China’s historic hypersonic space missile test in August caught the U.S. intelligence community by surprise in what has been likened to a “Sputnik moment” that shows China could have capabilities that exceed the U.S. government’s.
A Sputnik moment refers to the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of the first artificial satellite, named Sputnik, which shook the U.S.’s view of its own technological superiority and national security. It made the U.S. realize that it needed to catch up with the apparent technological and scientific gaps that exist between it and some other countries.
China’s military conducted possibly two hypersonic weapons tests over the summer, including launching into space an orbiting hypersonic weapon capable of carrying a nuclear payload, Financial Times reported in mid-October, citing unnamed officials.
The Chinese military launched a rocket carrying a hypersonic glide vehicle that flew through low-orbit space, circling the globe before cruising towards its target, which it missed by about 24 miles.
The test showed that China had made astounding progress on hypersonic weapons and was far more advanced than U.S. military officials realized, according to the FT report.
A hypersonic missile travels faster than Mach 5 — at least five times the speed of sound or 3,850 miles per hour.
While traditional intercontinental ballistic missiles use gravitational forces to reach their target, hypersonic missiles use high-speed jet engines or separate re-entry glide vehicles to reach the target.
Hypersonic glide vehicles can be maneuvered and do not need to follow any predictable trajectories as the missile comes down. In theory, this makes these missiles harder to trace and intercept with anti-missile, anti-ballistic defense systems.
“The new weapon is a strategic game-changer with the dangerous potential to fundamentally undermine strategic stability as we know it. The implications of these weapons under development by China or Russia could be catastrophic,” Maine Sen. Angus King said.
The U.S. is racing to develop its own hypersonic weapon technology with U.S. military contractors such as Lockheed Martin and Raytheon Technologies involved in missile development.
U.S. military officials have warned in recent months about China’s growing nuclear capabilities, more so after satellite imagery showed it was building more than 200 intercontinental missile silos.
In September, North Korea said it had test-fired a newly-developed hypersonic missile.
China has been aggressively developing this technology, which it sees as crucial to defending against U.S. advances in hypersonic and other technologies.
China’s test was “unwelcome news” but the technology is not new, wrote Jeffrey Lewis, a non-proliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. The Soviet Union deployed the same during the Cold War, Lewis wrote in the Foreign Policy magazine.
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