Hypersonic weapons: China tests aircraft carrier killer in the desert

The People’s Liberation Army is firing at dummy US warships in the Uighur region. The ability to deliver a sensitive first strike to enemy fleets is being tested.

The Chinese military is testing mid- and long-range missile attacks on warships in the desert, which are modelled on US Navy units in terms of their dimensions. The existence of such dummies in the Gobi Desert was reported by some media outlets as early as 2013. More recent installations in the Taklamakan Desert were discovered last year in the Uighur region of Xinjiang in the northwest of the country by USNI, a military portal specialising in the navy.

High-resolution satellite imagery from Maxar Technologies now points to other test centres where the military simulates aircraft carriers and other warships the size of destroyers. Some of these are equipped with full-scale piers that are probably meant to replicate ships in port, USNI reports.

Hypersonic anti-ship missiles

At two military fairs, the People’s Liberation Army had previously displayed a small model of the targets mounted on rails. It was labelled „Land-based Integrated Electronic Blue Army“. In the Chinese military, enemy forces are usually designated by the colour blue, while their own forces are red. In the USA and NATO, this distribution is reversed.

The dummies were probably fired from a missile base more than 100 kilometres away, which is also located in the Taklamakan Desert. The nature of the simulated attack points to the testing of ballistic missiles flying at several times the speed of sound. These hypersonic anti-ship missiles (ASBMs) pose an increasing threat to warships.

As far as is known, China has already developed two land-based ASBMs, the DF-21D and DF-26, which can fly up to 4,000 kilometres. A third, air-launched missile type, whose designation is unknown, can be launched from an H-6 bomber. Another hypersonic missile can be launched from a Renhai class cruiser. This fourth, smaller type is designated YJ-21.

Targeting with infrared or radar sensors

The arrangement of the dummies resembles a convoy of several ships. They probably carry metal plates that act as reflectors for detection with radar. This could indicate the development of a sophisticated targeting system, explains military analyst Damien Symon.

For targets at sea, the military faces the difficulty that an impact just a few metres off – unlike an attack on a building – causes virtually no destruction. Symon suspects that the People’s Liberation Army therefore uses infrared sensors, optical sensors or radar sensors to detect the target. The trajectory of the hypersonic weapons could then be corrected accordingly.

Fleet could be decapitated

With the ability to distinguish a ship from a pier, hypersonic anti-ship missiles could deliver a hard-to-take first strike to an enemy fleet. If this attack hits an aircraft carrier, a fleet could be literally decapitated before it can escape into open waters or disperse.

The ability to have developed four such weapons at once was therefore cited in the recent US Department of Defence report on Chinese military power.

China is making it difficult for military analysts to detect the test centres for its new weapons in the Taklamakan Desert. After a missile hit one of the newly built facilities in February, the target was reportedly quickly dismantled. Many of the other dummies have also long since been dismantled.

Image: U.S. Navy/PH3 Alta I. Cutler, Fleet 5 nations.

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.