China's DF-17 hypersonic boost-glide missile may be powerful enough to penetrate US missile shields in the region, transforming Beijing's previously defensive strategy of containing independence-leaning forces in the Taiwan Strait.
Observers were surprised to see 16 DF-17s on their launchers during the October 1 National Day parade to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, with its wedge-shaped payload very different from the other member of the DF family.
An early version of the payload was first flagged in 2017 on state broadcaster CCTV, at that time described variously as a DF-ZF and WU-14. Seven hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) technology tests were conducted from 2013, according to state media.
Zhou Chenming, a Beijing-based military expert, said the DF-17 missile had extended China's range from the Taiwan Strait to the US military base in Yokosuka, Japan. While the primary aim was to deter an independence movement taking hold in the self-ruled island, China was now in a position to prevent a possible intervention by the US aircraft carrier strike group, should Beijing decide to take back the island by force.
"The DF-17 is designed as an offensive weapon amid Beijing's defensive strategy to build a fence outside the Taiwan Strait to stop US warships from entering and intervening in any possible war between the PLA and the Taiwanese military," Zhou said.
The DF-17 is the latest in a family of missiles developed in response to a growing independence movement which began in Taiwan under former president Chen Shui-bian, according to a military insider.
"The DF-17 is an innovative and cost-saving weapon based on the basics of DF-15 and DF-16 ballistic missiles that were being developed to cope with the independence-leaning movements driven by Chen Shui-bian," the insider said.
Chen, the first president from Taiwan's independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, came to power in 2000, ending 55 years of continuous rule by the Kuomintang.
"The successful development of the DF-17 will also inspire the People's Liberation Army to add the HGV technology to other DF series missiles, because China has tested so many kinds of HGV over the past few years," the insider said.
Macau-based military expert Antony Wong Dong said China's HGV technology was mature enough to arm intermediate-range missiles like the DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missile - dubbed as one of the PLA's "carrier killers" - in the East and South China seas to enhance its precise strike capability to counter the US navy's freedom of navigation operations in the region.
The deployment of a series of short-and-medium-range ballistic missiles with conventional warheads - like the DF-11, DF-15 and its variants - on the coasts of Fujian and Zhejiang provinces reached a peak during Chen's eight-year administration. In his New Year address in 2007, Chen said Taiwan's defence ministry had estimated more than 1,300 ballistic missiles were targeting the self-ruled island, up by more than one-third from a previous estimate.
Wong said that when Chen stepped down in 2008, to be replaced by the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang's Ma Ying-jeou, many mainland missile workers had worried they would lose their jobs.
However, Ma's decision to buy more than US$20 billion worth of defensive weaponry from the US during his eight-year administration pushed Beijing to upgrade its military forces against the island.
Even today, Beijing deploys at least 1,500 short-range ballistic missiles on the mainland's southeastern coast to target Taiwan, as well as some of the more advanced DF-16 medium-range missiles, according to the island's defence ministry.
However, according to the military insider, the imprecise hit rate of the DF-16 prompted development of the DF-17, which is capable of reusing the earlier model's launchers. "The size of the DF-16 remains suitable for about one brigade (with about 1,000 troops), but its developer produced so many launching vehicles for it," the insider said.
The DF-17 can reach targets within 1,500km (930 miles) at a speed that suppresses its trajectory and accelerates to reach Mach 5, but the wedge-shaped HGV has no propulsion and needs to be powered by the same rocket engine used by the DF-15, the person said.
Hong Kong-based military expert Song Zhongping said the DF-17 was capable of penetrating the United States' missile shields in the region, including Taiwan's Patriot Advanced Capability-3 systems and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system in the South Korea.
"All the DF-15, DF-16 and DF-17s could build a comprehensive strike network covering everywhere from Taiwan island to the neighbouring countries around mainland China, especially the US's overseas military bases in the region," Song, who is also a military commentator for Phoenix Television, said.
"The superiority of the DF-17 is its hypersonic warhead which could penetrate missile defence networks, radar and early-warning systems, and hit some difficult targets that the DF-15 and DF-16 might be unable to do."
The US and Russia are also developing hypersonic technologies, but so far only China has it in full initial operation, after Chinese scientists made a breakthrough in developing a ceramic-metal composite that can withstand temperatures up to 3,000 degrees Celsius (5,430 Fahrenheit), making the DF-17 the world's first active HGV weapon, according to a report by state-owned Hunan Television in May.
US defence official General John Hyten, vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed concerns in March - in his then role as head of US Strategic Command - about the inability of the US to defend against precision strikes by the DF-17, regardless of claims by CCTV that the missiles were armed with conventional warheads.
The military insider confirmed that the DF-17 would gradually replace the older DF-11 and DF-15, but all missiles would only be armed with conventional payloads.
"China would only use nuclear warheads for strategic weapons like the DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missiles with a range up to 15,000km that could hit the continental United States for nuclear deterrence," the insider said.
"The DF-17 could hit the US fleet in Japan's Yokosuka and destroy the THAAD, but for now it is unable to hit high-speed moving warships like an American aircraft carrier."
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