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China Says It Developed a Heat-Seeking Hypersonic Missile

Orbital Hypersonic Missile
Image: Creative Commons.

Chinese scientists claim they have developed a hypersonic missile that can home in on a target’s heat.

If true – and China has overcome formidable technical challenges – then U.S. forces could face ultra-fast air-to-air and ground-to-air missiles as well as missile defense interceptors.

China’s Next Big Hypersonic Missile Advance? 

Scientists at China’s National University of Defense Technology said that “heat-seeking capability allows Chinese hypersonic missiles to home in on almost any target – including stealth aircraft, aircraft carriers and moving vehicles on the street – with unprecedented accuracy and speed,” according to the South China Morning Post.

At first glance, infrared seekers – common since the 1950s in air-to-air and other guided missiles – would seem a natural fit for hypersonic weapons, which travel faster than Mach 5. The problem is physics: hypersonic missiles traveling through the atmosphere generate heat in such quantities that the IR (infrared) signature of the target is drowned out, as well as disrupting radio communications with the missile similar to spacecraft suffering a radio blackout during reentry. In addition, the aerothermal effects of hypersonic flight can crack the optical windows of infrared seekers.

“For example, shock waves and high heat loads produced during flight impart wavefront distortions and boresight errors upon guidance electronics, while aerothermal-mechanical loads challenge aperture integration into flight vehicle aerostructures,” noted the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Various proposed solutions, such as splashing liquid over the IR windows or using cooling tubes, were not effective or practical, the Chinese researchers concluded in a paper for Chinese journal Modern Defense Technology. Instead, they used what sounds like a cooling fan.

“The Chinese scientists put an air-blowing device in front of the infrared window to generate a thin membrane of cold air, reducing the heat on the glass,” the Post said. “Some research teams in other countries had tried this approach but failed because the cooling air could trigger strong turbulence that distorted the heat signal, giving a fuzzy, flickering and less accurate location of the target.”

To achieve this, the researchers “developed a compact, lightweight device that could generate an extremely cold stream of inert gas at more than three times the speed of sound to reduce signal distortion. They managed to squeeze 40 microvortex generators into the air-cooling device to produce air flows that could break apart the turbulence. They also developed a new mathematical model that helped them to better predict and eliminate the optical distortion as missiles accelerated and homed in on targets at wide attack angles.”

America Has Its Own Hypersonic Missile with Similiar Technology 

Meanwhile, the U.S. military is seeking its own hypersonic-capable infrared homing technology. In June 2021, DARPA awarded contracts to Lockheed Martin and Georgia Tech Research Corp. for its High Enthalpy Aperture Technology (HEAT) project. HEAT is intended to “protect sensitive electronics from the aggressive aerothermal environment of high-speed flight while providing transparency to the RF [radio frequency] or IR electromagnetic energy used for guidance, communication, and sensing,” according to the June 2020 DARPA proposal.

“The HEAT program will develop a new class of materials that are capable of operating at high heat fluxes and dynamic pressures to enhance hypersonic operational capability,” said DARPA. “Proposed research should investigate innovative approaches that enable revolutionary advances in the design and implementation of aperture materials. The HEAT program will focus on (1) RF radome materials, (2) IR window materials, and (3) enabling aperture material technologies for next-generation hypersonic platforms.”

A Growing Hypersonic Missile Threat

Interestingly, the Chinese scientists said the U.S. had been a leader in high-speed IR technology in the 1980s and 1990s, partly as a result of research into intercepting ballistic missiles. Whether the Chinese hypersonic IR concept will work in combat as well as the laboratory, remains to be seen. But China is clearly sending the message that it is overtaking the U.S. in advanced technologies.

A seasoned defense and national security writer and expert, Michael Peck is a contributing writer for Forbes Magazine. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy Magazine, Defense News, The National Interest, and other publications. He can be found on Twitter and Linkedin.

Written By

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for Forbes. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy Magazine, Defense News, The National Interest, and other publications. He can be found on Twitter and Linkedin.

8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. TrustbutVerify

    January 18, 2022 at 6:33 am

    Or just parroting anything they come across as, “Yeah, we got that too..now and better!” Just like the Russians with “we had it first!”

  2. Ben Wah

    January 18, 2022 at 10:17 am

    If it’s as effective as their COVID vaccine, I dont think we’ll have much to worry about.

  3. Christian J. Chuba

    January 18, 2022 at 12:37 pm

    But since it’s China, you have to add … ‘they stole it from us’ even if they developed it first. As long as we can prove that it appeared in a Marvel Comic book.

  4. DJ

    January 18, 2022 at 1:10 pm

    That should workout fine against our newly designed cold fusion propulsion system upgrade!

  5. RogerG

    January 18, 2022 at 1:44 pm

    I have no doubt they are moving quickly in hypersonic development. I know most people don’t believe that the US developed an advanced space vehicle based on research into crashed UFOs, but they did. It’s unofficial name is TR3B. They are the triangular shaped UFOs that have been sighted since the 1990s. They completely detached and compartmentalized the program under Reagan/Bush so thoroughly that the official US government has no knowledge of or control over it. So the only question is whether the people in charge of it now will be willing to use it to save the US from a defeat in a war against China and Russia.

  6. Ollie

    January 18, 2022 at 2:28 pm

    If it goes that fast seeking heat it might just follow another missile going in the other direction toward the Chinese , when the fighting starts every man and his dog will have their fancy hypersonic whatever missiles flying all over the place , it goes to say that a real nuclear war might start as most of these hypersonic weapons are fired the same way nuclear missiles are fired – into the atmosphere and glide to get velocity

  7. Johnathan Galt

    January 18, 2022 at 3:03 pm

    The notion of a heat-seaking hypersonic missile seems at first absurd. You have to have a window over the lens, which will be subjected to 1,000F heat.

  8. James Matters

    January 19, 2022 at 10:26 am

    I want to see the turning radius of that missile as it tries to track an F22 or F35 pulling it down into thick air while jinking.

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