U.S. General Links Chinese Hypersonic Glider To Nuclear Program

medium-range hypersonic weapon
A line of medium-range DF-17s on parade in Beijing this past October may have offered only the first glimpse of China’s planned hypersonic weapon capabilities.
Credit: Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images

A powerful new weapon has appeared in a U.S. military assessment of China’s nuclear arsenal as Pentagon officials launch a campaign to win congressional support for allocating 4.1% of the fiscal 2021 defense budget to its own nuclear weapon enterprise.

All the U.S. military’s previous assessments of China’s nuclear arsenal included a mix of ICBMs, with silo-based DF-4 and DF-5 rockets, along with road-mobile DF-31, DF-31A and the recently unveiled DF-41 missiles. The warheads for each missile are known to include several multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles, with maneuverable reentry vehicles also believed to be in development or already deployed.

  • New assessment echoes 2014 warning
  • U.S. Air Force adds $4.4 billion for B-21 procurement

Now added to this inventory is a nuclear warhead on a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV), says Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, head of U.S. Northern Command.

“Among the novel weapon systems China is testing is an intercontinental-range hypersonic glide vehicle—similar to the Russian Avangard—which is designed to fly at high speeds and low altitudes, complicating our ability to provide precise warning,” O’Shaughnessy said in written testimony submitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 13.

The acknowledgment by the head of the North American Aerospace Defense Command that China is actively testing a nuclear intercontinental-range HGV took many nuclear and defense analysts by surprise.

O’Shaughnessy’s testimony echoes a nearly forgotten 2014 statement by Lee Fuell, then technical director for Force Modernization and Employment at the National Air and Space Intelligence Center, the U.S. Air Force’s clearinghouse for technical assessments of foreign weapons. An appearance by Fuell before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission in 2014 came as China ramped up testing of an HGV then known as the WU-14. Although most nonmilitary analysts attributed China’s interest in HGV technology to conventional weapons, Fuell, privy to classified information sources, linked the efforts to the People’s Liberation Army’s strategic nuclear weapon programs.

If later confirmed, the U.S. military assessment of a nuclear role for China’s nearly operational HGV technology would add a significant new capability. So far, China has confirmed plans to deploy an HGV only on the DF-17 missile, which, as unveiled at the National Day Parade on Oct. 1 in Beijing, appears to be a conventional weapon with medium-to-intermediate range. Only Russia has a nuclear HGV on an intercontinental-range missile: the aforementioned Avangard, which the Kremlin declared operational at the Dombarovsky launch site in December. By contrast, among the Pentagon’s several ongoing HGV and scramjet-powered cruise missile programs, none are linked to a nuclear weapon capability.

The disclosure comes as the U.S. Defense Department continues to justify a more than $1 trillion nuclear weapon modernization program over the next decade, including a $28.9 billion request for fiscal 2021 released on Feb. 10. The Pentagon’s spending plan lacks a nuclearized HGV but continues support for replacing the Minuteman III ICBM with the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, the Northrop Grumman B-2 bomber with the B-21, the AGM-129 with the Long-Range Standoff cruise missile and the Ohio-class fleet with the Columbia ballistic missile submarine.

The funding profile, as signaled by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein’s remarks in an October speech, indicates a significant increase in procurement spending for the B-21. The $22.6 billion requested for that aircraft in the fiscal 2021 version of the Pentagon’s five-year spending plan reserves about $10.3 billion for procurement. By contrast, the fiscal 2020 version of the five-year plan requested only $5.9 billion through fiscal 2024 for B-21 procurement, starting with about a $200 million allocation for long lead-procurement in fiscal 2022, followed by $2.4 billion in fiscal 2023 and $3.3 billion in fiscal 2024. The new five-year plan adds about $4.4 billion for B-21 procurement compared with the fiscal 2020 proposal.

The B-21 spending plan suggests the Air Force is continuing or even accelerating an aggressive production ramp-up for the new bomber. The first flight of the prototype aircraft funded under the engineering and manufacturing development is not expected until at least December 2021, which overlaps with the first year of long-lead funding for the production aircraft. The Air Force’s vague in-service target for the B-21 remains in the “mid-2020s.”

Steve Trimble

Steve covers military aviation, missiles and space for the Aviation Week Network, based in Washington DC.


The military industrial complex will use any excuse to get its hands on more taxpayer money. The bottom line - the US has thousands of nuclear weapons while China has hundreds. The Chinese are not going to comit nuclear suicide by launching an attack on America using HGVs.
gwroble- You might want to re-think your comment...
China is not exactly spending their wealth on supporting humanitarian concerns within their borders...the vast sum of their monies go to their military projects. Being allied with the Russians, it is no mistake that they have HGV technologies already implemented while the US lags behind. Having worked in the Defense Industry, I can very much assure you that China and other countries do indeed believe that a first strike is an option!

Sadly, because of such other bad actors in the global stage, we must be able to match & exceed with deterrents to maintain our way of life.
Like ,many, I'd love to see more funds go towards infrastructure and such, but the world is NOT a kind place when you actually get outside the safe borders where we reside.

Peace thru superior firepower!
gwroble, this weapon could change the balance of power because it is a first strike device. The Chinese aren't stupid, they wouldn't use it on our homeland, but our allies and overseas bases. The CCP could very well view this weapon as their ace-in-the-hole as they invade Taiwan.
Yes, GWROBLE, this is the same game of “boogeyman threat” that has been going on for the 5 decades I’ve been in the defense industry. With Trump as President it should be an easy sell. It’s really all about keeping the DoD funding flowing. We all know that China is absolutely no military threat to the US. Any US banker can tell you that. Follow the money and the fiscal debt holdings. This has been the same game since the Johnson presidency. But I understand the push to keep the national labs (LANL, SNL, LLNL) funded with ongoing nuclear funding. While it is literally ludicrous to all rational humans, the good people of Albuquerque, etc want their local economies strong. So the beat goes on and on...
At the moment we could have a couple of hundred missiles under the pacific that could launch from boomers. But sometime when they think they can get their leadership all under ground, maybe they get brave and threaten us, with hypersonic missiles. What if they start believing their own hubris. Maybe they think they can decapitate our leadership with their super fast missilery. Then they win?