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Hypersonic Weapons: The Future of Warfare

Image credit: wikimedia (wikimedia: Creative Commons)

While many were out partying to celebrate the New Year, the Chinese military was busy revolutionising naval warfare.

Pictures were revealed showing China’s Haiyangshan tank landing ship as the site of operational testing for the world’s first electromagnetic rail gun.

China has beaten the United States, and the world, in testing out the next generation of naval weaponry, and it’s a great coup for the Chinese military.

This new super weapon uses intense bursts of energy to build a magnetic field which shoots cannon shells that easily surpasses the speed of sound.

Using electromagnetism gives the rail gun much greater speed, range and accuracy than conventional naval cannons.

The rail gun can be armed with guided shells capable of homing in on targets and dodging defensive systems, effectively rendering current naval defence capabilities obsolete.

This breakthrough in innovation elevates China’s naval force above the defensive capability of any other country. Widespread use of this technology would force other countries to either quickly adapt their defensive capabilities or be held at the mercy of Chinese belligerence.

However, the main problem befuddling this rail gun is the amount of on-demand electricity that is required to maintain the rail gun. A vessel would need generators, batteries and capacitors, whose sole purpose is to power one rail gun.

The upside is that the cost of each cannon shot is around $75,000; significantly cheaper than the cost of one guided missile.

China also states that now they have tested and fitted the rail gun, they are already preparing warships to accommodate them.

While the U.S. has been testing this technology since 2014, it has failed to meet the energy and fitting requirements aboard frontline warships.

Weapons travelling at hypersonic speeds are the new objective of the arms race between contesting hegemons. New technology that renders old technology obsolete is a huge advantage for a country seeking to achieve its foreign policy objectives through military deterrence.

Case in point: Russian President Vladimir Putin believes his new ‘Avangard’ glide missile is a ‘game changer’, as it is capable of holding a nuclear-grade missile that can travel at 20 times the speed of sound, and is ‘invulnerable’ against any defence system.

Hypersonic weapons encourage first strikes because they leave an adversary with little time to consider its options. Preemptive strikes thus become more attractive, as a country with hypersonic weapons can control the situation to best suit them.

With rapid modernisation in all aspects of the Chinese military, China still looks to project power in naval disputes in the South and East China Sea.

It is believed that China’s naval capability is so great, that it is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios, short of a war with the United States.

The Chinese Navy is now the world’s largest, with more warships and submarines than the US. From a quality perspective, the US is superior, however China is quantitatively larger, and its new rail gun will help tip the scales in China’s favour.

With Russia and China’s breakthrough in technology, the ‘major power’ that is left out is the US; who is yet to fully realise any hypersonic weapon technology.

If China and Russia are to continuously innovate this technology, faster and better than any attempts made by the US, then there may be a shift of hegemonic military might and influence towards the East as opposed to the West.

Amid waning relations due to the US’ trade war with China and US disagreements over Russia’s involvement in Syria, it seems like the US’ biggest competitors are pulling away and changing the international political sphere to suit themselves.

It is understood that China’s hypersonic rail gun won’t be in complete working operation until around 2025, yet the symbolism of the Chinese navy achieving a feat currently unachievable by US military standards is symbolic in itself.

The US believes that it could have a ‘workable defensive capability’ against hypersonic weapons by 2025, however defensive capability that is merely workable may not be able to protect against the innovations that China and Russia can create by 2025.

China will continue to enforce its policy goals in the waters surrounding it, as the bulwark of Chinese ambitions propels its navy to never-before-seen heights.

While Russia believes that putting their hypersonic missile into service during 2019 will 'reliably ensure the security of our state and people for decades to come'.

Hypersonic warfare is the future of politics among nations, and countries will need to adapt or they may be left behind in the dust.

George Sagris is a journalist and Honours graduate in Japanese-Chinese politics based in Adelaide.

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