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China’s Hypersonic Missile – A Formidable Threat?


By Morgan Deane:

The Chinese recently test fired a new supersonic missile that’s mounted on the J-16 strike fighter. The missile is larger, faster, and has a longer range than weapons previously fielded. As usual, this is met with a great deal of fear by Western analysts.  America should reasonably consider every new weapon system from a potential foe, its capabilities, effects on the battlefield, and assess the proper response. They should also avoid needless hand wringing and fear mongering. Initial indications give some cause for concern but also indicate a great deal of trust in America’s personnel, training, and potential counter measures.

The missile is considered air to air, and about 19 feet long with a range of approximately 300 miles. In addition to the added range, the most important feature is its larger radar system which allows the missile to better lock onto stealth targets.  The missile would not be mounted on their stealth fighters such as the J20, as its too big for the launch bay, however, it can be flown on J16’s in close support of the J20. The J20 would fly in the lead and use its more advanced sensors and forward positions to locate targets at which the trailing J16’s would fire. This is not unlike America utilizing advanced radar on the F22 that locates and transmits targets to planes of previous generations

The expected targets of J16s armed with supersonic missiles include America’s air refueling and electronic warfare planes. These planes are mostly used in support of fighters like the F22 and soon the F35. As a result, they have fewer built in defenses against air to air missiles.  Damaging the refueling planes would limit the range of American fighters, particularly the fuel hungry F35s who start out with a relatively limited range.  Damaging the electronic warfare planes would make the F22 and others rely on their sensors, which would raise the possibility of detection.

This is the extent of what analysts know, what is less known is the potential impact of this strategy. In his book “Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace”, Edward Luttwak discussed the difference between narrowly focused and highly specialized technologies and broadly focused expensive technologies. Luttwak described how torpedo boats were incredibly small and cost effective attempts to negate the advantages of large battleships.  The latter had difficulty lowering their large caliber guns to attack torpedo boats and their armor was mainly applied to the upper decks to fight other battleships.   Yet by 1914, battleships had made basic but important changes to negate this threat by adding small caliber guns, searchlights, and even utilized torpedo boat destroyers as escorts to fend off this threat.

In the 1973 Egypt Israeli war, the anti-tank missile seemed to make the tank obsolete. Just like the battleship, it seemed that an inexpensive and easy to use technology would negate a broad and expensive one.  Yet, the Israeli tanks were caught by surprise, operating alone and without infantry escort. As soon as these operational faults were rectified, the tanks resumed their role as king of the land based army.

This new hypersonic missile is just the newest version of a weapon that has been around since World War II (Hitler called them “vengeance rockets”).   There are numerous layers of defense against these missiles. The first layer features the combat air patrol, whose fighters would shoot down any platforms that might launch these missiles.  The F35 is particularly impressive in locating and destroying targets from long range.  Aegis missile systems on specialized warships provide the next layer followed by the main guns and close in weapon systems installed on ships and aircraft. Because aircraft fight as part of a fleet they will have these assets for additional protection.

Further, wars are not fought with a single missile or by a single weapons system. They are fought by people who must make decisions using those systems and platforms.  The Chinese military and their air force have yet to show they can effectively use this missile in conjunction with even more advanced fighter planes. As stated in previous articles, Chinese pilots have little to no combat experience. Analysts point to rudimentary training exercises and a lack of initiative among Chinese pilots. This suggests that even though the missile is dangerous on paper, the American military can still meet the challenge due to their extensively trained pilots and personnel who effectively use and integrate their various advanced systems under combat conditions.

At the same time, layered defense systems used by skilled soldiers are effective but not perfect. Air patrols continue to operate well in advance of American defenses and not always near Aegis ships that protect them.  The new missiles are much faster than previous generations, can be launched simultaneously and from greater distances. The US is testing new and more advanced missile defense systems but their utility is still unknown.

As Edward Luttwak described, dangers from new technologies are real. But the very danger of the new narrowly focused technology forces larger and more expensive targets to adapt and adjust to the point that whatever advantage from these supposed game changers are usually small and temporary.  That is likely the case here.   American forces should have a healthy respect for any military and take appropriate measures against their weapons systems. They should also be aware of the shock value gained from having even a few of their planes successfully attacked.  Ultimately, however, they can trust their operational skills, professionalism, and training to counter this new narrowly focused technology.

Morgan Deane is an OpsLens Contributor and a former U.S. Marine Corps infantry rifleman. Deane also served in the National Guard as an Intelligence Analyst.

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