China in August tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile that circled the Earth before accelerating toward its target, demonstrating an advanced military capability that took US intelligence by surprise.
Five people with knowledge of the test said the Chinese military launched a rocket that carried a hypersonic glider vehicle that flew in low orbit before heading toward its target.
The missile missed its target by about 38 kilometers, according to three people briefed on the trial, but two of them said the experiment still showed that China has made surprising progress in hypersonic weapons and is far ahead of it. the Americans knew.
The test also raised new questions about why the US often underestimates China’s military modernization. “We have no idea how they did it,” said a fourth source.
The United States, Russia and China are developing hypersonic weapons, including glider vehicles launched into space in a rocket but orbiting the Earth with their own momentum. They fly at five times the speed of sound, less than a ballistic missile, but they do not follow the fixed parabolic trajectory of these projectiles and are maneuverable, making them more difficult to track.
Taylor Fravel, an expert on Chinese nuclear weapons policy who was unaware of the test, said a hypersonic glider vehicle armed with a nuclear warhead could help China “neutralize” US missile defense systems designed to destroy ballistic missiles.
China, Middle Land
“Hypersonic glider vehicles fly at lower trajectories and can maneuver during flight, which makes it difficult to track and destroy them,” said the 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 would not necessarily mean Beijing would use the equipment.
Growing concern about China’s nuclear capabilities comes as Beijing continues to build its conventional military forces and engage in increasingly assertive military activities near Taiwan. Tensions between the US and China escalated as Joe Biden’s government took a tough stance on Beijing, which accused Washington of being openly hostile.
US military officials have warned in recent months about China’s growing nuclear capability, especially after the release of satellite images that showed the construction of more than 200 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos. China is not bound by arms control agreements and has not been willing to involve the US in negotiations over its nuclear arsenal and policy.
Last month, Frank Kendall, secretary of the US Air Force, hinted that Beijing was developing a new weapon. He said China has made huge strides, including with “the potential for global attacks from space”. He declined to give details, but suggested that the Asian country was developing something similar to the “Fractional Orbital Bombing System” that the Soviet Union implemented 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 of avoiding missile defenses and warning systems,” Kendall said.
In August, General Glen VanHerck, head of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (Norad), told a conference that China had “recently demonstrated very advanced capabilities of hypersonic glider vehicles.” He warned that the Chinese capability “would present major challenges to Norad’s ability to provide threat alerts and attack assessments.”
Two people familiar with the Chinese test said the weapon could, in theory, fly over the South Pole, which 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 conducts the Nuclear Posture Review, a Congress-mandated policy and capabilities review that pitted gun control advocates against those who say it believes the US must do more to modernize its nuclear arsenal. the China.
The Pentagon did not comment on the report but expressed concern. “We make clear our concerns about the military capabilities that China continues to pursue, capabilities that only heighten tensions in the region and beyond,” said spokesman John Kirby. “This is one of the reasons why we consider China our main ongoing challenge.”
The Chinese embassy declined to comment on the test, but spokesman Liu Pengyu said China had always followed a military policy of a “defensive nature” and that its military development did not target any country. “We don’t have global military operations strategy and plans like the US does. And we have no interest in an arms race with other countries,” Liu said.
“In contrast, the US in recent years has invented excuses like ‘the Chinese threat’ to justify its military expansion and the development of hypersonic weapons. This has directly intensified the arms race in this category and severely undermined global strategic stability.”
An Asian national security official said the Chinese military carried out the test in August. China usually announces the launch of Long March rockets — the type used to launch the hypersonic glider vehicle into orbit — but it has visibly concealed that launch.
The security officer and another Chinese security expert close to the People’s Liberation Army said the weapon was developed by the Chinese Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics (CAAA), a research institute of the Chinese Corporation of Aerospace Science and Technology, the main state-owned company that manufactures missile and rocket systems for the Chinese space program.
The Chinese Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, which oversees the launches, said on July 19 in an official social networking account that it had launched a Long March 2C rocket and added that it was the 77th launch of that rocket.
On August 24, it announced that it had taken the 79th flight. But there was no announcement of a 78th launch, prompting speculation among observers of its space program about a secret launch. CAAA did not respond to requests for comment.
Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves