With the Pentagon focused on competition with Russia and China, US military leaders are constantly warning that Washington’s rivals are rapidly developing new weapons technologies to justify more military spending. On Saturday, a Space Force general warned that the US’s hypersonic missile capabilities are “not as advanced” as those of Russia and China.
“We have catching up to do very quickly, the Chinese have an incredible hypersonic program,” Gen. David Thompson, the Space Force’s vice chief of space operations, told the Halifax International Security Forum in Canada in Canada. “It’s a very concerning development … it greatly complicates the strategic warning problem.”
Reports from The Financial Times said China launched a rocket into space twice over the summer carrying a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle that circled the globe that supposedly shocked US officials. For their part, China only acknowledged one launch but said it was a test of a reusable spacecraft, not a weapons test.
Since the reports came out, US military leaders have pointed to the tests as a reason to invest in hypersonics. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said the test was close to a “Sputnik moment,” referring to when the Soviet Union launched the first space satellite.
Others are not convinced that China’s test was that surprising. “Any country that can put something into space could do this,” David Wright, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told The New York Times. “And we certainly should not be surprised that China could do this given the sophistication of its space program.”
On Sunday, The Financial Times published another report on China’s hypersonic glide tests. The report said during the July test, a missile was launched from the vehicle at five times the speed of sound, which is hypersonic speed. When asked about the new report, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said, “I have answered similar questions before. As we understand, this was a routine test of spacecraft to verify the technology of spacecraft’s reusability. After separating from the spacecraft before its return, the supporting devices will burn up when it’s falling through the atmosphere.”
The US has conducted hypersonic missile tests of its own in recent months. In September, the US launched a missile using an air-powered engine known as a scramjet. In October, the Pentagon said it failed to test-launch a hypersonic missile.