China’s hypersonic weapon test in July contained a technological breakthrough that allowed it to fire a missile at least five times the speed of sound as it approached its target – a capacity no other country had previously exhibited.
According to persons familiar with the intelligence, the breakthrough took Pentagon scientists off guard, allowing the hypersonic glide vehicle, a maneuverable spaceship capable of carrying a nuclear payload, to fire a separate missile mid-flight in the atmosphere over the South China Sea.
According to persons familiar with the test, experts at Darpa, the Pentagon’s advanced research branch, are baffled as to how China managed to fire countermeasures from a vehicle traveling at hypersonic speeds.
Military scientists have been sifting through test data to figure out how China perfected the technique. They’re also discussing the purpose of the projectile, which was launched by the hypersonic vehicle without a clear target before crashing into the lake.
According to some Pentagon officials, the projectile was an air-to-air missile. Others believe it was a countermeasure to disable missile defense systems so that the hypersonic weapon could not be shot down during a war.
Although both Russia and the United States have been working on hypersonic weapons for years, experts say the firing of countermeasures is the latest proof that China’s efforts are far ahead of either the Kremlin or the Pentagon.
The White House declined to comment on the countermeasure but stated that the July 27 test, which was originally reported by the Financial Times last month, remains a source of worry.
“This development concerns us, as it should concern those who seek peace and stability in the region and beyond,” a National Security Council spokesperson said. “This also adds to our concerns about the People’s Republic of China’s pursuit of numerous military capabilities.”
The US will “continue to maintain the capabilities to protect and deter against a range of threats” from China, according to the NSC.
Officials from the Pentagon have become increasingly vocal about their concerns about the July test. The hypersonic glide vehicle was launched into space on an “orbital bombardment system” rocket that can fly over the South Pole, putting the weapon beyond the range of US missile defense systems, which are focused on threats coming over the North Pole.
China now has more options for hitting US targets thanks to the orbital bombardment system. During the Cold War, Moscow used a “fractional orbital bombardment system,” although it was less advanced and didn’t have a maneuverable hypersonic glide vehicle.
Officials in the United States are well aware that China is well ahead of the Pentagon in terms of hypersonic weaponry. However, the test on July 27 revealed that the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force was progressing far quicker than many had predicted. Beijing’s achievement in combining an orbiting system with a hypersonic weapon capable of firing a missile has bolstered this argument.
The hypersonic test comes as China quickly builds its nuclear arsenal, implying that it is abandoning its decades-long “minimum deterrence” posture. The United States recently stated that it intends to double its nuclear weapons stockpile to at least 1,000 by the end of this decade.
The Chinese embassy in Washington stated that it was “unaware” of the missile launch.
“We have no desire to engage in an arms race with other countries,” embassy spokesman Liu Pengyu said. “In recent years, the US has concocted justifications like ‘the China menace’ to explain its military buildup and hypersonic weapon research.”
The original announcement of the hypersonic weapons test by the Financial Times was rejected by Beijing as a test of a reusable space spacecraft. According to persons acquainted with both launches, a test of that space vehicle took place 11 days before the hypersonic weapons test. According to the Financial Times, China performed the test of another hypersonic weapon on August 13.
General David Thompson, the US Space Force’s vice-chief of space operations, claimed the US was “not as advanced” in hypersonic weapons as China or Russia.
“We have a lot of catching up to accomplish. For some years, the Chinese have had a really active hypersonic program,” Thompson said at the Halifax International Security Forum on Saturday.
General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the United States, recently compared the weapons test to a “Sputnik moment,” referring to the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of the first satellite into space.
The defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, stated last week that he would not use the same wording. However, as he prepared to step down as vice-chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John Hyten expressed grave worry.
“In the United States, Sputnik created a sense of urgency,” Hyten told CBS News. “The July 27 test did not elicit such a sense of urgency.” I believe it should elicit a sense of urgency.”
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