China tested a new missile in November that is equipped with a "hypersonic glide vehicle" (HGV), according to a U.S. government source interviewed by The Diplomat.
HGVs are capsules on the top of a missile that hold the payload. They break apart from the main body of the projectile after it has reached its highest altitude, and glide to the target until impact.
"HGVs are maneuverable vehicles that travel at hypersonic (greater than Mach 5) speed and spend most of their flight at much lower altitudes than a typical ballistic missile," according to a 2017 report by the National Air and Space Intelligence Center.
The DF-21D "Carrier Killer" missile batteries roll through China's 2015 military parade. The DF-21D is one of the weapons that poses a serious threat to the U.S. Navy today. (Image from Wikimedia Commons user William Ide)
"The combination of high speed, maneuverability, and relatively low altitude makes them challenging targets for missile defense systems."
According to The Diplomat's source, the test was "the first HGV test in the world using a system intended to be fielded operationally," meaning the Chinese are no longer in the developing stage, and now have an HGV ready for use.
The US and Russia are also trying to develop HGVs, but neither have flight tested an operational prototype.
The Chinese missile, dubbed the DF-17, was reportedly tested twice — once on Nov. 1 and again on Nov. 15. It flew 1,400 kilometers, according to The Diplomat, and the HGV flew at a depressed altitude of "around 60 kilometers." It is heavily based on the DF-16B missile, which is in operational use within the Chinese military.
After approximately 11 minutes of flight time, the missile impacted "within meters" of its target.
The source said that the DF-17 was a medium-range missile system that had a range between 1,800 and 2,500 kilometers. It is capable of carrying nuclear and conventional payloads, and may be able to be configured to have a maneuverable reentry vehicle instead of an HGV.