The DF-17, China’s greatly feared hypersonic missile that was first revealed at the National Day military parade on October 1, might not be the only hypersonic aircraft program China possesses, a report by the state broadcaster suggested.

Analysts stressed that China will not fall behind in related technologies compared with the US and Russia, Global Times reported.

“From the test subjects that were made available to the public, the Xingkong-2 (Starry Sky-2) might use a different flight pattern to the DF-17,” said military expert Ma Jun on Military Time, a China Central Television (CCTV) program on military affairs, on Saturday, without further elaboration.

According to Ma, the Xingkong-2 is still in the trial phase and more tests are expected.

The Xingkong-2 Ma referred to is the first Chinese waverider hypersonic vehicle unveiled by the country, dating a year earlier than the DF-17.

Designed by the China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics under the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, the Xingkong-2 was successfully tested at a target range in Northwest China in August 2018, the academy announced then.

When the DF-17 missile made its debut at the National Day parade this year, some thought it might be the final product of the Xingkong-2 project.

One distinctive difference between the Xingkong-2 and the DF-17 is that the former has a fairing and the latter does not, making the two very different in appearance alone, analysts pointed out.

They noted that the time does not match either, as the Xingkong-2 was only tested in 2018 and is not likely to enter Chinese military service as early as 2019.

President Vladimir Putin announced that the Russian military had tested its Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle in order to “successfully verify all of its technical parameters.” Credit: Handout.

The CCTV program introduced two genres of hypersonic aircraft: one is a glide-boost, meaning the aircraft is propelled into the sky via a rocket and glides in the air using shock waves generated by its own hypersonic flight, while the other is air-breathing, meaning the aircraft uses a scramjet engine to provide thrust.

The DF-17 is said to be a glide-boost vehicle, but it is not known what type the Xingkong-2 might be, other than it could be different from the DF-17, although it was also propelled by a rocket, according to Ma.

According to The National Interest, the 16 DF-17s that featured in the parade all were atop what appeared to be DF-16 medium-range ballistic missiles. In actual use, the DF-16 would boost the DF-17 to Mach five or faster, at which point the DF-17 would separate from the booster and angle toward its target, maneuvering to correct its course or evade enemy defenses.

It’s unclear whether the DF-17 carries a warhead. “It is likely that the DF-17 is configured as a conventional munition with its destructive effect derived from the kinetic energy of the HGV,” commented Andrew Tate, an expert with Jane’s.

With a range of potentially a thousand miles or more, the DF-17 could threaten US forces and their allies across the Western Pacific.

Nozomu Yoshitomi, a retired Japanese army general who now is a professor at Nihon University, said the DF-17 could render obsolete existing defenses. “There is a possibility that if we do not acquire a more sophisticated ballistic missile defense system, it will become impossible for both the United States and Japan to respond,” Yoshitomi said.

“We don’t have any defense that could deny the employment of such a weapon against us,” Gen. John Hyten, then the commander of US Strategic Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2018.

Hypersonic weapons are proliferating. In late December 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that the Russian military had tested its Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle in order to “successfully verify all of its technical parameters,” state-owned TASS news agency reported.

“On my instructions, the industrial enterprises and the defense ministry have prepared for and carried out the final test of this system,” Putin said, according to TASS. “The test was completely successful: all technical parameters were verified.”

Meanwhile, the US is just beginning to acquire its first battery of HGVs. The Pentagon in late 2018 awarded Dynetics and Lockheed Martin contracts worth a combined US$700 million to build 20 “common” hypersonic vehicles, fit eight with guidance systems and install them on four launchers.

The US Army could form its first HGV-launching unit as early as 2023.