The anticipated arrival of deck-launched hypersonic weapons on the U.S. Navy Zumwalt-class stealth destroyers in 2025 is not happening a moment too soon given the current global threat equation regarding hypersonic.
Of course, when it comes to range, speed of attack, and both offensive and defensive targeting, ship-fired hypersonics are expected to be truly paradigm-changing for maritime warfare.
The Conventional Prompt Strike weapon, a hypersonic boost-glide vehicle, will hold an entirely new sphere of targets at risk.
How quickly will they arrive? Will it be in time to counter China’s fast-growing hypersonic weapons arsenal? Not long ago, U.S. weapons developers publicly said the U.S. was “number three” when it comes to hypersonic weapons, although the gap is likely narrowing quickly. While it is known that China and Russia are both “testing” various hypersonic weapons they claim are operational, their actual functionality may or may not be as significant as claimed in Chinese and Russian media reports.
China, for instance, is already test-firing a ship-launched hypersonic missile and has also cited an extremely recent or new “air-launched” variant. In recent years, China has been test-firing its ship-launched YJ-21 hypersonic missiles. Even more recently, the Chinese government-backed Global Times newspaper wrote that China’s H6K bomber has been encircling Taiwan, with a new suite of weapons that includes a previously unreported air-launched variant of the hypersonic weapon.
Military Watch magazine and Naval News both cite the existence of the YJ-21, yet only in terms of a surface-ship-launched application. Both reports cite a People’s Liberation Army – Navy (PLAN) video showing the test-firing of the YJ-21 “hypersonic missile” from its emerging, quasi-stealthy Type 055 Destroyers. However, neither report from 2022 mentions an “air-launched” YJ-12 hypersonic missile variant, so the H6K-launched variant cited in the Chinese paper may be something China has developed quite recently if it exists. While Naval News’ article from 2022 is clear to point out that there is still much “unknown” about the YJ-21, the publication quotes a Naval News analyst H I Sutton as saying the JY-21 appears to be based upon the CM-401 design.
However, available videos of PLAN test firings of deck-fired hypersonic weapons do not necessarily verify any measure of the effectiveness of the missile. The true measure of success of any hypersonic weapon would pertain to its ability to sustain hypersonic speeds, operate with precision guidance, and maneuver in flight if necessary. There is no indication that China’s YJ-21 has the ability to do this, yet the U.S. has for several years now been working on what it calls a “tech insertion” effort to upgrade hypersonic projectiles with the ability to hit “moving targets.” The ability to use cutting-edge guidance technology, precision navigation, and adapt course in flight as needed to adjust to moving targets would bring an as-of-yet unprecedented maritime warfare ability.
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.