In August, China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile that flew around the earth before hitting its target, a new report first revealed Saturday. U.S. officials were reportedly surprised by China’s capabilities.
The missile circled the earth in low-orbit space and sped down to its target, though it landed some two-dozen miles away from its intended target. Those familiar with the test and briefed on intelligence told Financial Times that the test demonstrated major hypersonic weapons progress – more than the U.S. realized – and raised concerns that the U.S. has been underestimating China’s military capabilities.
“We have no idea how they did this,” one of five people familiar with China’s test told Financial Times.
China’s test shows that the weapon could theoretically fly over the South Pole, potentially countering U.S. missiles that focus on a North Pole route, two people familiar with the test said.
The U.S. military has been keeping an eye on China’s rapidly expanding nuclear weapon capabilities, as it is not bound by weapons control agreements. Earlier this year, two top military figures remarked on China’s new weapon progress, and satellite photos also exposed three separate fields filled with hundreds of missile silos.
NORAD commander Gen. Glen VanHerck said at a conference in August that China “recently demonstrated very advanced hypersonic glide vehicle capabilities” and the demonstration would “provide significant challenges” to NORAD’s ability “to provide threat warning and attack assessment.”
U.S. Air Force secretary Frank Kendall said in September that China was developing an advanced new weapon capable of “global strikes … from space,” and hinted that it was similar to the Soviet Union’s Cold War-era “Fractional Orbital Bombardment System.”
An Asian national security official and Chinese security expert close to China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) said the hypersonic weapon was launched on a Long March rocket, typically used for China’s space program. China typically announces such Long March rocket launches, but kept the missile’s launch a secret. It announced the Long March 2C rocket’s 77th launch on July 19, and the 79th launch on August 24, but did announce the 78th launch.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijan denied that the test involved a missile, instead calling it a “spacecraft.”
“This test was a routine spacecraft experiment to verify the reusable technology of spacecraft, which is of great significance for reducing the cost of spacecraft use. It can provide a convenient and cheap way for humans to use space peacefully. Many companies in the world have carried out similar experiments,” Zhao said.
China, Russia and the U.S. have been steadily advancing hypersonic weapon technologies in recent years.
In March 2020, the U.S. successfully tested its common hypersonic glide body (C-HGB), being developed as part of the U.S. efforts to counter other hypersonic weapons. The U.S. hypersonic missile achieved speeds of about Mach 5, about 3,836 miles per hour.
In July, Russia’s Ministry of Defense said it had tested a hypersonic Zircon missile that reached seven times the speed of sound (Mach 7), about 5,370 miles per hour. Russia had previously tested the Zircon on October 2020, during which it reached Mach 8 speeds of 6,138 miles per hour.