A Chinese hypersonic glider that completed a test flight in July appears to be more sophisticated than first thought. It is reported the aircraft was able to fire a missile while travelling at five times the speed of sound.
The glider was launched atop a Long March 2C rocket, and completed at least one orbit of our planet before detaching and descending. As the glider passed over the South China Sea, it fired a missile while traveling at Mach 5, the first time this has been achieved by any such device, multiple sources told the Financial Times.
The United States military is split on the test, the paper reports, with some believing the launched object was some kind of test of a countermeasure against attacks on the glider, and some saying it's some form of air-to-air weapon. The missile fell into the ocean, while the glider crashed into China.
“This development is concerning to us as it should be to all who seek peace and stability in the region and beyond,” a spokesperson for the US National Security Council said. “This also builds on our concern about many military capabilities that the People’s Republic of China continues to pursue.”
Last week General John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the US, shared a few more details of the Chinese orbital test. He told CBS the glider was supposed to reach a certain target in China, and it was "close enough" to its destination. Sources suggested to the FT the aircraft was around two dozen miles off course.
General Hyten claimed the US was falling seriously behind in hypersonics, with China conducting "hundreds of hypersonic tests" over the past five years compared to just nine by Uncle Sam. He also claimed China had already deployed a medium-range hypersonic weapons system, which the US was years away from. That, and China's continuing military buildup, made him nervous about the Middle Kingdom's intentions with this hardware and, say, nuclear warheads.
"They look like a first-use weapon," General Hyten opined. "That's what those weapons look like to me."
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Certainly the US has been trying to develop its own hypersonic weapons albeit with little success, publicly. The Air Force's AGM-183A glider weapon was supposed to have flown last December, and then in April, and then had an unsuccessful launch in July when its rockets failed to ignite.
The Chinese embassy in the US said it was “not aware” of the missile test it reportedly carried out earlier this year. It also suggested, as others have, that America's military is keen to talk up China's capabilities to justify continued weapons spending, development, and deployment.
“We are not at all interested in having an arms race with other countries,” said Liu Pengyu, an embassy spokesperson. “The US has in recent years been fabricating excuses like ‘the China threat’ to justify its arms expansion and development of hypersonic weapons.”
Others are not quite so reticent, such as Vladimir Putin. The Russian supremo claimed his country is developing Kinzhal, or Dagger, a missile capable of ten times the speed of sound with a range of 2,000 miles. Even North Korea claimed to have launched a hypersonic test vehicle.
Certainly some at the Pentagon seem set on action. On Saturday, General David Thompson, vice-chief of space operations at the US Space Force, told the Halifax International Security Forum that the US was “not as advanced” as Russia and China in hypersonics. The US Army, Navy, and Air Force all have programs, he said, as you can see below.
“We have catching up to do very quickly," he said. "The Chinese have had an incredibly aggressive hypersonic program for several years. I agree with General Hyten."
Hypersonic technology "changes the strategic warning game," he said. Ballistic missiles are easy to track and increasingly possible to counter, Thompson claimed. But, because of their maneuverability and speed, hypersonic weapons would be much harder to track and the final target wouldn't be known essentially until impact. ®