Hypersonic aircraft
China is also developing the world’s fastest wind tunnel to test out its hypersonic weapons technology Jim Ross/NASA via Getty Images

In November, China reportedly conducted the first-ever flights test of a new kind of ballistic missile, which can deliver both nuclear and conventional payloads. The DF-17, also known as Dong Feng or "East Wind" is a hypersonic missile, which is believed to achieve around 10 times the speed of sound.

According to a report by The Diplomat, China conducted two tests in November, which revealed that the ballistic missile, which comes equipped with a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV), flew around 1,400 Kms in just 11 minutes. The missile was reportedly launched from the Jiuquan Space Launch Centre in Inner Mongolia and hit its intended target – a site in the Xinjiang Province – "within meters".

Citing an anonymous US government source, The Diplomat reported that the DF-17 is believed to have a range capability between 1,800 and 2,500 Kms. The weapon may reshape the threat landscape of nuclear weapons tech, as it is believed to have been designed to confound existing air defences.

This is not China's first hypersonic missile. Last year, China tested its carrier killer DF-ZF hypersonic missile, which is considered to be capable of achieving speeds of up to 11,000 Kph. Between 2014 and 2016, China is believed to have conducted around seven hypersonic missile tests, indicating that it may be far closer to achieving operational capabilities than other nations working on developing the technology.

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China is also developing the world's fastest wind tunnel to test its hypersonic weapons technology. "It will boost the engineering application of hypersonic technology, mostly in military sectors, by duplicating the environment of extreme hypersonic flights, so problems can be discovered and solved on the ground," Zhao Wei, deputy director of the State Key Laboratory of High Temperature Gas Dynamics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and senior scientist for the project, told the South China Morning Post.

China is not the only one testing hypersonic missiles. Both Russia and the US are also developing the technology. In November, the US Navy tested a hypersonic missile, which is believed to be capable of hitting any target on Earth within an hour.

Popular Mechanics reported that HGVs are different from conventional ballistic missiles. While traditional ballistic warheads are placed on ballistic missiles and launched into space, reentering Earth at incredible speeds, HGVs, which are also strapped to a missile, stop short of entering space.

Instead, HGVs descend at over Mach 5 speeds. HGVs also fly low, escaping the detection of current ballistic missile defence radars. This would make it difficult for targets to defend themselves against the DF-17. The Diplomat reported that US intelligence assessments estimate that the DF-17 is expected to be operational by 2020.