China can now deploy hypersonic nukes on its carriers
New sealant innovation allows for easier and faster hypersonic repairs and maintenance at sea
by Gabriel Honrada October 14, 2022
China’s carrier-based aircraft may soon be equipped with hypersonic weapons, thanks to the development of a new sealant that protects against storage at sea and accelerates the repair and maintenance of the game-changing armament while afloat.
The South China Morning Post reported this week that China’s carrier-based hypersonic weapons are like the Russian Kinzhal air-launched hypersonic missile, which was first used in the Ukraine war.
They can be used against air, surface and satellite targets and reach ten times the speed of sound with a range of 1,000 kilometers, as noted this month in the Chinese domestic peer-reviewed journal Aero Weaponry.
The weapon extends the strike range of China’s carrier fleet to more than 2,500 kilometers, approximately the distance east of Taiwan to Guam, which increases the threat of an ultra-fast Chinese missile attack on the strategic but increasingly vulnerable US outpost in the Pacific. Until now, hypersonic weapons have not been deployed on aircraft carriers, according to reports.
Xiao Jun, lead researcher at the China Airborne Missile Academy, and his team pointed out in the South China Morning Post article that hypersonic weapons are more difficult to repair at sea than conventional missiles.
They note that the critical areas of hypersonic weapons are shielded using high-tech material that protects against extreme flight temperatures but also allow communication signals to pass through.
However, the research team noted that this material is susceptible to damage during transport, storage or mounting on an aircraft. In addition, the Chinese research team pointed out that when a damaged part is exposed to ocean humidity, salt, and mold, moisture absorption, expansion, deformation, blistering, debonding, or peeling can adversely affect the heat-resistant coating.
Past solutions required a clean ground-based room and an experienced crew with sophisticated equipment to ensure that there are no defects on the finished surface. To solve the problem, the research team developed a new sealing material that requires only one worker to remove the damaged part, fill in gaps with the sealing gel and smooth the finished surface with a scraper.
The China Airborne Missile Academy researchers say that during field tests in poor conditions aboard aircraft carriers, the new method reduced service time to one-tenth of the previous approach. They said that their new technology improves the storage lifespan of hypersonic weapons, which the Chinese military requires to last at least a decade.
The researchers claim that their new technology also allows for convenient field maintenance and periodic upgrades, as technicians inspect weapons and sometimes open them to enhance critical components such as infrared sensors.The Dongfeng-17 medium-range ballistic missile that mounts the DF-ZF Hypersonic Glide Vehicle on parade. They may soon be deployed at sea. Image: Xinhua
Moreover, they noted in the South China Morning Post report that repairs and body heat sealing need to withstand the extreme conditions of hypersonic flight and adverse conditions at sea for more than ten years while allowing for ease of maintenance under rough conditions.
The sealant technology will conceivably allow China to deploy hypersonic weapons on a broader range of its surface combatants, giving them a potential edge over their competitors, namely the United States, in surface warfare operations.
This April, Asia Times reported that China had tested its YJ-12 hypersonic weapon from one of its Type 055 cruisers, making the class one of the heaviest armed warships in the world. Video footage from the test showed a cold-launched anti-ship ballistic missile armed with a hypersonic glide vehicle, with its small control surfaces suggesting it is not a surface-to-air missile.
The YJ-12 outwardly resembles China’s CM-401 high-altitude anti-ship missile, which is based on Russia’s Iskander mobile short-range ballistic missile. However, while China has successfully tested the ship-based YJ-12, an air-launched version could also be in the works.
In contrast, the US will not be ready to deploy hypersonic weapons on its surface combatants until 2025. This March, Asia Times reported that the US aims to replace the troubled Advanced Gun Systems (AGS) on its Zumwalt class destroyers with hypersonic missile tubes, converting the futuristic and stealthy shore bombardment platforms into blue-water strike ones.
As China is perceived to view its hypersonic weapons for strategic deterrence, it may also choose to arm its carrier-based strike aircraft with nuclear-tipped hypersonic weapons, taking a page from past US practice.
The idea of reintroducing ship-based nuclear weapons is under critical fire from US analysts.
In a May article for The Heritage Foundationthink tank, senior policy analyst Patty-Jane Geller noted that, during the Cold War, the US deployed nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCM-N) on surface ships and submarines to deter a possible Soviet attack on Europe but has since retired the capability.
Declassified US documents cited by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) note that during the 1970s and 1980s the US deployed a quarter of its nuclear arsenal at sea, peaking in 1975 when there were 6,191 nuclear weapons deployed on US warships.
But in the 1990s, the Bush administration unilaterally offloaded all tactical nuclear weapons from US naval forces, and in 1994 the Clinton administration decided that all US surface ships would be stripped of their capability to launch nuclear weapons.
Sixteen years later, the Obama administration ended decades of nuclear weapons deployment on warships, with only ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) carrying US strategic nuclear weapons at sea.
However, Geller notes that China and Russia have continued to advance their regional nuclear forces below the threshold of strategic nuclear weapons as a backstop for conventional military operations, developing tactical nuclear weapons to such an end.
In contrast, she notes that the US maintains the same deterrent posture focused on strategic-level nuclear threats, potentially opening a deterrence gap.The old-class ballistic-missile submarine USS Henry M Jackson. Photo: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Amanda R. Gray / US Navy
Stressing the urgency to restore ship-based nuclear strike capability, US Strategic Command Admiral Chas Richard noted that SLCM-N would give the US “a low-yield, non-ballistic capability that does not require visible generation” to counter the tactical nuclear weapons in China and Russia’s arsenals, Defense News reported him as saying this May.
However, US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday criticized the idea, stating that forcing surface ships and submarines to carry nuclear-tipped missiles would detract from more pressing missions.
Defense News notes that the current US submarine fleet consists of 50 boats, with the US Navy requiring 66 to 72 units. Furthermore, the US destroyer fleet is preoccupied with global deployments working alone or as part of carrier battlegroups. It is expected to come under more strain as the US retires its Ticonderoga class cruisers in the coming years.
Moreover, in a potential departure from the perceived US intent of using hypersonics for conventional strike purposes, Gilday pointed out that such weapons are a preferable avenue for sea-based deterrence.