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China wants to put lasers on hypersonic missiles – here’s why

Vehicles carry DF-5B intercontinental ballistic missiles during a Chinese military parade. (Voice of America/Released)
July 28, 2021

Scientists at a Chinese military university are developing a new laser device they intend to attach to Chinese hypersonic missiles that will help those missiles reach higher speeds with less air resistance, a new report revealed this week.

In a July issue of Laser and Infrared, reported by the South China Morning Post on Tuesday, Chinese scientists with the Chinese military-integrated Space Engineering University of Beijing detailed research on a laser energy device that could create a plasma cloud around the nose of a missile. The Chinese researchers said the laser device could be used to reduce air resistance against a missile by 70 percent or more.

Chinese researcher Wang Diankai and his colleagues wrote the laser device “can change the shock wave structure in front of the hypersonic vehicle and then change the speed and pressure distribution to achieve drag reduction.”

“Shock wave resistance seriously reduces the safety and economy of the flight,” the Chinese researchers added.

According to the South China Morning Post, the laser device works by emitting a plasma cloud in the shape of a teardrop that would then split in two, with the clouds rotating in opposite directions and generate a forward-moving wind in front of a hypersonic vehicle. The rotating plasma clouds would thus generate a forward-moving wind at the front of the hypersonic vehicle, poking a hole through the shock waves of air resistance the hypersonic vehicle would otherwise face.

The Chinese researchers shared images from a high-speed camera demonstrating the tear-shaped plasma cloud such a laser device can produce.

The Chinese researchers said the efficacy of the laser device would increase exponentially with speed.

The idea of a plasma-cloud producing laser device has been considered for decades, but has remained mostly conceptual, the South China Morning Post said. The size of the laser is a key factor impacting the viability of the concept, as a laser has to be relatively small and low weight to fit on a missile designed to reach hypersonic speeds.

Until now, a laser of the kind needed to produce an effective plasma cloud would have stretched more than 1km (0.6 miles) long. A new laser reportedly developed by a Shanghai research team could achieve the same results in a device 100 times smaller. The ultimate goal is to reduce the size of the laser needed to about the size of a table, according to the South China Morning Post.

China’s work on this laser device for potential use on hypersonic vehicles comes as China, Russia and the U.S. have been steadily advancing hypersonic weapon technologies in recent years. In March 2020, the U.S. successfully tested its common hypersonic glide body (C-HGB) and achieved speeds of about Mach 5, or about 3,836 miles per hour. In October 2020, Russia completed a test of its 3M22 Zirkon missile that it said achieved speeds of about Mach 8, or about  6,138 miles per hour.