China tests new space capability with hypersonic missile



China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile in August that circled the world before heading for its target, demonstrating an advanced space capability that took U.S. intelligence by surprise.

Five people familiar with the test said the Chinese military launched a rocket that carried a hypersonic glide vehicle that flew over space in low orbit before heading towards its target.

The missile missed its target by about two dozen kilometers, according to three people with intelligence. But two said the test shows China has made astonishing progress on hypersonic weapons and is far further ahead than U.S. officials believed.

The test 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 all developing hypersonic weapons, including glider vehicles that are launched into space on a rocket but orbit the earth on their own. They fly at five times the speed of sound, slower than a ballistic missile. But they don’t follow the fixed parabolic trajectory of a ballistic missile and are maneuverable, making them more difficult to follow.

Taylor Fravel, an expert on Chinese nuclear weapons policy who was unaware of the test, said a hypersonic glide vehicle armed with a nuclear warhead could help China “cancel” US missile defense systems designed to destroy incoming ballistic missiles.

“Hypersonic sliding vehicles. . . fly at lower trajectories and can maneuver in flight, making 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 warned that a test does not necessarily mean Beijing will deploy the capability.

Growing concerns about China’s nuclear capabilities come 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 grown as the Biden administration took tough action against Beijing, which accused Washington of being too hostile.

In recent months, US military officials have warned of China’s growing nuclear capabilities, especially after the release of satellite images showing it was building more than 200 intercontinental missile silos. China is not bound by any arms control agreement and was unwilling to engage the United States in talks 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 had made huge strides, including the “potential for global strikes… From outer space.” He declined to provide details, but suggested that China develop something akin to the “fractional orbital bombardment system” that the USSR deployed during part of the Cold War, before abandoning it.

“If you use this kind of approach, you don’t need to use a traditional ICBM trajectory. It’s a way to bypass defenses and missile warning systems, ”Kendall said.

In August, General Glen VanHerck, chief of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, told a conference that China had “recently demonstrated very advanced capabilities of hypersonic glide vehicles.” He warned that the Chinese capability “would present significant challenges to my NORAD ability to provide threat alert and attack assessment.”

Two of those familiar with the Chinese test said the weapon could, in theory, fly over the South Pole. This would pose a great challenge to the US military, as its missile defense systems are focused on the north polar route.

The revelation comes as the Biden administration undertakes the Nuclear Posture Review, a Congress-commissioned policy and capability analysis that pitted arms control advocates against those who believe the United States needs to do more to modernize their nuclear arsenal because of China.

The Pentagon did not comment on the report but expressed concern about China. “We have made clear our concerns about the military capabilities that China continues to pursue, capabilities that only increase tensions in the region and beyond,” said John Kirby, spokesperson. “This is one of the reasons we see China as our number one stimulus challenge.”

The Chinese embassy declined to comment on the test, but spokesperson Liu Pengyu said China has always pursued a military policy of “a defensive nature” and its military development has not targeted any country.

“We don’t have a comprehensive strategy and military operations plans like the United States does. And we are not at all interested in an arms race with other countries, ”Liu said. “In contrast, in recent years the United States has fabricated excuses like ‘the Chinese threat’ 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 carried out the test in August. China generally announces the launch of Long March rockets – the type used to launch the hypersonic glide vehicle into orbit – but it has visibly 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 under the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, the main state-owned company that manufactures missile systems and rockets for the Chinese space program. Both sources said the hypersonic glide vehicle was launched on a Long March rocket, which is being used for the space program.

The Chinese 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, which it said was the 77th launch of this rocket. On August 24, he announced that he had made a 79th flight. But there has been no announcement of a 78th launch, which has sparked speculation among observers of its space program about a secret launch. The CAAA did not respond to requests for comment.

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