WHY THE US SHOULD FEAR CHINESE HYPERSONIC GLIDE VEHICLES AND STEALTH UAVs
Photos are taken from Joe McDonald. 2019; Trevithick, Joseph. 2019
By: Jeff Bates
Currently there are no defenses against the GJ-11 hypersonic glide vehicle. It is not known how many DF-17s or GJ-11 stealth UAVs are operational, if any. The US and its allies need to figure out a way to protect against these systems since when or if they are operational, they will be able to inflict heavy destruction among our Navy and military bases. The DF-17 is a very serious threat since it flies anywhere from Mach 5 to Mach 10, flies low to the ground, and can turn its trajectory. Currently, we do not have a platform to destroy such a vehicle. Early warning radar systems may possibly detect the launch of the glide vehicle, but detecting it during its hypersonic glide, and especially targeting it while it maneuvers at high speeds, is a major problem. Laser defense is likely going to be the only effective method of destroying this weapon. However, laser weapons are still under evaluation and may not be ready to take down a hypersonic glider headed towards land or sea objects in the near future. Current laser defense capabilities allow a mobile platform to destroy stationary small ammunitions on the ground within 30 seconds to 5 minutes. This is about how much time it would take for the DF-17 to launch and destroy its target. Mounting a high energy defensive laser on a navy ship or on the continental United States that is capable of tracking and destroying the gliders is still in development.
The DF-17 on display in October. Photo credit (Axe, David. 2019)
The GJ-11 stealth UAV jet poses a serious threat to the United States and there are few feasible countermeasures. This is in part due to it not being easily detectable by radar. Infrared detection equipment may help, but again, the UAV will likely fly close to the ground making it difficult to detect. It will be able to sneak up on naval ships and land based installations and launch anti-ship or conventional missiles at close range compared to conventional Chinese maritime aircraft. Although the CIWS and the SeaRAM can take out anti-ship missiles, if there is a swarm of GJ-11’s and they launch multiple missiles, these anti-ship countermeasures may be overwhelmed and not capable of destroying every missile. Thus, if there is a high production of this weapon, then our Navy task forces and protected ground installations will be at significant risk. Again, laser weapons will prove useful in bringing down missiles fired by the GJ-11 UAV, but this capability is not yet ready for actual deployment. The only immediate option is to hijack the UAV electronically. The Chinese are skilled in their electronic warfare capabilities, so this will be a daunting task.
GJ-11 UAV on display. Photo credit (Trevithick, Joseph. 2019)
China doesn’t have many allies at this point, but one that cannot be overlooked is its ally, Russia. Russia may have helped the Chinese in the development of the DF-17 and the GJ-11 UAV. This is somewhat likely due to Russia creating its own hypersonic gliders and stealth aircraft. If Russia comes to China’s aid in the event of a war, this would truly be devastating to the US. Additionally, Malaysia and the Philippines are drawing closer to Beijing and Moscow. For example, Malaysia is buying Russian fighter jets and Chinese made naval ships, and the Philippines are seeking out Russian help in building nuclear power plants. President Duterte is making friends with Chinese President Xi Jingping, and the Philippine leader has also flat out called off military exercises with the United States. It is a possibility, though unlikely, that China would sell the GJ-11 UAV and the DF-17 glider to these countries in the coming years.
Despite Chinese capabilities, war with China is not likely to happen in the foreseeable future. The disputes in the South China Sea are ending with Malaysia and the Philippines caving into pressure from Beijing. These countries are starting to allow China to have rights to the Spratly Islands. If other Southeast Asian countries give way to Chinese pressure, it is only a matter of time before the South China Sea dispute is over, and China maintains its hold on all the islands.
However, the US and our allies will continue to conduct freedom of navigation exercises around the islands. This is seen as a threat to Chinese autonomy, and there is a possibility, given the right circumstances (such as miscommunications of intentions), that the Chinese may fire upon US ships or aircraft. This is a real possibility and could result in a breakout of war. Thus, the importance of knowing about these new weapon systems and possible ways to defend against them is of the utmost importance, seeing that Beijing is militarizing the islands.
The spending of the United States on defense is astronomical compared to China. However, the number of soldiers, airmen, and sailors available to Beijing far outweigh the United States’ ability to produce. The Chinese military has a clause that reads, “The People’s Republic of China shall practice a military service system which is based mainly on conscription and which combines conscripts with volunteers and a militia with a reserve service.” This includes article 12 which states that “Chinese citizens ages 18-22 years old are required to do a 2-year military service obligation” (1984. Laws of the People’s Republic of China). Out of a country of a population of 1.39 billion people, there are 251,345,000 males ages 15-39 (2019. The World Bank Group. Population, total – China). The United States has 327 million individuals alone, with about 81,750,000 individuals in the same age category. Thus, manpower-wise, the US is very outnumbered (2019. The World Bank Group. Population, total – United States). Despite this, it will be nearly impossible for China to adequately train and field nearly 251 million Chinese soldiers in the event of war.
Additionally, China is decreasing its military spending. This can be seen with its decrease in defense and so the ability to make and further develop the DF-17 and GJ-11 UAV is limiting. China spent 1.9% GDP in defense in 2014, and went down to 1.87% GDP in 2018 (The World Fact Book. China). Even so, China is increasing its profits at a high rate. In 2007, the United States was the top manufacturing nation in the world with $1,847 billion income, with China coming in second place at $1,149 billion. However, China eclipsed the United States not long after. Despite this, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is taxing the Chinese economy heavily. Thus, we can expect that Beijing will not want a military confrontation while it is investing heavily in the BRI.
On October 1st, 2019, China conducted its yearly military parade in Beijing. This time was a little different as Beijing was celebrating its 70th year of being an independent state. China decided to show the world – likely the US and Japan in particular – its military might and new weapons. These could destroy an attempt by the United States to invade the South China Sea’s islands. Among these new weapons were the DF-17 hypersonic glide vehicle and the GJ-11 stealth UAV (Panda, Ankit. 2019).
Although these weapon systems were on display during the parade, these weapon systems were likely phony mockups instead of actual combat-ready weapons. Despite this, it is important to take heed about these two particular weapon systems as they pose a serious threat to our Navy and the continental United States.
China’s DF-17 hypersonic glide vehicle is claimed to carry a conventional or nuclear payload. Hypersonic weapons can fly at speeds roughly 5-10 times the speed of sound, making them very difficult to shoot down by conventional means. Furthermore, a glide vehicle can change trajectory while in flight. For example, it can go out of the atmosphere, come back in, and glide at low altitudes, making it very difficult to detect by current US radar systems. The DF-17 hypersonic glide vehicle is likely the most lethal weapon that the Chinese have. US military systems like the Patriot missile system, CIWS, and laser weapons cannot currently counter this weapon.
The GJ-11 stealth UAV is also a serious threat to Navy fleets, and potentially to our bases in Guam and Japan. Since the GJ-11 is a stealthy platform, it will be nearly impossible to detect. If somehow it is detected through electronic or thermal means, the UAV could possibly be jammed by current and future electronic warfare systems. However, what makes this system most lethal is that it will likely carry a munitions bay (2019. Gongji-11 (GJ-11)). If for whatever reason the US military electronic countermeasures cannot jam the UAV, then it can get close to US and allied fleets. Bases would also be susceptible to attacks. Combine the GH-11 stealth UAV with stealthy weapons, and you have a very formidable weapon platform. If the GH-11 comes in swarms against our military bases or fleets, it will be nearly impossible to defend against all of them, and heavy losses can be expected.
1984. Laws of the People’s Republic of China. MILITARY SERVICE LAW OF THE PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF CHINA. Accessed November 20, 2019 from http://www.asianlii.org/cn/legis/cen/laws/mslotproc463/
2019. The World Bank Group. Population, total – China. Accessed November 20, 2019 from https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.TOTL?locations=CN
2019. The World Bank Group. Population, total – United States. Accessed November 20, 2019 from https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.POP.TOTL?locations=US
The World Fact Book. China. Military Expenditures. Accessed November 20, 2019 from https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ch.html
Trevithick, Joseph. 2019. China Showcases Stealthier Sharp Sword Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle Configuration. The Drive. Accessed November 21, 2019 from https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/30111/china-showcases-stealthier-sharp-sword-unmanned-combat-air-vehicle-configuration
Axe, David. 2019. Check Out China’s New DF-17 Hypersonic Glide Vehicle: A Real Killer?. The National Interest. Accessed November 21, 2019 from https://news.yahoo.com/check-chinas-df-17-hypersonic-191900639.html
Joe McDonald. 2019. China shows off new hypersonic nuclear missile at military parade. Washington Times. Accessed November 22, 2019 from https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2019/sep/30/china-displays-df-17-hypersonic-nuclear-missile-pa/