Could we be unwittingly researching both sides of a hypersonic arms race?
In its Defence Command Paper this week that followed the Integrated Review of UK defence and security, the government announced it would spend billions on “novel weapons”, including hypersonic missiles, with defence chiefs worried by China and Russia’s development of these new arms. Describing hypersonic missiles as a leading part of “the threat”, the government notes that they allow “conventional or nuclear warheads” to be delivered “with very little warning”.
The threat is serious indeed: hypersonics represent a new arms race in which the US and its allies face China and Russia. Winning it has been called “the first priority” in western defence security.
Hypersonic missiles mean those which travel and manoeuvre over five times the speed of sound. These missiles are potentially massively destabilising. A recent study by The New York Times and Center for Public Integrity calls them a “revolutionary new type of weapon [that would] strike almost any target in the world within a matter of minutes”.
Chinese weapons conglomerates and military-linked universities have been sponsoring research centres at British universities for years
China’s interest is assumed to include their capacity for strikes against the US Navy. Their unpredictability means that during flight the perimeter of their possible landing zone could be vast. According to a former Obama-administration White House official, that they are only 5-10 feet long will allow “instant leader-killer” capacity. As Commander of US Strategic Command Gen. John E. Hyten told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2018: “We don’t have any defence that could deny the employment of such a weapon against us.” China “has flight-tested its own hypersonic missiles at speeds fast enough to reach Guam from the Chinese coastline within minutes”.
Plenty of reasons, therefore, for the UK to invest in advanced technologies like hypersonic missiles. But there is a problem: the UK’s universities may have already spent years inadvertently helping China develop hypersonics.
A paper I released last month for the think tank Civitas with my co-author Robert Clark analysed how university researchers may unwittingly have provided China with technology for hypersonic missiles (it is important to emphasise our belief that all the UK-based research we analysed had been intended for civilian use). But when the government calls hypersonic missiles the leading example of how “our historic technological advantage is being increasingly challenged by targeted investments in capabilities designed to counter our strengths”, these investments may be closer to home than it realises.
Chinese weapons conglomerates and military-linked universities have been sponsoring scientific research centres at British universities for years. While hypersonic technologies are only one of their fields, these technologies have just become a crucial part of UK military strategy. Manchester University provided the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), which is China’s main inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) conglomerate, with a research centre subsidised, like many others, by the UK taxpayer. (Manchester states that the centre recently closed, though its staff remain at the university.)
The centre’s hypersonics research included a study on improved manoeuvrability with a Chinese military-linked university; another recent paper illustrates missiles moving towards the same target (as Juliet Samuel, covering our paper for The Daily Telegraph put it: “[T]he paper, published in 2018, offers one way to solve the ‘cooperative simultaneous arrival problem’. In plain English, that’s when you want to point lots of missiles or rockets at a target and have them go boom at the same time.”)
The United States is already racing to develop this type of missile and is due to carry out tests this year
The centre has also cooperated with defence-funded Tianjin University on variable geometry inlets, intended to generate more powerful thrust (“favourable”, it says, “to the acceleration and manoeuvring flight” [sic]). In the US, variable geometry inlets appear in patents cited by defence firms for hypersonic missiles. Other research, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), focused on air-breathing hypersonic vehicles, which “breathe” air to feed their engines. The United States is already racing to develop this type of missile, with the Defense Research Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA) due to carry out tests this year.
One of the biggest challenges in hypersonic missiles research is dealing with the extreme heat from the friction generated by flying at such speeds. Researchers are looking for solutions in coatings made from ceramics, superalloys, and Manchester’s own breakthrough material, graphene. On his visit to Manchester in 2015 to welcome the “Golden Era” in UK-China relations, Chancellor George Osborne gave China’s President Xi Jinping a tour of Manchester’s new graphene laboratories, where he will have learned about the potential of the one-atom thick nanomaterial.
Today, the Manchester Graphene Aerospace Materials Centre researches possible uses for graphene and other materials in aerospace. The Centre is sponsored by the Beijing Institute of Aerospace Materials (BIAM), a subsidiary of the Aero Engine Corporation of China (AECC), the country’s largest military aircraft engine manufacturer. BIAM is a military and civilian manufacturer. Recent reports suggest its researchers have developed graphene armour for China’s latest military attack helicopter (there is no suggestion that this was in collaboration with Manchester).
Part of universities’ defence for these relationships is that they work only with Chinese firms’ civilian branches, notwithstanding that it is unclear how their research could be prevented from crossing the building into military technologies. But China’s new strategy of “civil-military fusion”, whereby even purely civilian firms are told to share technology with the military, makes this assurance less comforting.
However, some research from these Chinese-sponsored UK centres is explicit about its military potential. After a Manchester researcher from the PRC joined a counterpart at China’s military-linked Central South University to create a new ceramic coating, Manchester itself appeared to herald a possible military use, noting their “new kind of ceramic coating that could revolutionise hypersonic travel for air, space and defence purposes” and how “ultra-high temperature ceramics (UHTCs) are needed in aero-engines and hypersonic vehicles such as rockets, re-entry spacecraft and defence projectiles.”
Manchester noted the new material was partly manufactured as CSU’s “Powder Metallurgy Institute”. Its “State Key Laboratory for Powder Metallurgy” is known to be a designated major defence laboratory. The breakthrough was published in a paper that states: “Ultra-high temperature ceramics are desirable for applications in the hypersonic vehicle, rockets, re-entry spacecraft and defence sectors … potential uses may include … defence army…”
Some British universities cooperate with Chinese organisations that manufacture nuclear warheads and other WMDs
In November 2020, images appeared in the press showing a Chinese H-6N aircraft carrying a missile whose features may “be air-breathing and nuclear-capable”. It was of a similar shape to the DF-17 experimental hypersonic missile, which coincidentally is manufactured by a subsidiary of the other Manchester sponsor, CASC. The H6-N is manufactured by a subsidiary of the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), China’s leading military aircraft supplier, which is supplying the PLA Air Force with its next-generation stealth fighter and strategic bomber. AVIC is also a major shareholder in the Aero Engine Corporation of China (AECC), whose subsidiary BIAM sponsors Manchester’s hypersonics research.
Meanwhile, AVIC sponsors the AVIC Centre for Structural Design and Manufacturing at Imperial College London; at Imperial, BIAM also sponsors the Imperial Centre for Materials Characterisation, Processing and Modelling (until very recently, ICBM manufacturer the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology backed Imperial’s UK-China Advanced Structure Manufacturing Technology Laboratory). These centres demonstrate the breadth of the Chinese-sponsored research that includes hypersonics projects. In the United States, all these firms are under sanctions.
Research at BIAM’s Imperial centre includes the field of superalloys. These are reportedly a critical problem for BIAM’s parent company AECC, which appears to have been developing “domestically produced engines featuring single-crystal superalloy turbine blades” for China’s J-20 stealth fighter engines since 2017 at the latest.
In 2019, Imperial announced a breakthrough in single-crystal superalloys in jet engine turbine blades. This research analysed precipitates for “outstanding strength” for superalloys, enabling “operation of turbine blades in the extreme environments within jet engines”. In August 2020, a scholar at the Imperial centre published with researchers at BIAM in Beijing on fatigue damage to single-crystal superalloys, as “used for turbine blades in jet engines”.
Without reforms and sanctions, the dangerous strategic incoherence of Britain’s establishment will continue
In 2017, BIAM’s vice-president had told Chinese news outlets: “[It] will not take a long time for our fifth-generation combat plane to have China-made engines … We are able to develop the two most important components in an advanced engine — the single crystal superalloy turbine blades and powder metallurgy superalloy turbine disks”, adding that the main remaining challenge is “mass production”. The PLA Air Force also described how the next-generation J20 stealth fighters will have no need for the Russian engines originally planned, with the “domestically built” WS-10C engine being preferable.
This may all be a coincidence, and we do not suggest anyone at BIAM’s centre at Imperial intends their work to see military use. But thanks to a breakthrough, somewhere, in a field its subsidiary sponsors at Imperial, AECC is closer to producing next generation “Chinese” stealth fighter jet engines.
We discuss other British universities in our analysis; some cooperate with Chinese organisations that manufacture nuclear warheads and other WMDs. The government promised in the Integrated Review that it would “stop states using … UK academia to develop CBRN [chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear] weapons [and] advanced military technology”.
Unlike the United States, the UK has not sanctioned a single Chinese military conglomerate or university. Without these reforms, the dangerous strategic incoherence of Britain’s establishment will continue.
The government is right to prioritise strategic military technologies like hypersonic missiles. But it should make sure the universities it funds do not accidentally help the United Kingdom’s adversaries develop the same weapons.
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