The US’ anxiety over China’s recent testing of an earth-circling hypersonic missile became evident when a top Pentagon general compared the event with Soviet Union’s much-hyped launch of the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957.
Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the launch of Sputnik triggered competition among the world’s most influential countries to dominate the space and China’s recent testing could do exactly the same.
Milley admitted that the Chinese nuclear-capable missile “would be very difficult to defend against”. “What we saw was a very significant event of a test of a hypersonic weapon system. And it is very concerning,” Milley told Bloomberg TV.
“I don’t know if it’s quite a Sputnik moment, but I think it’s very close to that. It’s a very significant technological event that occurred… and it has all of our attention,” he said.
Senator Michael Bennet, D-Colo., said recently: “China’s capabilities are extraordinary. We have a lot of work to do to make sure that we’re defending the United States of America in the case of potential aggression. I hope it never comes to that but we need to make sure that we’ve got a strategy and approach to neutralize these threats as they arise.”
Defenseone.com reported that the Pentagon is planning to launch a new constellation of low-earth-orbit satellites to track maneuverable hypersonic weapons more closely, to provide additional response options. Besides, many service branches are working on hypersonic weapons of their own.
What did China test?
China tested the hypersonic missile in August, but it got reported for the first time in the Financial Times on October 16. The missile circled the Earth at a low altitude and a velocity of more than five times the speed of sound, although it missed its target by more than 30 kms (19 miles), stated the Financial Times. Hypersonic weapons descend at more than five times the speed of sound while retaining enough maneuverability to evade missile defenses designed for the more predictable paths of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
Washington was clearly surprised by the test reports. China denied reports, calling it a routine test of a reusable space vehicle.
Why are hypersonics dangerous?
Hypersonics represent the new frontier in missile technology, mainly because can fly in lower orbits and are difficult to detect than ballistic missiles. Additionally, they can hit targets really fast and are maneuverable. Mounted with nuclear warheads, hypersonic missiles could be the most dangerous weapon on earth at present.
Developed nations like the US, Russia, China and North Korea have tested hypersonics in the past.
China first tested a hypersonic medium-range missile, the DF-17, in 2019. The missile can travel around 2,000 kilometres and can carry nuclear warheads.