China Shoots Down ‘Nuke-Capable’ ICBM Possibly By HQ-19 Missile In Latest ABM Tests As Tensions Mount With US

China completed a land-based, mid-course anti-ballistic missile (ABM) technical test on April 14, making it the country’s seventh publicly announced test since 2010.

According to a press release from China’s Ministry of National Defense, the land-based, mid-course ABM interception test it conducted inside its borders on Friday night met its objectives, state-owned media Global Times reported.

The press release added that the test is defensive in nature and was not directed at any specific country. However, it comes at a time of rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait and days after the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) simulated Taiwan encirclement, which indicates future Chinese plans against Taipei.

The three-day Chinese ‘Joint Sword’ military drills were in response to a controversial meeting between Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California. At the end of the extensive PLA drills around Taiwan, China said it was “ready to fight.”

This isn’t the first time China has conducted a mid-course ABM interception test. Before this, China had conducted six land-based ABM tests in 2010, 2013, 2014, 2018, 2021, and 2022.

Except for the 2014 test, all of these were stated to have involved midcourse interceptions. Months after the country conducted its mid-course ABM test in June 2022, a 23 second-video clip surfaced on social media in October without giving details of the time and location of the test.

A Chinese military analyst told Global Times China’s successful consecutive ABM tests have shown that it has visibly mastered the technology and can defend itself in the event of a first attack.

However, the unnamed expert emphasized that due to China’s commitment to a non-first-use nuclear strategy, the nation must be able to deter hostile nukes and resist initial attacks so that counterattacks can follow.

In light of the current unpredictability in the global security environment, analysts said China’s ABM systems, underground nuclear defense installations, and nuclear arsenal—all being regularly modernized—build up a viable deterrent against nuclear threats.

An image from the video clip of China’s Mid-course ballistic missile interception in 2022. (Weibo)

A mid-course interception is typically targeted at an intermediate-range or intercontinental ballistic missile that may be carrying nuclear weapons, according to Song Zhongping, a Chinese military analyst and TV commentator, as reported by the Global Times.

These assertions are significant as they come months after reports suggested that China may have amassed more nuclear warheads than Washington. A key Pentagon report revealed late last year that China’s stockpile of nuclear warheads had surpassed 400 in a surprisingly short period.

A massive arsenal of long-range ICBMs that can carry conventional and nuclear warheads and an added capability to intercept a hostile ICBM mid-flight could significantly bolster China’s combat capability in a real war scenario.

Military experts have noted on multiple occasions that a military conflict between China and the United States is unlikely but not impossible, given the ever-escalating tensions in the Taiwan Strait. However, if one such conflict were actually to occur, China’s mid-course interception would thwart ICBM attacks launched by the US.

Only a few countries have carried such an advanced mid-course test, propelling Beijing into an elite category.

Why Is Mid-Course Interception A Big Deal?

The boost phase and terminal phase are the first and final of a series of three broad phases that make up a ballistic missile’s flight, with the midcourse phase coming in between the two and is considered very tough for interception.

In the mid-course phase, the missile starts moving parabolically toward the direction of its target. This step can be easily intercepted because it takes the longest of the three to complete. However, the mid-course phase is challenging to intercept for various reasons.

Since the mid-course phase lasts the longest of the three phases of a missile’s flight, the defending side can shoot multiple interceptors against the incoming missile. However, the exo-atmospheric conditions in space and the speeds involved in mid-course intercepts are difficult to master.

These factors challenge tracking and targeting the attacking missile’s appropriate components, i.e., the warhead section. Additionally, greater airtime enables the attacking ballistic missile to unleash countermeasures to trick the defending systems.

The networking between offboard sensors and sensors inside interceptors is already highly complicated to achieve successful interception. Target discrimination is made more difficult by the defensive strategies used by the attacking missile.

File Image for Representation

Moreover, the attack’s trajectory can potentially be problematic. For instance, if the missile is approaching from the South Pole, distant from where the early warning and tracking systems, including those utilized for target discrimination, are trained, the midcourse interception would become more challenging or impossible to complete.

Little is known about China’s particular arsenal for intercepting midcourse ballistic missiles. China is building its homegrown CH-AB-X-02 (HQ-19) surface-to-air missile (SAM) system, which will probably be able to defend against ballistic missiles, according to annual assessments from the US Defense Department on China’s military capabilities for 2020 and 2021.

Notably, the ‘X’ in the system’s designation by the Pentagon suggests that the CH-AB-X-02 is still in the experimental stage and has not yet been put into service.

According to sources from the Pentagon, the HQ-19 mid-course interceptor has demonstrated its effectiveness against ballistic missiles in the 3,000-kilometer range, and a unit of the HQ-19 may have started conducting practice missions in western China.

In addition, China is exploring a mid-course interceptor, which was not mentioned in the Pentagon paper.

Not just that, 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.

China indicates it is actively participating in the midcourse intercept of anti-ballistic missiles. They demonstrate that they have the technological prowess and capacity to pull off such a high-tech accomplishment or are at least making great efforts to make it happen.