US, China locked in a hypersonic tit for tat

China has ramped up practicing hypersonic missile assaults on US warships and bases, as recent satellite photos of mock targets in Xinjiang’s Taklamakan Desert show.  

Satellite photos released by the US Naval Institute this week show a string of large mock targets on the eastern edge of the desert that simulate warships such as aircraft carriers, destroyers, and naval bases.

The configuration, remote location and impact craters on the targets mean that they were meant for testing China’s hypersonic anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), an increasingly dangerous threat to US warships in the Pacific.

Among the newer targets discovered were a destroyer and pier mock-ups first built in December last year, 13 kilometers southeast from an aircraft carrier practice target. This February, the base was destroyed in a missile attack exercise and quickly dismantled.

Another target range simulating a pier and warships was discovered 310 kilometers southwest of the original aircraft carrier target. The facility was believed to have been built in December 2018 but had only been discovered now.

The targets also show a high degree of complexity, with the ship and pier targets being made of different materials. The ship targets appear to be made of sheet metal laid on the ground, in a possible effort to simulate radar and infrared signatures.

If so, this indicates China’s sophisticated targeting capabilities, combining radar and infrared guidance systems with sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI) to overcome countermeasures and distinguish key targets in crowded environments, such as littoral areas, sea lanes of communication (SLOCs) and naval bases.

According to Lu Li Shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Kaohsiung Naval Academy, the newer facility is meant to simulate Suao naval base in Taiwan, with the target ship representing a Kee Lung class destroyer at port.