The United States and China are in a race to develop hypersonic missiles, with the Chinese seeming to have an advantage in one key area, The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday.
Both countries continue to test hypersonic missiles — hard-to-detect weapons that can reach at least nine times the speed of sound — and try to solve issues caused by heat buildup that can block electromagnetic signals.
"If you want the hypersonic glide vehicle to be able to hit a moving target, then you need to have a radar or a camera seeker that's able to survive in those kinds of environments," Bryan Clark, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, told WSJ.
"So, you need to have a wind tunnel that's able to create the kinds of speeds necessary."
This is where China appears to hold an edge.
The Chinese in 2017 revealed what they claimed was the world's largest wind tunnel, known as JF-12, capable of testing a full-sized hypersonic missile. Also, the communist country's top scientific think tank said a new tunnel, which would be able to simulate flights at 30 times the speed of sound, was under construction.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has been saddled with aging tunnels, most of which were built between the 1950s and 1970s, WSJ reported.
The Pentagon requested $3.8 billion for its hypersonic program as part of its 2022 budget — almost 20% more than last year — and research institutions such as Texas A&M and Purdue are building new wind tunnels.
Experts, though, said the U.S. might be better off focusing on improving its defense systems' capabilities in stopping Chinese hypersonic missiles.
"If you can build a missile against which there is no defense, China can deploy this as a way to deter or intimidate any of its neighbors or even the U.S. in the event of a crisis," Rand Corporation senior researcher Timothy Heath told WSJ.
Hypersonic missiles attempt to overcome shortcomings of cruise and ballistic missiles.
Cruise missiles travel between 400-600 mph and are maneuverable. However, they fly relatively slow and low to the ground, enabling radars to detect them and defense systems to shoot them down.
Ballistic missiles travel much faster — at around 15,000 mph — because they rely on rockets that launch them into space. But they follow a predetermined and arched trajectory that allows defense systems to predict and intercept them.
"The speed and maneuverability of hypersonic weapons allows them to evade defenses," Clark told WSJ. "If you're trying to defend against a hypersonic weapon, you have to put up with both the speed of the weapon, which is higher than cruise missiles, and also its unpredictable, which is different than ballistic missiles."
The U.S. is developing a hypersonic missile known as ARRW (air-launched rapid response weapon). Following several test failures, officials said the missile wouldn't be operational until 2023, WSJ reported.
China's hypersonic weapon, the DF-17 missile, was unveiled in 2019 and is considered one of the most-advanced military tools in existence. It's a hard-to-detect weapon that current defense systems struggle to take down, WSJ said.
Both the ARRW and DF-17 missiles are topped by hypersonic glide vehicles, which hold the warheads; booster rockets are at the bottom.
The ARRW missile is carried by a bomber aircraft, and upon being released, it fires its own rocket to fly to a higher altitude. The Air Force said the missile can travel at more than 15,000 mph, or 20 times the speed of sound, and will be equipped with conventional warheads.
China's DF-17 missile is launched from the ground. China says it has a maximum speed of 7,000 mph (nine times the speed of sound) and can be equipped with nuclear warheads.
In both cases, the hypersonic glide vehicles are released to carry out strikes.
"The U.S. has global interests and is looking for a way to strike targets around much of the world," Heath said. "Therefore, an air-launch platform makes the most sense.
"[China is] still focused on missions like Taiwan, defeating adversaries in the South China Sea. What they need are sufficient numbers of munitions deployed along China's border to carry out a mission when ordered."
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