China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile in August that circled the globe before accelerating toward its target, demonstrating an advanced space capability that took US intelligence by surprise.
Five people familiar with the test said the Chinese military launched a rocket carrying a hypersonic glide vehicle that flew through low-orbit space before descending toward its target.
The missile missed its target by about two dozen miles, according to three people briefed on intelligence. But two said the test showed that China had made astonishing progress in hypersonic weapons and was far more advanced than US officials thought.
The test has raised new questions about why the United States has often underestimated China’s military modernization.
“We have no idea how they did this,” said a fourth person.
The United States, Russia and China are developing hypersonic weapons, including gliding vehicles that launch into space on a rocket but orbit the Earth on their own momentum. They fly at five times the speed of sound, slower than a ballistic missile. But they do not follow the fixed parabolic trajectory of a ballistic missile and are maneuverable, making them difficult to track.
Taylor Fravel, an expert on China’s nuclear weapons policy who was unaware of the test, said that a hypersonic glide vehicle armed with a nuclear warhead could help China “negate” US missile defense systems that are currently under attack. designed to destroy incoming ballistic missiles.
“Hypersonic sliding vehicles. . . they fly in lower trajectories and can maneuver 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 “destabilizing” if China fully developed and deployed such a weapon, but cautioned that a test did not necessarily mean that Beijing would deploy the capability.
Growing concern over China’s nuclear capabilities comes as Beijing continues to build up its conventional military forces and engages in increasingly assertive military activity near Taiwan.
Tensions between the United States and China have risen as the Biden administration has taken a tough tactic against Beijing, which has accused Washington of being too hostile.
In recent months, US military officials warned of China’s growing nuclear capabilities, particularly after the release of satellite images that showed it was building more than 200 intercontinental missile silos. China is not bound by any arms control agreements and has been unwilling to involve the United States in talks about its arsenal and nuclear policy.
Last month, US Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall hinted that Beijing was developing a new weapon. He said China had made great strides, including the “potential for global attacks. . . from space. “He declined to provide details, but suggested that China was developing something akin to the” Fractional Orbital Bombardment System “that the USSR deployed during part of the Cold War, before abandoning it.
“If you use that kind of approach, you don’t have to use a traditional ICBM trajectory. It’s a way around missile defenses and warning systems, ”Kendall said.
In August, Gen. Glen VanHerck, chief of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, told a conference that China had “recently demonstrated highly advanced hypersonic gliding vehicle capabilities.” He warned that the Chinese capability “would provide significant challenges to my Norad’s ability to provide threat warnings and attack assessment.”
Two of the people familiar with the Chinese test said the weapon could, in theory, fly over the South Pole. That would pose a major challenge for the US military because its missile defense systems are focused on the north polar route.
The revelation comes as the Biden administration undertakes the Nuclear Posture Review, an analysis of policy and capabilities mandated by Congress that has pitted gun control advocates against those who believe the United States must do more to modernize. its nuclear arsenal because of China.
The Pentagon did not comment on the report, but did express concern for China. “We have made clear our concerns about the military capabilities that China continues to seek, capabilities that only increase tensions in the region and beyond,” said John Kirby, spokesman. “That is one of the reasons we view China as our main pacing challenge.”
The Chinese embassy declined to comment on the test, but Liu Pengyu, a spokesman, said China always followed a military policy of “defensive nature” and that its military development did not target any country.
“We don’t have a global strategy or military operations plans like the United States does. And we are not at all interested in having an arms race with other countries, ”Liu said. “On the contrary, in recent years the United States has been making excuses like ‘the threat from China’ to justify its arms expansion and the development of hypersonic weapons. This has directly intensified the arms race in this category and seriously undermined global strategic stability. “
An Asian national security official said the Chinese military conducted the test in August. China generally announces the launch of Long March rockets, the type used to put the hypersonic glide vehicle into orbit, but conspicuously concealed 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 Chinese Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics. CAAA is a research institute of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, the leading state-owned company that manufactures missile and rocket systems for China’s space program. Both sources said the hypersonic glide vehicle was launched on a Long March rocket, which is used for the space program.
The China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, which oversees the launches, said on July 19 on 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 made Flight 79. But there was no announcement of a 78th launch, prompting speculation among its space program watchers about a secret launch. CAAA did not respond to requests for comment.
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