China's New ‘Great Wall’ Can Stop Missiles Too Fast for Any Defense System, Expert Says

China has developed a sprawling underground defense complex capable of intercepting missiles often described as being too fast for any existing defense system, a leading expert has claimed.

Qian Qihu, who last week was awarded the prestigious 2018 State Preeminent Science and Technology Award due to his contributions to national defense, told the ruling Chinese Communist Party's official newspaper The Global Times the country has developed an impenetrable, so-called "Underground Steel Great Wall" deep beneath the mountains. He called the vast series of missile facilities the "country's last national defense line."

While the tough, mountainous terrain would reportedly be enough to prevent most conventional weapons from penetrating the bases, Qihu was said to have further upgraded these defenses to protect exposed facilities and shield the site from bunker-busting armaments. Qihu explained the systems would also be able to block an incoming hypersonic missile—a weapon capable of traveling at least Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound and roughly 3,800 MPH—should other anti-missile measures fail.

"The development of the shield must closely follow the development of spears. Our defense engineering has evolved in a timely manner as attack weapons pose new challenges," Qian told The Global Times.

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A military vehicle carries the DF-21D missile past a display screen featuring an image of the Great Wall of China at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on September 3, 2015, after a military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of victory over Japan and the end of World War II. The so-called "carrier killer" missile was deployed to the country's northwest amid rising U.S.-China tensions. GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images

Qian, 82, a retired major general of the People's Liberation Army, is a member of both the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Engineering, two national institutions run by the State Council of China. He received his reward last week alongside radar expert Liu Yongtan at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing and will be granted a prize of 8 million yuan, or about $1.18 million.

In Friday's interview with The Global Times, Qian said his work was partially inspired by geopolitical instability, as leading powers the United States, Russia and China have all embarked upon research into hypersonic weapons. During his State of the Nation speech in March, Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled the Kinzhal hypersonic cruise missile, touted as hitting Mach 10 speeds, and the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle, said to be capable of traveling up to Mach 20.

Putin described such weapons as "invincible," and China too has delved into the hypersonic arena. In August, the China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics announced that it had tested the Starry Sky 2, which it described as a hypersonic aircraft capable of riding its own shock waves, according to China Daily. It reportedly reached a top speed of Mach 6 and exceeded an altitude of 18.6 miles.

The U.S. is also investing in hypersonic technology. Also in August, Lockheed Martin secured the second of two multibillion-dollar contracts from the Pentagon to build a pair of hypersonic weapons known as the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon and the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon. Since 2010, the U.S. has also tested the Boeing X-51 Waverider, capable of reaching Mach 6. Another U.S. device, the NASA X-43, set the current aircraft speed record at Mach 9.6. Russia held the title for the fastest manned aircraft with its Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-25, traveling at about Mach 2.8.

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This image from NASA television shows the Pegasus booster rocket with the X-43A hypersonic research aircraft attached at the front firing after release from the launch craft, breaking its own aircraft-speed record by flying at about 7,000 mph, about 10 times the speed of sound, 16 November 2004 at NASA Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, California. ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Last month, a Government Accountability Office report noted that "China and Russia are pursuing hypersonic weapons because their speed, altitude and maneuverability may defeat most missile defense systems, and they may be used to improve long-range conventional and nuclear strike capabilities," concluding: "There are no existing countermeasures."

As the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon's emerging technologies wing, scrambles to come up with an answer, ties between the U.S. and its Russian and Chinese competitors have eroded. Washington has accused Moscow of intervening in sovereign affairs abroad and of throwing its weight around Europe and the Middle East, while Beijing has been charged with attempting to monopolize the South China Sea and of conducting unfair trade practices.

In the face of what they perceive to be an expansionist and hegemonic U.S. position in the world, Russia and China have grown closer in recent years, cooperating more closely in joint military and scientific projects.