China says it has made breakthroughs in the precision and cooling mechanism of infrared sensors, enabling it to develop hypersonic missiles with heat-seeking technology, years ahead of the United States.
In a report on the South China Morning Post, China claims that the future of warfare could be transformed by hypersonic missiles that are able to search for, identify and lock onto targets based on their heat signature.
The Chinese scientists claim to have developed hypersonic weapons with technical breakthroughs that the U.S. military may not even have until 2025.
China’s infrared sensor technology could enable its weapons to home in on almost any target, including stealth aircraft, aircraft carriers and even moving vehicles on the street with “unprecedented accuracy and speed.”
The first generation of hypersonic weapons were designed to penetrate missile defence systems and hit fixed targets on the ground at five times the speed of sound or faster. Although China and Russia had deployed some hypersonic missiles, a popular opinion elsewhere was that these weapons had little practical value unless a country wanted to start a nuclear war.
But conventional warfare could be transformed by a hypersonic missile being able to search for, identify and lock on to a target based on its heat signature when flying at low altitudes where the air is thicker, said the Chinese researchers, from the hypersonic infrared homing programme at the National University of Defence Technology.
According to the newspaper, a Chinese military researcher said at an academic conference in 2020 that a ground to air hypersonic missile could catch up with and take out a U.S. F-22 within seconds if it fired a missile or dropped a bomb close-range.
However, heat-sensing at hypersonic speed is not easy, to that end, China has made a “series of core technology breakthroughs that were proven effective in tests” according to lead scientist professor Yi Shihe in China’s domestic peer-reviewed journal Air and Space Defence.
The hypersonic infrared missiles have already been tested, and the work has won Yi’s team a Chinese military service technology award.
“Precision guidance with infrared imaging technology is a force multiplier for hypersonic weapons,” Yi said in the paper. “If one party takes the lead in processing mature hypersonic weapons, this party will have the absolute advantage of asymmetric attacks.”
The SCMP report added:
At high Mach numbers, the surface of a missile becomes so hot that a target’s heat signal can be overwhelmed by background noise. The infrared window would crack because no glass material could withstand the extreme heat and shock waves.
Scientists from around the world had proposed ways to lower the temperature, such as splashing liquid over the window or planting cooling tubes under the glass. Most of these ideas were ineffective or too complex, according to Yi and his colleagues.
The Chinese scientists put an air-blowing device in front of the infrared window to generate a thin membrane of cold air, reducing the heat on the glass. Some research teams in other countries had tried this approach but failed because the cooling air could trigger strong turbulence that distorted the heat signal, giving a fuzzy, flickering and less accurate location of the target.
Yi’s team solved this problem with a number of breakthroughs. They developed a compact, lightweight device that could generate an extremely cold stream of inert gas at more than three times the speed of sound to reduce signal distortion.
They managed to squeeze 40 microvortex generators into the air-cooling device to produce air flows that could break apart the turbulence. They also developed a new mathematical model that helped them to better predict and eliminate the optical distortion as missiles accelerated and homed in on targets at wide attack angles.
The United States used to be the world leader in heat sensing technology.
In the 1980s and ‘90s, the U.S. government and military invested massive amounts of money into high-speed infrared technology used to develop the country’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system. However, the technology only works in thin air at high altitudes.
To that end, DARPA has asked U.S. defence contractors like Lockheed Martin and General Electric to develop infrared sensors for hypersonic missiles — but development of the technology is estimated to take at least four years, placing the U.S. years behind its Chinese counterparts.