Chinese hypersonic weapon fired missile over South China Sea

China’s hypersonic weapons test in July included a technological advancement that enabled it to launch a missile as it approached its target at least five times the speed of sound – a capability that no country has previously demonstrated.

Pentagon scientists were taken by surprise by the advance, which allowed the hypersonic glider, a maneuverable spacecraft capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, to fire a separate missile in the middle of its flight over the South China Sea, according to people familiar with the intelligence service.

Experts at Darpa, the Pentagon’s advanced research agency, remain unsure how China overcame the limitations of physics by firing countermeasures from a vehicle driving at hypersonic speeds, said people familiar with the details of the demonstration.

Military experts have examined data related to the test to understand how China mastered the technology. They also discuss the purpose of the projectile, which was fired by the hypersonic vehicle with no obvious target of its own before crashing into the water.

Some Pentagon experts believe the projectile was an air-to-air missile. Others believe it was a countermeasure to destroy missile defense systems so they could not shoot down the hypersonic weapon during wartime.

Russia and the United States have also been pursuing hypersonic weapons for years, but experts say the launch of countermeasures is the latest evidence that China’s efforts are significantly more advanced than either the Kremlin or the Pentagon.

The White House declined to comment on the countermeasure, but said it remained concerned about the July 27 test, which was first reported by the Financial Times last month.

“This development is as worrying to us as it should be to anyone seeking peace and stability in the region and beyond,” said a spokesman for the National Security Council. “This also builds on our concern about the many military capabilities that the People’s Republic of China continues to pursue.”

The NSC added that the United States would “continue to maintain the capabilities to defend and deter a number of threats” from China.

What is a hypersonic glider?

A long March 7 orbital launcher

A long March 7 launch vehicle used to launch a Chinese cargo spacecraft into orbit in 2017 © AFP via Getty Images

There are two kinds of hypersonic weapons. The first is a highly maneuverable missile powered by an engine. The second is a sliding vehicle.

The hypersonic glider is a spacecraft – not unlike the space shuttle – that is sent into orbit on a rocket. It then re-enters the atmosphere and flies towards its target at more than five times the speed of sound.

The truck can act as a conventional weapon by using its speed to destroy a target in the event of a collision. But China is developing trucks that can carry nuclear warheads.

Pentagon officials have increasingly been public with their concerns over the July test. The hypersonic glider was propelled into space on an “orbital bombardment system” rocket capable of flying over the South Pole, putting the weapon out of range of US missile defense systems focused on ballistic missile threats coming over the North Pole.

The orbital bombardment system gives China several ways to hit US targets. Moscow deployed a system called the “fractional orbital bombardment system” during the Cold War, but it was less advanced and did not involve a maneuverable hypersonic glider.

U.S. officials are well aware that China is ahead of the Pentagon with hypersonic weapons. But the July 27 test showed that the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force was making even faster progress than many had expected. It has been reinforced by the fact that Beijing has successfully combined an orbital system with a hypersonic weapon capable of firing a missile.

The hypersonic test comes as China rapidly expands its nuclear powers, in a way that suggests it is abandoning the “minimum deterrent” stance it has maintained for decades. The United States recently said it would quadruple its nuclear warheads by at least 1,000 weapons this decade.

The Chinese embassy said it “was not aware” of the missile test.

“We are not at all interested in having an arms race with other countries,” said Liu Pengyu, the embassy’s spokesman. “In recent years, the United States has fabricated excuses such as the ‘threat from China’ to justify its arms expansion and the development of hypersonic weapons.”

Beijing rejected the FT’s first publication of the hypersonic weapons test, saying it was instead a test of a reusable spacecraft. But a test of that spacecraft took place 11 days before the hypersonic weapons test, according to people familiar with both launches. The FT has also reported that China conducted another hypersonic weapons test on 13 August.

General David Thompson, deputy chief of space operations at the US Space Force, said the United States “was not as advanced” as China or Russia in hypersonic weapons.

“We have to catch up very quickly. The Chinese have had an incredibly aggressive hypersonic program for several years,” Thompson told the Halifax International Security Forum on Saturday.

General Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently called the weapons test close to a “Sputnik moment,” a reference to the Soviet Union becoming the first to launch a satellite into space in 1957.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said this week that he would not use the same language. But earlier in the week, as he prepared to step down as vice-president of the joint chiefs, General John Hyten expressed considerable concern.

“Sputnik created a sense of urgency in the United States,” Hyten told CBS News. “The test on July 27 did not create the feeling of urgency. I think it should create a sense of urgency.”

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