According to the South China Morning Post, Beijing is in the development phase of constructing a state of the art hypersonic engine facility to mass-produce, low-cost planes capable of traveling five times faster than the speed of sound.
Screen capture from a video of a hypersonic vehicle using the combined cycle engine under development at China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. (Source: CCTV)
The manufacturing plant is set to be constructed in Hefei, China’s eastern Anhui province, which could give the country a considerable lead over Russia and the United States in the race for hypersonic technologies. As it is widely known to major global superpowers, the country who realize the first to possess these technologies will revolutionize their civilian and military programs.
The Institute of Mechanics, or Imech, is one of the largest hypersonic developers in China. The institute would “join hands” with the Hefei government to construct the engine manufacturing facility. This partnership allows Imech to scale up operations for commercial purposes. No completion date has been given to the general public. The region of Hefei was chosen because of its growing reputation as a significant science and technology hub in China.
In an attempt to stoke economic growth, Beijing recently unleashed a new wave of capital flowing to technological breakthroughs, in attempt to deviate far away from the country’s thousands of corporate zombie companies that are kept alive via state assistance.
Fan Xuejun, director of Imech’s “scramjet” division, told the Post the manufacturing plant would make engines for military or civilian customers.
In February, we reported on a group of Chinese researchers who revealed an ultra-fast hypersonic plane they say will be able to take dozens of people and tonnes of cargo – “anything from flowers to bombs, and likewise, passengers could be tourists or military special forces” – from Beijing to New York in about two hours versus a conventional commercial passenger plane that would normally take 15 hours.
Researchers say the I-plane’s two layers of wings will mean it can handle significantly heavier payload than existing hypersonic vehicles. (Source: SCMP)
Researchers familiar with Imech’s project believe that the hypersonic engine could be a blended engine, “a rocket-based combined cycle system,” said the Post, which is currently under examination at Imech’s ground facility in Huairou, Beijing.
“The system could use a conventional turbine engine for take-off and acceleration to supersonic speed – faster than the speed of sound – then fire up the scramjet to reach hypervelocity. A rocket would give the vehicle a final push to bring it up to orbital height. Researchers familiar with the project agreed that the engine, which puts three different types of propulsion technology in one package, could indeed significantly reduce the cost of space flight.”
A hypersonic weapon test experiment is conducted in a wind tunnel at the Institute of Mechanics. (Source: SCMP)
The Post believes that Russia, the United States, and China have “recently overcome the technical hurdles and achieved the long-term, stable operation of scramjet engines.”
According to Liu Hong, an expert fellow at the school of aeronautics and astronautics at Shanghai Jiaotong University, “China and the US could be neck and neck in the race to achieve a mass application of hypersonic technology, but both countries remain a step or two behind Russia.”
In March, we reported how Russian President Vladimir Putin said his new hypersonic missile could rip the West’s air defenses apart. The intercontinental hypersonic missile, Putin said, would fly to targets at 20 times the speed of sound.
“Putin is telling the truth,” Hong said. Though the hypersonic weapon tests in the US and China received the most media coverage, it was generally agreed among researchers that “the Russians are the leader in this field,” he said.
Hong said, “the rocket-based combined cycle system could be the first hypersonic power source” to be commercialized on a global scale because the program has been in development for many many years, and is now entering the matured phase.
“If [the Hefei plant] is taking the approach, which is relatively simple and mature, I think their goal for commercial production is possible. It is within the reach of current technology,” he said.
However, Imech is not alone in the world of hypersonic technologies. There are at least five other major state-owned research companies or government entities possessing such technologies.
“In 2016, China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp said it was developing a hybrid space plane that would take off and land in a normal airport with a combined cycle engine.
Its major rival, China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp, launched a similar project called Teng Long, or soaring dragon, soon afterward.
In early March, the China Aerodynamics Research and Development Centre, the hypersonic weapon development branch of the People’s Liberation Army in Mianyang, Sichuan province, announced a successful test of a prototype spacecraft in the Gobi Desert, in Inner Mongolia. The vehicle was believed to be a hypersonic space plane. “
Each Chinese company in the hypersonic race “has a unique technological advantage,” Hong said.
“In the end I believe the government will scoop the cream of the technology of each project and put them together to build a high-performance vehicle,” he said.
Hong added, “Rapid advancement in hypersonic technology in recent years also has sparked interest in its potential application in non-military sectors.”
While China could be on the cusp of mass-producing hypersonic engines, and or aircraft, President Xi Jinping launched the construction of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road. It seems as hypersonic technologies could play a critical role in Beijing’s implementation or governing of their new global economic system, which could be made possible through civilian and or military applications.
As we have stated before, hypersonic technologies could rewrite the geopolitical landscape, and as of right now — it seems that Russia and China are doing just that. Maybe it is time to rethink American exceptionalism?