China Leaks Video Of Mysterious Ground-Launched Missile

China appears to have accidentally revealed the existence of a new high-speed ground-launched missile. A brief glimpse of what looks to be a test launch of this previously unseen weapon emerged earlier this week in an official video released in the run-up to the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Communist State on Oct. 1. There have already been indications that a number of new or otherwise previously unseen aircraft, missiles, and other systems will be present at a major parade in Beijing to mark the occasion next week.

The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force, or PLARF, posted the full video on social media on Sept. 25, 2019. Sometime afterward, the original one-minute long montage was replaced with one that omitted the launch of the unknown weapon and replaced it with unrelated footage of known missiles, according to the South China Morning Post.

The PLARF is in charge of China’s strategic nuclear arsenal, as well as a variety of conventionally-armed long-range ground-based ballistic and cruise missiles. The service is also in charge of ballistic missile defense, which may then also include anti-satellite capabilities. The PLARF came into being in 2015 with the decision to elevate what was previously known as the 2nd Artillery Force into a full service with equal status to the People’s Liberation Army’s Army, Air Force, and Navy.

There is no obvious indication about what this new missile is or what its mission may be. The video shows that it is vertically launched from a 10-wheel transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) that appears to be able to carry two of the weapons in a ready-to-fire configuration. Photos of preparations for the 70th-anniversary parade in Beijing on Oct. 1, 2019, have shown a similar, previously unseen TEL with its entire rear section tarped off. 

A screenshot from the original PLARF video showing the TEL as the missile begins to blast off., PLARF capture
A similar-looking TEL seen during preparations for the parade in Beijing on Oct. 1., Chinese Internet

The weapon itself appears to have at least two distinct parts, a main body with a very large rocket booster attached to the end. The booster would fall away at some point in the early stage of flight. 

The main weapon has large strakes or fins and what appear to be a number of relatively long and thin fairings at the tail end, which some have suggested could be ramjet intakes. An air-breathing ramjet propulsion system would fit with the large booster motor, since the weapon would then need to get up to an appropriate speed and altitude before its engines could function properly. A number of existing Chinese supersonic anti-ship missiles, such as the YJ-12 series or the newer HD-1, use a similar general configuration.

The unidentified missile seen in the original PLARF video., PLARF capture
China’s HD-1 supersonic anti-ship cruise missile., Chinese Internet

The PLARF already operates the ground-based subsonic CJ-10 land-attack cruise missile, which has a range of approximately 930 miles. This has led some to believe that this new weapon is a supersonic, or possibly hypersonic, land-attack cruise missile intended to replace that existing weapon. Hypersonic speed is defined as greater than Mach 5. The wide nose and missile body, together with the strakes/fins, would seem to make it unlikely that this is indeed a hypersonic weapon.

Others have posited that it could be a new quasi-ballistic missile. However, the strakes/fins and possible ramjet propulsion would be at odds with what one would expect to see in a weapon that is supposed to fly in a ballistic flight path.

Regardless of the exact nature of its configuration, the weapon could also potentially be intended for other roles instead of or in addition to striking land targets, including engaging hostile ships at extended ranges. The PLARF has already developed significant anti-ship ballistic missile capabilities, most notably with the DF-21D medium-range ballistic missile and the DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile, the latter of which is seen in the video below. 

A very-long-range, fast-flying, dedicated anti-ship cruise could certainly give the force additional flexibility in this regard. It seems worth noting that this weapon has appeared more than a year after Chinese hackers stole sensitive information about a U.S. Navy supersonic anti-ship missile program known as Sea Dragon, which The War Zone has previously explored in-depth. There is, of course, no hard evidence, so far, that the two designs are in any way related.

The video has also emerged some six years after what was then known as U.S. Pacific Command made an urgent request to acquire and field an electronic warfare system for ships in the Asia-Pacific region in order to counter an unspecified missile threat or threats in their terminal phases of flight. This led to the installation of the AN/SLQ-59 Transportable Electronic Warfare Module (TEWM) on U.S. Navy ships assigned to the U.S. 7th Fleet, which is forward-deployed in Japan. You can read more about this system in this recent War Zone feature.

The AN/SLQ-59 installation on the US Navy’s Arleigh Burke class destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur. The Navy rushed this system into service in response to unspecified anti-ship missile threats in the Pacific region., USN

Given the PLARF’s core missions, though this weapon looks too small to be an anti-satellite system, another possibility is that it’s a missile defense interceptor. It’s not clear why such a weapon would use ramjet propulsion, although we can’t say this is definitely the case at this time. In addition, China has already been working on a number of ballistic missile interceptors, reportedly derived from its HQ-9 long-range surface-to-air missile, over the last decade. The U.S. military, as well as its regional allies Japan and South Korea, have been working in recent years to expand its missile defenses in the Pacific and China could be interested in fielding its own systems in response. 

Still, the PLA’s interest in additional missile defenses options may be growing with the collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between the United States and Russia in August 2019. Shortly after, the Pentagon tested a ground-launched BGM-109 Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile and promised to deploy post-INF missiles of some kind to the Pacific region within a matter of months. U.S. officials repeatedly cited the fact that the Chinese were not bound by the INF treaty as a justification for withdrawing from it. 

The U.S. Army is also in the process of developing land-based hypersonic missiles, which it could also deploy to locations in the Pacific, such as Guam, where they could threaten China and its interests. “China will not stand idly by and be forced to take countermeasures should the U.S. deploy intermediate-range ground-based missiles this part of the world,” Fu Cong, Director of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Arms Control Department, had told reporters on Aug. 6, 2019.

Even though very little is known for sure about this new missile, if nothing else, it is yet another indication of how active China continues to be in the development of new and advanced aircraft, weapons, and other military systems. The new missile is just one of a number of previously undisclosed systems that have emerged in the lead up to the Oct. 1 anniversary parade. It is possible that the Chinese may have intentionally allowed the footage to slip out, even though they pulled it down later, in order to send a signal or create uncertainty for foreign intelligence agencies, as well.

Given the appearance of a very similar looking TEL, which does not appear to be associated with any existing, known missiles, during the parade preparations, it is very possible that we may learn more about this new weapon in the coming days. 

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