Thursday, January 16, 2014

A (very) fast note about hypersonic testing

As noted in the New York Times, China has apparently tested a hypersonic glide vehicle. Another story, in the Washington Free Beacon, is more detailed but also a little confused about some things, like stating that hypersonic speeds meant more precise targeting. (A follow-up story had much better context.)

A few things to note here. Without any details about the Chinese test other than the implication that the vehicle traveled about Mach 10, or 10 times the speed of sound, it's difficult to determine exactly how big of a leap forward this is. For instance, simply launching an uncontrolled glider from atop a ballistic missile is trivial in terms of weapons science; it's just a projectile that travels farther downrange because it generates some lift.

Controlling it is much more difficult, as the U.S. knows from its mostly unsuccessful Hypersonic Technology Vehicle tests. And those tests occurred about Mach 20, aka ludicrous speed, which is obviously a much more challenging flight regime.

It apparently looks worse in person.

But this technology, if it is developed successfully, engenders all kinds of cliches: game changer, checkmate, silver bullet. It means the country that possesses it can essentially conduct a conventional bombing raid on a target anywhere in the world in a matter of 10 to 15 minutes, no airfield or aircraft carrier necessary.

For a country that is already a global power, like Russia or the United States, which occasionally have the need to blow up some remote place, it makes a modicum of sense. For China, the capability is a little more puzzling. Targets far enough away to require this kind of a strike are in places that can punch back--and punch hard. And to date, most of China's weapons development has been devoted to securing the region around it. It is hard to see  how this would be a priority, unless China has much bigger (and I would argue, totally unrealistic) plans than simply dominating Asia.