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China’s hypersonic test ‘increases tension in the region,’ Pentagon chief says

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III speaks with Guardsmen at the U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C., Jan. 29, 2021. (DOD photo by Air Force Staff Sgt. Brittany A. Chase)
December 03, 2021

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin acknowledged Thursday that China’s hypersonic test in July had boosted unease in the region, but downplayed it as just one of many concerning behaviors.

“We have concerns about the military capabilities the [People’s Republic of China] continues to pursue, and the pursuit of those capabilities increases tension in the region,” Austin said about the launch, in response to a Defense One question at the Security Consultative Meeting in Seoul.

Austin is one of several top U.S. defense officials who have begun talking more openly about the July launch and its significance among other emerging Chinese military capabilities.

“They have missiles that can reach U.S. bases in Japan and Guam, exposing our planes and runways to attack,” Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said Wednesday at a Center for Strategic and International Studies discussion. “Not only does China have advanced precision weapons, it has them in large and growing quantities. And just recently, China conducted a missile test that sent a missile around the world, dropping off a hypersonic vehicle that glided all the way back to China, where it then struck a test target.”

On Monday, deputy Space Force chief of operations Lt. Gen. Chance Saltzman said that China’s hypersonic missile had achieved fractional orbit, showing that “it can stay on orbit as long as the user determines and then it de-orbits it as a part of the flight path.”

Austin has been reluctant to talk about the specifics of the launch. In Seoul on Thursday, he called it just one of many capabilities the U.S. was monitoring.

The launch “just underscores why we consider the [the People’s Republic of China] to be our pacing challenge,” Austin said. “We will continue to maintain the capabilities to defend and deter against a range of potential threats from the PRC.”

At the press conference that followed the U.S.-Republic of Korea consultative talks, Austin and his Korean counterpart, Defense Minister Suh Wook, also announced they were going to write a new war plan for North Korea, to address Pyongyang’s gains in military capabilities it’s made in the last decade.

“In order for us to effectively develop a new OPLAN we have agreed to deliver a new [Strategic Planning Guidance]” that will guide what new threats and capabilities the revised plan will need to address, Suh said at the conference. The two countries also agreed to test Korea’s ability to command the combined U.S.-ROK forces under a wartime scenario during next fall’s combined command post exercises. Passing this full operational capability test is one of the last steps that will allow South Korea to take operational control of U.S.-Korean joint forces.


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