China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile in August, demonstrating an advanced space capability that caught US intelligence by surprise, the Financial Times has reported.
According to the FT report, the missile, whose launch was kept a secret by China, circled the globe before cruising towards its target, though missing its mark by around 24 miles.
“Five people familiar with the test said the Chinese military launched a rocket that carried a hypersonic glide vehicle which flew through low-orbit space before cruising down towards its target,” the FT report said, adding that the test showed that China had made astounding progress on hypersonic weapons and was far more advanced than US officials believed.
Several countries, including US, Russia and China, are developing hypersonic missiles which travel at a speed five times that of sound. Though slower than ballistic missiles, they are harder to intercept and can be manoeuvred.
Though there was no official reaction from the US or Indian government to the report, strategic experts in India say more information is needed before India can be “too worried”.
“Missile development is an ongoing process — from subsonic to supersonic to hypersonic. China has developed one, but so many other countries have it. Even India has hypersonic missiles. First you have to test it, then operationalise it. Also when a missile travels at such high speeds, trajectory correction is not that simple. Without knowing the character of the missile, such as what load it can carry, there is no need to be too worried,” said G Balachandran, former consulting fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Anlayses.
According to the FT report, two people familiar with the Chinese test said the weapon could, in theory, fly over the South Pole. “That would pose a big challenge for the US military because its missile defence systems are focused on the northern polar route, the FT report said.
The report said China generally announces the launch of its Long March rockets — the type used to launch the hypersonic glide vehicle into orbit — but it concealed the August launch.
The developments come in the backdrop of growing US-China rivalry, Chinese pressure on Taiwan, and its year-long standoff with Indian forces in eastern Ladakh.
FT quoted Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby as saying, “We have made clear our concerns about the military capabilities China continues to pursue, capabilities that only increase tensions in the region and beyond. That is one reason why we hold China as our number one pacing challenge.”
The FT report said the Chinese embassy too declined to comment on the test, but embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu said China always pursued a military policy that was “defensive in nature” and that its military development did not target any country.
“We don’t have a global strategy and plans of military operations like the US does. And we are not at all interested in having an arms race with other countries,” FT quoted Liu as having said. “In contrast, the US has in recent years been fabricating excuses like ‘the China threat’ to justify its arms expansion and development of hypersonic weapons. This has directly intensified arms race in this category and severely undermined global strategic stability.”