China secretly tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile in August, the Financial Times reported late Saturday. The weapon, a hypersonic glide vehicle launched via rocket by the Chinese military, circled the Earth at low orbit before descending to its target. Though the missile apparently missed its target by about two dozen miles, the test demonstrated “an advanced space capability that caught U.S. intelligence by surprise,” according to the publication’s sources.
So-called hypersonic missiles fly at low-altitude trajectories, can reach more than five times the speed of sound, and can maneuver in flight — making them harder to track and destroy than ballistic missiles, which fly faster, but follow steeper, fixed parabolic trajectories.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby would not comment on the specifics of the FT report, but added: “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.”
Sources also told the Financial Times that the missile could theoretically fly over the South Pole, a concern for the U.S. military, which heavily monitors the North Pole route.
Arms-control analyst Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, responding on Twitter to the FT report, cautioned against overreaction to China’s test and noted that it should not come as a surprise: “This is how arms races work. We put a missile defense in Alaska, China builds an orbital bombardment system to come up over the South Pole. It will go on like this, at the cost of hundreds of billions of dollars, a forever race with no finish line.”
China isn’t alone in looking into hypersonic technology. There’s a burgeoning arms race with countries like the United States and Russia competing to develop these weapons; just last month, North Korea said it had test-fired a newly developed hypersonic missile.