A closer look at the arsenal China paraded to stir pride at home — and unnerve rivals abroad

Hypersonic missiles, stealth drones and "carrier killers." To the uninitiated, they may sound like weapons ripped from the pages of science fiction. But they were paraded by the Chinese government on Tuesday to send two very different messages to two very different audiences.

China marks 70 years of Communist rule with a display of military muscle

Military aircraft in formation fly over a military parade in Beijing marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. (China Daily via Reuters)

When it comes to China's high-tech military arsenal, just hearing the names can be intimidating: hypersonic missiles, stealth drones and "carrier killers."

To the uninitiated, they may sound like weapons ripped from the pages of science fiction.

But they're here today, and experts say they're part of China's strategy to stir nationalist pride at home — and have the added effect of unnerving potential rivals abroad.

President Xi Jinping hosted an unprecedented military parade on Tuesday, marking 70 years of Communist rule and meant to flex Beijing's military muscle.

Military vehicles carrying hypersonic DF-17 missiles travel past Tiananmen Square during the parade. (Jason Lee/Reuters)

Some 15,000 troops marched through part of Tiananmen Square in an 80-minute show of force, featuring manned and unmanned military aircraft and a wide array of missiles. 

A leading U.S. expert on the Chinese military called it the "largest, most impressive military parade in the history of the world."

In particular, wrote Prof. Andrew Erickson of the U.S. Naval War College's China Maritime Studies Institute, China's unveiling of new missiles has put the country "at the cutting-edge of frontier military technologies."

Forty per cent of the arms on display Tuesday had not been shown in public before, according to Chinese state media.

Among the most prominent new additions was the Dongfeng-17 (DF-17). What sets the missile apart from conventional arms is its use of a hypersonic technology — described by the U.S.-based Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance as incorporating "the speed of a ballistic missile with the manoeuvring capabilities of a cruise missile."

Hypersonic aircraft typically collect oxygen during flight, mixing it with hydrogen fuel for extreme propulsion. 

The DF-17 could potentially fly at speeds greater than Mach 5, or more than five times the speed of sound (approximately 6,200 km/h). The combination of speed and manoeuvrability led the Japanese defence ministry to recently warn the DF-17 would be "more difficult to intercept" than other weapons.

A senior Pentagon official put it more bluntly: "We do not have defences against those systems."

Chinese soldiers march in formation. (Jason Lee/Reuters)

In other words, U.S. military bases in Asia will be at greater risk as Chinese technology outpaces American defence systems.

Michael Griffin, the U.S. undersecretary of defence for research and engineering, told a U.S. Senate committee last year, should China "choose to employ" supersonic missiles, "we would be, today, at a disadvantage."

The U.S. and Russia are both said to be developing their own hypersonic weapons.

Big price tag

Officially, the U.S. still spends more than any other country on its military — $649 billion US in 2018, compared to China's estimated $250 billion US. But exactly how much Beijing spends on defence isn't entirely clear. The Japanese Defence Ministry has criticized China for a lack of transparency regarding its military spending.

China has taken the added step of blurring the lines between civilian and military innovation. Under a civil-military integration strategy, Beijing seeks to attract technology from the private sector and adapt it to give the People's Liberation Army an edge. 

It may be no coincidence a U.S. congressional report noted the Chinese military is progressing steadily in the fields of artificial intelligence and cloud computing.

Those more discreet forms of technology, however, did not play a big role in the People's Republic of China's 70th anniversary. Tuesday's parade saw 580 pieces of military equipment put on display.

Chinese President Xi Jinping waves from a car as he reviews the troops at the military parade. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Another missile, the DF-21D, is said to have a range of 1,500 kilometres and is nicknamed the "carrier killer" for its apparent ability to hit warships at sea. Just as ominously, China's DF-26 has been dubbed the "Guam killer," a reference to the U.S. island territory thousands of kilometres away that was a target for North Korean — rather than Chinese — threats in 2017.

The military flew helicopters and aircraft during its parade but kept a stealth drone grounded. The Gongji-11 (GJ-11) unmanned aerial vehicle looks like a futuristic jet, with a reported wingspan of 62 metres — slightly wider than that of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Despite its size, its stealth capability means the drone is "expected to 'sneak' into enemy airspaces and attack targets of strategic value undetected," according to a report on the Military Factory weaponry reference website.

China ostensibly only displays weaponry already in use. The GJ-11 is so advanced, however, it's unknown whether it's ready to be flown.

Andrew Erickson, the expert on China's military, said Tuesday's "biggest single statement for foreign consumption" was China's new intercontinental ballistic missile, the DF-41.

The country's "newest, most powerful, and arguably most advanced nuclear weapons system," he wrote, "designed and deployed with deterring the United States in mind."

Who's watching?

Although the display of China's high-tech arsenal may cause consternation abroad, some observers contend it was meant more for a domestic audience. It comes as China deals with an economic slowdown, a trade war with the U.S. and a crisis in Hong Kong.

The celebration and show of strength was intended "to create a great sense of pride among Chinese people," said Lynette Ong, an associate professor and China expert at Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.

She said the message it conveyed was one of grandeur and a sense of Chinese achievement after 70 years of Communist rule.

Military vehicles carrying DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missiles drive past Tiananmen Square. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Ong said during the celebrations, she checked in with friends on the Chinese social network WeChat. 

And indeed, she said, they "were beaming with pride."


Thomas Daigle

Senior Reporter

Thomas is based in Toronto and focuses primarily on technology-related news. Previously at CBC's London, U.K. bureau, he reported on everything from the Royal Family and European politics to terrorism. Thomas filed stories from Quebec for several years and reported for Radio-Canada in his native New Brunswick. He can be reached by email at

With files from Reuters