Satellite photos reveal China’s troubling hypersonic missile plan

New satellite photos show what China’s plan might be for their powerful hypersonic missiles — and the whole world should be concerned.

Beware Pearl Harbor: Last year satellites caught Beijing building mock-ups of warships in the desert.

Now, a new batch is revealing some represented ships in the harbor — with craters proving they can be picked among the clutter of piers and docks.

Do the new satellite photos show China may be planning another “day of shame”?

A report from the United States Naval Institute (USNI) states that commercial satellite photos show that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army is developing a disturbing new military capability: hypersonic missiles that can identify and hit warships that are idle in their home ports.

It is a scenario with shades of the devastating Japanese surprise attack of December 7, 1941 on Pearl Harbor.

Late last year, shapes of warships were spotted by satellites deep between the sands of a weapons testing facility in the Taklamakan Desert in Xinjiang province. Among them was the outline of an American nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Another matched the dimensions of a US guided-missile destroyer.

Since then, the target range has reportedly expanded.

Since then, two new targets have appeared – and erased.

These depicted the same sketchy scene: a warship mixed with the angular lines of a harbor infrastructure.

One bears the scar of a huge impact crater in a “rose” on the hull.

It is a threat of which the US is well aware.

“The Chinese know very well that US satellites are monitoring and would eventually see these efforts,” Lyle Goldstein, director of the US think tank Defense Priorities, recently told the military news service. Stars and Stripes† “The Chinese leadership has made it clear in several ways that they are developing the military capabilities to seriously damage the US Navy.”

day of shame

In December 1941, Japanese aircraft carriers crashed into the North Pacific. Then, undetected, they let go of their planes on the unsuspecting warships tethered to the wharf—their crews largely on leave ashore.

The United States expected an attack at any moment. Several “war warnings” had been issued to its military units worldwide.

Pearl Harbor, however, was caught unprepared.

About 2400 Americans died. Eight battleships were among the 19 warships destroyed or damaged.

The intent was to hurt the US so much that Washington would not be able to intervene in Tokyo’s invasion of Southeast Asia. It failed.

By sheer luck, the US Navy’s aircraft carriers Enterprise, Lexington, and Saratoga were at sea at the time—maintaining the core of US naval capability.

Next time, the US may not be so lucky.

And Beijing seems to be working hard to tip the odds in its favor.

The threat does not come from aircraft carriers. Modern satellite and over-the-horizon surveillance technology negates this.

Instead, a surprise attack could be via hypersonic guided missiles — which can fly from mainland China to Hawaii in minutes. And once there, their AI guidance systems can find their predetermined targets.

surprise attack

“The nature, location and attacks at these locations all suggest that the targets are intended for ballistic missile testing,” USNI author HI Sutton argues. “These hypersonic anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) are an increasing threat to warships.”

The desert goals are relatively simple.

The “pillars” were represented by geometric arrangements of slabs of an unknown material laid on the desert sand.

The “ships” were metal plates placed between these “distractions”.

Their purpose could be to train and test guidance systems.

Its target range is notably close to another previously used to test the development of its “carrier killer” DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missiles in 2013. The latest weapon, the DF-17, carries a hypersonic glider that can maneuver an unpredictable trajectory towards an unwitting target.

Traveling at over 6200 km/h, China’s vast arsenal of hypersonic ballistic missiles will only have moments to recognize the shape of a warship among the clutter of a shipyard.

“Modern targeting sensors are usually connected to artificial intelligence, which allows the missile to distinguish targets and choose the intended or most valuable option,” Sutton writes.

If the visible impact craters are any indication, they seem capable of it now.

China has spent decades developing “carrier killer” hypersonic missiles.

Their goal is to prevent the US Navy from intervening in the Western Pacific.

So far, the arsenal ranges from the 1500km of the DF-21 to the 4000km of the DF-26. This places the major US naval bases in Okinawa and Guam within the Beijing locations.

But recent developments — as demonstrated by a highly unusual orbital payload deployment last June — suggest that facilities in Hawaii and even San Diego will soon be vulnerable to these ultra-fast, non-nuclear weapons.

Armed and ready

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) argues that recent military doctrine and technological developments in Beijing indicate a worrying trend.

“Changes in China’s attitudes and technologies indicate that the concept and practice of ‘active defense’ may converge with a more forward-looking and even preemptive ‘proactive defense’,” the report reads.

Active defense is defined as preparing to defend against a surprise attack.

Proactive defense is a euphemism for preparing for a preemptive, surprise attack.

The report says the aggressive policy shift is seen in new anti-satellite weapons, expanded intercontinental ballistic missile silos, hypersonic missile-carrying bombers and attack submarines.

“In recent years, China has shown a wide range of advances in military capabilities and infrastructure, including the test of a hypersonic glide vehicle combined with a fractional orbital bombing system,” the report reads.

The US insists it will never forget the preemptive attack on Pearl Harbor. War had not been declared.

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date that will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by the naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan,” President Franklin Roosevelt announced to his stunned nation.

The Russian anti-aircraft cruiser Moskova seems unable to defend itself against two subsonic cruise missiles. The ability of modern warships to protect themselves from hypersonic gliders remains questionable.

Late last year, the Pentagon’s acting director of combat tests warned that the US Navy’s unproven defense systems “posed an unacceptable risk to our ability to evaluate the operational effectiveness and survivability of future ships in combat.”

The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Mailnow subject to Beijing’s oppressive media control laws, quotes Zhou Chenming, a researcher at Yuan Wang’s military science and technology institute, as saying, “The PLA will not carry out preemptive strikes in peacetime.”

“China’s missiles, including the DF-21 carrier-killer and other weapons, were all designed to deter and refuse foreign military intervention in the event of an unforeseen event in Taiwan, which will only happen if Taipei formally declares independence.”

Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel

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