This summer, China tested a new hypersonic missile, according to reports; something that took the US by surprise because it currently doesn't have the capacity to defend against hypersonic weapons. The Chinese government has denied the report, saying the reported launch was a spacecraft.
Citing anonymous sources, the Financial Times reports a nuclear-capable missile was launched on a Chang Zheng (长征 – Long March) rocket, circled the globe in low-Earth orbit, and then reached hypersonic speed approaching its target. The missile apparently missed it by 32 kilometers (20 miles).
According to the FT, the vehicle is a hypersonic glide vehicle, which skips along the upper atmosphere to deliver a potentially nuclear payload, and was tested in July and August. Despite reportedly missing the target, China's alleged strides in hypersonic technology in such a short amount of time “caught US intelligence by surprise,” the FT writes. “We have no idea how they did this,” a source told the newspaper. Bejing has denied that the test was of a hypersonic weapon.
“According to my understanding, this test is a routine spacecraft test, used to test a reusable spacecraft technology,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters in a press briefing. “This could provide a convenient and cheap way for humans to use space for peaceful purposes.”
Like ballistic missiles, hypersonic missiles can deliver a nuclear payload. Unlike ballistic missiles, they are more maneuverable and reach their target five times faster than the speed of sound. It is uncertain if counter-missile defenses in the US would be capable of defending against an attack with a hypersonic missile.
“We are very concerned by what China has been doing on the hypersonic front,” US disarmament ambassador Robert Wood told reporters in Geneva. “We just don’t know how we can defend against that type of technology, neither does China or Russia.”
The US and China are not the only countries investigating hypersonic technology for offense purposes. Last month North Korea said it had successfully tested a hypersonic missile. Russia reportedly tested one in 2018 and India is investigating the technology.
For the 2022 fiscal year, the Pentagon has requested $3.8 billion for hypersonic research, a $600 million increase on last year's budget. That said, the US Department of Defense thinks that hypersonic missiles are too expensive.