Hypersonic weapons blast a hole in China-US rivalry

Washington fears another ’Sputnik moment’ after Beijing’s controversial missile test

It might not have been a “Sputnik moment,” but it sent the defense world spinning off its axis.

News last week that China had launched a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile left the United States military in a state of shock.

Shrouded in a veil of secrecy and speculation, the reported test took place in August and generated the sort of hysteria not seen in decades.

General Mark Milley, the head of the US joint chiefs of staff, described the “event” as being “very close to a Sputnik moment” when the old Soviet Union launched the first man-made satellite in 1957.

At the time, Washington was rocked to the core with the fallout triggering a Cold War space race that still exists today in a different guise.

“What we saw was a very significant event of a test of a hypersonic weapon system, and it is very concerning,” Milley said earlier this week.

“Some of the newspapers used the term Sputnik moment. I don’t know if it’s quite a Sputnik moment, but I think it’s very close to that,” he told Bloomberg Television.

What happened:

  • Last week, the Financial Times reported that the Chinese military had launched a rocket carrying a hypersonic glide vehicle, which flew through a low orbit before missing its target.
  • Once released, hypersonic gliders can travel at more than five times the speed of sound.
  • That is about 6,200 kilometers per hour or 3,853 miles per hour.
  • They also glide along the outer edge of the atmosphere, avoiding radar and missile defenses.
  • Just days after China’s launch, the Pentagon revealed that the US hypersonic weapons program had suffered a setback when a booster rocket failed.

This test was a routine spacecraft experiment to verify reusable technology.

Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

China’s response: Beijing has denied launching a hypersonic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. “This test was a routine spacecraft experiment to verify reusable technology,” Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told a media briefing last week.

Delve deeper: Hypersonic missiles are just part of a broader high-tech tug-of-war between the world’s two largest economies. It spans smart factories to smart weapons as China rapidly modernizes its armed forces.

Double trouble: “US defenses are not capable of combating a large-scale attack from China or Russia, which could overwhelm the system. But the open US pursuit of more and more advanced missile defenses has led Moscow and Beijing to examine ways to defeat them, experts say, including hypersonics,” Reuters news agency reported.

Cold War comfort: Still, the Chinese launch has to be put into perspective. “While the prospect of a nuclear attack against the United States is terrifying, this is no Sputnik moment – partly because it’s not entirely clear what was tested, but mostly because the threat of a Chinese nuclear attack on the United States isn’t remotely new,” James M Acton, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in an essay last week.

China Factor comment: What is frightening is the bellicose language coming from Beijing’s state-sponsored Wolf Warriors. China’s aggressive moves in the South China Sea and threats against the democratic island of Taiwan have only increased the tension.