China reportedly carried out a land-based mid-course missile interception test within its territory, reported state-run Global Times on October 8, citing China’s Ministry of National Defense. If true, this is the second such test conducted by China this year.
Global Times did not elaborate on the test but only tweeted: China carried out a land-based mid-course missile interception test within its territory, which has achieved its expected purpose, according to the Ministry of National Defense.
The SCMP appeared to be contradicting the report and wrote: China has released a video of an anti-ballistic missile interception test as part of a drive to showcase its military abilities ahead of a major Communist Party gathering. The 23-second clip released on a social media account affiliated with the Chinese military on Friday evening did not identify the time and location of the test, but it referred to an announcement by the defense ministry in June that a missile test had been carried out.
Before that, China carried out similar mid-course anti-ballistic missile (ABM) technical tests in 2010, 2013, 2014, 2018, and 2021 to demonstrate the reliability of the country’s anti-ballistic missile umbrella.
China carried out a land-based mid-course missile interception test within its territory, which has achieved its expected purpose, according to the Ministry of National Defense. pic.twitter.com/WcDWEhlUbp
— Global Times (@globaltimesnews) October 8, 2022
It was not disclosed in which interception phase the test in 2014 was carried out. The remaining six were carried out in the mid-course phase.
There are three phases in the flight path of a ballistic missile: the boost phase, the midcourse phase, and the terminal phase.
The boost phase begins as soon as the missile is launched and lasts until its engines run out. This phase aims to propel the missile into space and a parabolic orbit around the Earth.
The missile moves slowly in its initial boost phase with a bright infrared signature and therefore is most vulnerable to interception. However, the reaction time for a counter-operation is significantly less.
Also, the intercept capability has to be located close enough to successfully engage the launched missile, which in the case of the US – China’s number one adversary – is not possible, and the location of the launch site may not be known before launch.
Mid-Course Interception Phase
The missile begins its parabolic route toward the target in the mid-course stage. This is the most time-consuming of the three phases and, therefore, the most suitable one for interception. Nevertheless, the mid-course phase is highly challenging for interception for various reasons that will be discussed later.
The terminal phase begins with the missile re-entering the atmosphere from space to fly toward its final destination. The duration of this phase is very short, and it presents the last chance to prevent an incoming strike before detonation or impact.
Because of the short time window in this phase of a missile’s flight, the intercept capability must be located near the incoming missile’s target for successful interception. After entering the terminal phase, the time to target is usually less than a minute.
Challenges In Mid-Course Interception?
As stated earlier, the mid-course phase is the longest of all three phases in a missile’s flight, meaning multiple interceptors can be launched at the incoming missile by a defending nation.
However, the exo-atmospheric conditions in space and the speeds involved in mid-course intercepts are difficult to master, presenting a challenge to track and target the attacking missile’s appropriate components – the warhead section.
Furthermore, longer airtime allows the attacking ballistic missile to launch its countermeasures to confuse the defending systems.
The networking required between the offboard sensors and sensors onboard the interceptors to realize successful interception is already very complex. The countermeasures employed by the attacking missile present an additional challenge for target discrimination.
The direction of the attack can also be an issue. For example, if the missile is coming in from the South Pole, away from the direction in which the early warning and tracking systems are trained, including those used for target discrimination, the midcourse interception would become more complicated or even impossible to carry out.
China’s Mid-Course Interception Capabilities
Not much is known about what specific weapons China has for midcourse ballistic missile interception.
As per US Defense Department’s annual reports on China’s military capabilities for 2020 and 2021, the country is developing its indigenous CH-AB-X-02 (HQ-19) surface-to-air missile (SAM) system, which will likely have a ballistic missile defense capability.
Notably, the ‘X’ in the Pentagon’s designation for the system implies that the CH-AB-X-02 is still in an experimental phase and has yet to be fielded.
— Tim Fish (@sweeneygov) August 1, 2016
According to Pentagon’s reports, the HQ-19 mid-course interceptor has tested its capability against 3,000 kilometers-class ballistic missiles, and an HQ-19 unit may have begun preliminary operations in western China.
Apart from that, China is also pursuing a mid-course interceptor, which the Pentagon report did not specify. Still, it may have capabilities against Intermediate-range and possibly inter-continental ballistic missiles (IRBMs and ICBMs).
Furthermore, China is also developing kinetic-kill vehicle technology to deploy a mid-course interceptor, which will form the upper layer of multi-tiered missile defense.