China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile in August that orbited the world before accelerating toward its goal, demonstrating an advanced space capability that surprised U.S. intelligence.
Five people familiar with the test said the Chinese military launched a rocket carrying a hypersonic glide vehicle that flew through low orbit before landing at its target.
The missile missed its target about two-dozen miles away, according to intelligence reports from three people. But the two said tests had shown that China had made “amazing progress” in hypersonic weapons and far more advanced than US officials realized.
This experiment raises new questions as to why the US often underestimates China’s military modernization.
“We don’t know how they did it,” said a fourth person.
The United States, Russia and China are all developing hypersonic weapons, including glide vehicles that are launched into space on a rocket but orbit the earth at their own speed. They fly at five times the speed of sound, slower than ballistic missiles. But they do not follow the specific parabolic trajectories of a ballistic missile and are difficult to operate, making them difficult to track.
Taylor Fravel, an expert on China’s nuclear weapons policy who was unaware of the test, said a hypersonic glide vehicle equipped with a nuclear warhead could help China “deny” the US missile defense system, which is designed to destroy incoming ballistic missiles.
“Hypersonic glide vehicles … can fly in low trajectories and fly in flight, which makes them difficult to track and destroy,” said Fravel, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Fravel added that it would be “unstable” if China fully developed and deployed such weapons, but warned that a test did not mean Beijing would deploy capabilities.
Concerns about China’s nuclear capability are growing as Beijing builds its conventional military and engages in increasingly vigorous military activity near Taiwan.
Tensions between the United States and China have escalated as the Biden administration has cracked down on Beijing, which has accused Washington of excessive hostility.
In recent months, U.S. military officials have warned of China’s growing nuclear capabilities, especially after the release of satellite images that showed it was building more than 200 intercontinental ballistic missile silos. China is not bound by any arms control treaty and the United States is not willing to discuss its nuclear arsenal and policy.
Last month, U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall hinted that Beijing was developing a new weapon. He said China had made significant progress, including the possibility of a “global attack”. . . He declined to give details, but suggested that China was building something similar to the “Fractional Orbital Bombardment System” that the USSR had set up before leaving as part of the Cold War.
“If you use this type of method, you don’t have to use the traditional ICBM trajectory. It’s a way to avoid defense and missile warning systems,” Kendall said.
In August, General Glenn Vanhark, head of the North American Space Defense Command, told a conference that China had “recently demonstrated highly advanced hypersonic glide vehicle capabilities.” He warned that the Chinese capability would “significantly challenge my narcissistic ability to provide threat alerts and attack assessments”.
Two people familiar with the Chinese test said the weapon could theoretically fly over the South Pole. This will be a major challenge for the US military as its missile defense system is centered on the North Pole.
When the Biden administration reviews its nuclear stance, the analysis comes as a result of an analysis of congressional policy and capabilities, which believe that the United States needs to do more to modernize its nuclear arsenal because of China.
The Pentagon has not commented on the report but has expressed concern about China. “We have made clear our concerns about the military capabilities that China is pursuing, the capabilities that increase tensions in the region and beyond,” said spokesman John Kirby. “It’s one of the reasons why we hold on to China as our number one pacing challenge.”
The Chinese embassy declined to comment on the test, but spokesman Liu Pengyu said China has always followed a military policy that is “defensive” and that its military development does not target any country.
“We do not have a global strategy and plan for military operations like the United States. And we are not at all interested in arms competition with other countries, ”Liu said. In contrast, in recent years the United States has been making excuses such as the ‘China threat’ to support its weapons expansion and the development of hypersonic weapons. This has intensified direct arms competition in this segment and severely damaged global strategic stability.
An Asian national security official said the Chinese military conducted the test in August. China usually announces the launch of the Long March rocket – the type used to launch a hypersonic glide vehicle into orbit – but it explicitly hides the August launch.
The security official and another Chinese security expert close to the People’s Liberation Army said the weapon was being developed by the China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics. CAAA is a research institute under the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, the main state-owned company for the development of missile systems and rockets for China’s space program. According to both sources, the hypersonic glide vehicle was launched on the Long March rocket, which is used for space programs.
The China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, which oversees the launch, said on July 19 in an official social media account that it had launched a Long March 2C rocket, adding that it was the 77th launch of that rocket. On August 24, it announced that it had operated a 79th flight. But there was no announcement of the 78th launch, which sparked speculation among observers of its space program about a secret launch. CAAA did not respond to a request for comment.