China has tested a hypersonic vehicle able to fire off its own missile over the South China Sea in a display of technology that “overcame the constraints of physics”.
China tested a hypersonic vehicle in July that was able to fire off its own missile over the South China Sea while travelling at five times the speed of sound, in a physics-defying display of technology that no other country has demonstrated, according to a new report.
The Financial Times on Sunday revealed fresh details of Beijing’s hypersonic weapons test earlier this year, which saw a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle circle the globe in low orbit before landing.
United States intelligence officials were reportedly alarmed by the test as it demonstrated a brand-new weapons capability that government scientists were struggling to understand, with one source earlier telling the newspaper the achievement appeared “to defy the laws of physics”.
According to the Sunday report, the specific technological advance that caught Pentagon scientists off guard was the ability of the glide vehicle – a manoeuvrable spacecraft – to fire off its own missile mid-flight.
Experts at the Pentagon’s advanced research agency DARPA “remain unsure how China overcame the constraints of physics by firing countermeasures from a vehicle travelling at hypersonic speeds”, the Financial Times report said.
“Military experts have been poring over data related to the test to understand how China mastered the technology. They are also debating the purpose of the projectile, which was fired by the hypersonic vehicle with no obvious target of its own, before plunging into the water.”
Some Pentagon experts believe it was an air-to-air missile, while others think it was a countermeasure to destroy missile defence systems, according to the report.
Reacting to the news on Twitter, Ankit Panda, the Stanton Senior Fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the reported test “would be technologically unprecedented as far as I am aware”.
“If correct, this assertion of a second projectile is a very concerning advance that appears to go well beyond earlier reporting about the Chinese hypersonic missile tests earlier this summer,” added national security expert Jamil N. Jaffer from George Mason University.
China has previously denied the reports, saying the July launch was a routine test of reusable spacecraft – but according to the Financial Times, that occurred 11 days before the hypersonic missile test.
The Chinese embassy told the newspaper it was “not aware” of the missile test.
“We are not at all interested in having an arms race with other countries,” said embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu. “The US has in recent years been fabricating excuses like ‘the China threat’ to justify its arms expansion and development of hypersonic weapons.”
US officials last month confirmed the reports of China’s hypersonic weapons tests, which took place on July 27 and August 13.
General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described it as close to a “Sputnik moment”, in reference to the Soviet Union’s successful launch in October 1957 of the first artificial Earth satellite.
“It’s a very significant technological event that occurred, or test that occurred, by the Chinese, and it has all of our attention,” he told Bloomberg TV.
General John Hyten, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also weighed in last week, saying the hypersonic weapon could allow China to launch a surprise nuclear strike on the US.
“They look like a first-use weapon,” he said in an interview with CBS News. “That’s what those weapons look like to me.”
The US has been caught off guard by China’s rapid advances in hypersonic technology.
The Pentagon hopes to deploy its first hypersonic weapons by 2025 and has said their development is one of its “highest priorities”.
China has already deployed one medium-range hypersonic missile, the DF-17, which can travel around 2000km and can carry nuclear warheads.
Russia recently launched a hypersonic missile, the Zircon, from a submarine, and since late 2019 has had the hypersonic nuclear-capable Avangard missiles in service. The Avangard can travel at up to Mach 27, changing course and altitude.
The rocket system that carried the hypersonic vehicle is known as fractional orbital bombardment, a technology originally developed by the Soviet Union in the 1960s but later abandoned – “fractional” because it was not designed to go into a full orbit of the Earth.
“It’s the FOBS–HGV combination that’s new and has led to a lot of guessing by China watchers and arms-control advocates about what the test entailed and what China’s intent is in pursuing such a capability,” wrote Malcolm Davis, senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
“A FOBS capability, especially if combined with a highly manoeuvrable hypersonic glide vehicle, would enable the Chinese to circumvent existing and likely planned US missile-defence and early warning systems. They would go through the back door, rather than try to bash down the defended and watched front door.”
While China’s nuclear arsenal of several hundred warheads is dwarfed by Russia and the US, the Pentagon believes Beijing is planning to quadruple its stockpile to 1000 nukes by 2030.
Since the Cold War, the delicate nuclear balance between the US and Russia has depended on neither side having the ability to launch a successful first strike with traditional intercontinental ballistic missiles.
But China’s rapid advances threaten to upset that balance.
“Greater numbers of both silo-based and road-mobile ICBMs, if combined with a niche FOBS-HGV component that can strike the US from the south, would certainly overwhelm any likely US missile defence architecture,” Mr Davis wrote.
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