Hypersonic missiles

Hypersonic missiles are considered so disruptive that some experts want treaties in place to prevent their proliferation. China, naturally, is busy working on its own (as are Russia and the US). As reported by the Diplomat, in November China tested the DF-17, which combines a ballistic missile with a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV). The Diplomat’s source described it as “the first HGV test in the world using a system intended to be fielded operationally.” HGVs stop short of entering space, then skip back down to Earth at hypersonic speeds. By not reentering the atmosphere from a much higher apogee, they pose challenges for the early-warning satellites and missile-defense systems that watch for such things. What’s more, they’re nimble and can disguise their true targets until the final seconds. The medium-range DF-17 could be operational by 2020, and observers expect it will be capable of delivering both nuclear and conventional warheads. Improved versions of the technology will likely follow from the PLA.

Deep-sea reconnaissance

Given its maritime ambitions, China needs to detect enemy movements not just in the air, but also in the sea. To do that effectively, it needs to collect deep-sea data. The South China Morning Post reported in January that China has launched an underwater surveillance network—including buoys, surface vessels, satellites, and underwater gliders—designed to do just that. It gathers information about the underwater environment, such as water temperature and salinity—factors that affect the speed and direction of sound waves. Since submarines use sonar to track and target enemy vessels, that matters to the military. With such a system, China can monitor the waters in the South China Sea and elsewhere with greater precision—which could give other nations’ submarines pause before entering China-claimed areas. In January, China’s state-run media insisted the underwater research is for scientific research only—but then, Beijing once insisted that its construction at Mischief Reef in the South China Sea was for a fishermen’s shelter, while it is now clearly a military base.

Drone swarms

China is also working on using swarms of small drones as a new method of attack. The idea is that such drones would respond in unison to commands yet avoid hitting one another. In December the country’s National University of Defense Technology conducted a test involving a few dozen tiny unmanned aircraft used for a simulated reconnaissance mission. Future experiments could involve hundreds of drones, and the potential uses of the swarms are numerous. Carrying electronic warfare jammers, they could be used to confuse and overwhelm an enemy’s defenses before a more complex operation. Or they could simply be flown into the intakes of fighter jets to disable them. More uses for drone swarms will likely emerge in the future.

Evolving exoskeletons

This month, Norinco—a state-owned maker of armored vehicles—introduced a second-generation exoskeleton designed for China’s infantry. Wearing the battery-powered body brace, a soldier can carry around about 100 lbs (45 kg) of weapons, ammo, and supplies. Compared to an earlier version introduced in 2015, this upgrade has a better battery, a streamlined harness, and stronger hydraulic and pneumatic actuators. It’s also lighter, which further improves battery performance. Future versions could include body armor. Meanwhile, the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation has been showing off its own exoskeleton to naval military leaders: Supporting China’s maritime ambitions, after all, will entail loading plenty of cargo onto ships and planes.

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