabilities on land, air and sea
China has continued to field the DF-26, a dual-capable mobile IRBM, and is replacing the older DF-31A road-mobile ICBM launchers with the more maneuverable DF-31AG launcher. It is also in the early stages of commissioning the new DF-41, a road-mobile ICBM that would be capable of carrying multiple independent target re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) like the old DF-5B based on a liquid fuel silo.
At sea, China is adding two more ballistic missile submarines and developing a new type. Additionally, China has recently reassigned a nuclear mission to its bombers and is developing an air-launched ballistic missile to have a nuclear capability.
It is estimated that China has produced a stockpile of about 350 nuclear warheads, of which about 272 are intended to be launched by more than 240 operational land-based ballistic missiles, 48 sea-based ballistic missiles and 20 nuclear gravity bombs assigned to bombers. The remaining 78 warheads are expected to arm additional land- and sea-based missiles that are being installed.
The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force, supervised by General Zhou Yaning (commander) and General Wang Jiasheng (political commissar), is in charge of the ground nuclear forces. Since the Cold War, China is continuing the gradual modernization of its nuclear-capable ground missile force, and it is estimated that the PLA rocket force has about 240 land-based missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Of these, about 150 can strike parts of the United States (Hawaii). The number of ICBMs that can strike the continental United States is smaller: about 90 missiles with some 130 warheads.
These capabilities are easily explained by the fact that land-based missiles have a greater range than sea- and air-based ones, at least until China upgrades its sea-based systems. Thus, land-based missiles increase range and allow targeting of distant nuclear counterparts—the United States, France and the United Kingdom—while ensuring capabilities against the other four nearby nuclear powers: Russia, North Korea, India and Pakistan. It is likely that land-based capabilities will remain a major component until submarine capabilities are expanded. Once submarines are as advanced as those of other nations, then—like the United States, Russia, France and the United Kingdom—China is likely to focus more and more on submarines rather than land-based capabilities.
China has introduced six Jin-class (Type 094) nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), which are based at the Longposan naval base near Yulin on Hainan Island (only four of them are currently operational). The two newest SSBNs, which were handed over to the PLA Navy in April 2020, are said to be variants of the original Type 094 design, known as Type 094A. These boats have a more prominent hump, which has led to a speculation that they could carry up to 16 JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (CSS-N-14), instead of the usual 12. However, satellite images confirm that the new submarines are equipped with 12 launch tubes each.
Each JL-2 is equipped with a single warhead and, possibly, penetration assistance. The JL-2, which is a modified version of the DF-31, is supposed to have a range of about 7,200 km, although U.S. estimates of the range have varied over the years. Such a range would be sufficient to target Alaska, Guam, Hawaii, as well as Russia and India, from waters near China.
Unlike the land-based approach, the nuclear submarine can move around the world, have an unknown destination and a changing position, and it can retaliate up to several months after a nuclear conflict has ended. As such, submarines are now the main component of the French and British nuclear forces, and are vital to the U.S. and Russia. However, this requires advanced technology, which China does not yet have (nor do India and Pakistan). Therefore, the People’s Liberation Army is upgrading its submarine capabilities and technology, which should lead to increased relevance of submarines for nuclear operations in the long term. China’s new-generation Type 096 SSBNs will carry an extended-range SLBM, the JL-3, which, according to unofficial sources, could have a range of over 9,000 km. Chinese media describe the JL-3 as an SLBM “equivalent or similar to the French M51,” pointing out that its diameter has been increased compared to the JL-2 and that it incorporates a carbon-fiber casing, giving it an increased range.
China developed several types of nuclear bombs and used aircraft to carry at least 12 of the nuclear weapons it detonated as part of its nuclear test programme between 1965 and 1979. However, the PLA Air Force’s nuclear mission remained dormant until the 2000s, presumably because its older bomb-equipped aircraft were unlikely to be relevant in a nuclear conflict.
Countries such as France, the United Kingdom, Pakistan and India, are not focusing on long-range bombers, as they are easier to track, they move slowly and they are no major asset compared to submarines and land-based missiles. In this respect, only two nuclear powers—the United States and Russia—are investing in bombers. China wishes to become the third nuclear power and has therefore developed the H-6 bomber, which is technologically advanced enough to compete with its American counterparts Northrop Grumman B-2 “Spirit”, Rockwell B-1 “Lancer” and Boeing B-52 as well as the Russian Tupolev Tu-22M, Tupolev Tu-95 and Tupolev Tu-160. The Chinese H-6 should be complementary to the Xian H-20, as the bomber world is rapidly evolving with the introduction of the new American Northrop Grumman B-21 “Raider” and the Russian Tupolev PAK DA.
In conclusion, China is most certainly on its way to becoming the third largest nuclear power with growing capabilities to rival Washington and Moscow. In order to do so, it will need to increase its nuclear submarine capabilities to catch up with France and the United Kingdom, as well as the continued development of the H-20 bomber project to compete with the United States and Russia. Beijing has surely decided to invest in quality rather than quantity, preferring to slowly and precisely increase the number of warheads when it will first have the ability to defeat anti-missile systems.
Interestingly, China’s military nuclear approach is more about catching up with the other nuclear powers, in contrast to the civilian nuclear sector where the country is more innovative, as evidenced by the two thorium nuclear reactors under construction in the Gobi Desert (China plans to bring thorium reactors into commercial operation by 2030). Thus, China could become the leader in civil thorium nuclear power before it closes the gap as a military nuclear power.
From our partner RIAC
Developments on Korean Peninsula risk accelerating regional arms race
A week full of missile tests; this is the current environment on the Korean Peninsula. On Wednesday, North Korea fired two rounds of ballistic missiles into the East Sea while South Korea tested its first submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) just a few hours later. Wednesday’s tests follow a week of rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula, the consequences of which can be felt beyond the two Koreas.
North Korea ramps up tensions
According to North Korean state-run media reports, the reclusive state carried out a series of successful tests of a new long-range cruise missile over the weekend while referring to the missiles as a “strategic weapon of great significance”. Calling the weapon ‘strategic’ may imply a nuclear-capable system. Although North Korea is banned from using ballistic technologies due to U.N. Security Council resolutions, these same rules do not apply to cruise missiles.
Despite the tests, Washington maintained its position to resume dialogue with the North and “to work cooperatively with the DPRK to address areas of humanitarian concerns regardless of progress on denuclearization,” US Special Representative for North Korea Sung Kim said on Tuesday. Still, the US Indo-Pacific Command did acknowledge the cruise missile launches and said the tests highlight the “DPRK’s continuing focus on developing its military program and the threats that poses to its neighbors and the international community.”
China reacted to the test by calling for restraint by all relevant parties and for a ‘dual track’ approach to be followed involving “phased and synchronized actions to continuously advance the political settlement of the Korean Peninsula issue.”
North Korea then upped tensions further by conducting yet another missile launch on Wednesday. This test marked the first time the DPRK launched a missile off a train-mounted ballistic missile delivery system, which they referred to as the “Railway Mobile Missile Regiment”. According to Japan’s Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, the missiles were believed to have landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. The location of the landings don’t seem to be a coincidence as earlier that day North Korean state media had criticized Japan’s newly unveiled defense budget, referring to the country as a “war criminal state”.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga strongly condemned the latest tests, calling North Korea’s behavior “outrageous” and a “threat” to “the peace and security of our country and the region”. The US State Department also called the tests “a violation of multiple UN Security Council resolutions” while emphasizing the Biden administration’s commitment to trilateral diplomacy and cooperation with Japan and South Korea.
What’s more, North Korea appears to have resumed activities at its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, according to a report published by the International Atomic Energy Agency last month. The report stated that “The DPRK’s nuclear activities continue to be a cause for serious concern” while adding that “The continuation of the DPRK’s nuclear programme is a clear violation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions and is deeply regrettable.”
In July, North Korea warned of a “major security crisis” in protest against the combined summertime military exercise between South Korea and the United States. This increase in rapid missile testing seems to be the result of North Korea’s dissatisfaction with both Seoul and Washington’s actions over the last few months.
South Korea joins in on the missile testing
Although the international community is used to hearing about North Korean missile tests over the years, what is much less common is to hear about a missile test conducted by the South. Hours after the North fired its missiles, South Korea tested its first submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM).
North Korea’s Kim Yo Jong—the sister of leader Kim Jong Un— was quick to respond to the tests the same day, warning of the “complete destruction of inter-Korean ties” and criticized Seoul’s “illogical, antiquated and foolish attitude”, according to North Korean state media.
Through the test, South Korea became the first country without nuclear weapons to launch an SLBM. Besides the SLBM, South Korea’s presidential office said in a statement that the ROK military had also developed other new missiles, including a supersonic cruise missile to be deployed in the near future, and a new ballistic missile that has “overwhelming counterattack capability” by firing a larger warhead. Indeed, South Korea’s arms industry has grown exponentially over the last two deacades and continuous to expand rapidly. According to he SIPRI arms transfer database, South Korea rose from the 31st ranked arms exporting country in 2000 to number six in 2020.
Besides South Korea, Japan is also beefing up its military capabilities. Last month, Japan’s Defense Ministry sought a record $50 billion annual budget that would entail the largest percentage jump in spending in eight years. China was quick to criticize the move, accusing Japan of “trying to find excuses to justify their decision to increase military spending,” On the other hand, Japan blames China for “unilaterally changing the regional status quo,” affecting “the security of the Taiwan Straits, but also Japan’s security.”
The missile tests conducted by both Koreas this week further exacerbates the security situation in the region, negatively impacting far beyond the peninsula alone. The recent developments also don’t bode well for improving inter-Korean relations or US-DPRK ties. Diplomatic negotiations between the US and North Korea have been stalemated ever since the 2019 Hanoi Summit fell apart. So far, Biden has only verbally expressed interest in resuming talks, but is unlikely to do so unless North Korea makes concrete commitments to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.
Inter-Korean relations are also unlikely to improve in the near future, given the time constraints. South Korea’s President Moon has roughly six months left in office, and it is unlikely significant diplomatic progress can be made in this timeframe.
HTS enters Turkey’s plot against the Kurds
Ever since Turkey entered the 2017 Astana agreement with Russia and Iran Ankara has been relentless in its efforts to sell the international community the idea of absolute necessity of Turkish military presence in North-East Syria to support the moderate opposition and deter the Assad government.
The Astana meetings that followed the initial agreement indeed resulted in making Turkey responsible for the state of the Syrian opposition in Idlib and Aleppo provinces but – and there is always a but when it comes to the decade-long Syrian conflict – Ankara’s mission was never defined as ‘support’ of the opposition. Instead, Turkey volunteered to perform an arduous task of separating moderate Syrian armed groups from those who were considered radical and posed a potential security threat on both regional and global levels. This process, dubbed ‘delimitation of the Syrian opposition,’ is hardly any closer to completion now than before raising the question of the extent of Ankara’s ability – and intention – to fulfill its pledge.
Turkey’s insistence on supporting the moderate opposition conveniently combines with the recent attempts of Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, leader of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) which is de-facto dominant power in the Idlib de-escalation zone, to recast the image of the group. Although HTS is considered a terrorist organization by the UN and a number of global powers al-Joulani made a number of high-profile media appearances to promote the group’s vision of the future of Syria and confirm that its ambitions are confined to national scale only.
Talking to the Turkish version of The Independent al-Joulani spoke against any foreign military presence in Syria, making no special mention of the Turkish army. Meanwhile in Idlib, a position of the Turkish military located next to those of HTS is a common, even natural occurrence. This co-existence of regular armed forces and radical terrorists is not affected neither by hard evidence of HTS involvement in committing war crimes, nor even by the fact that HTS is listed as a terror group by Turkey’s authorities.
In his interview to The Independent al-Joulani has also touched upon the position of the Syrian Kurds, another key axis of Turkey’s policy in Syria. Commenting on the current developments in Afghanistan the HTS leader suggested that the aftermath of the US surprise withdrawal from Kabul will also have an impact on the Kurds or, as he put it ‘the US-backed enemies of the Syrian revolution.’ He also accused the Kurds of conducting attacks in living quarters in the areas of the “Olive Branch” and “Euphrates Shield” operations carried out by the Turkish military in Northern Syria.
HTS has never been in direct confrontation with the Kurds. However, al-Joulani’s words highlighted his open hostility towards the Kurdish administration, that, as the HTS leader purports, is only able to control a huge swath of Syria and maintain relative stability thanks to the US support. This Kurdish dream will crumble as soon as the last US plane takes off from the Syrian soil, according to al-Joulani.
Does this opinion reflects Turkey’s intention to put an end to the ‘Kurdish threat’ should the US withdraw from Syria? The events in the Afghanistan provide enough evidence to conclude that it’s entirely possible. Indeed, such concerns have been expressed in a number of articles authored by both local and international analysts.
The bottom line
Turkey’s regional policies and HTS leader’s statements confirm that Ankara seeks to transform HTS into a bully of sorts. The group’s primary task would be to exercise pressure on other armed units to facilitate the delimitation process orchestrated by the Turkish authorities. As the US grip over the region gradually loosens and HTS control over Syria’s north-west tightens thanks to its efforts to achieve international recognition with the tacit support of Turkey, the Kurds are facing an uncertain future. Moreover, close coordination between Turkey and HTS harbors negative consequences not only for the Kurds but rather for all of Syria.
To prevent this, the international community must intervene and deny HTS the opportunity to position itself as a part of the moderate opposition and gain the right to establish legitimate administrative bodies. Otherwise Syria will face law-twisting terrorists running their own statelet with all the support that Turkey is able to provide as a prominent regional power.
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