Destabilizing speculation

China denies testing hypersonic missile that circled the globe, narrowly missing target

“We have no idea how they did this,” said one of the sources quoted by the Financial Times.

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U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Monday that Washington was closely monitoring China’s development of advanced weapons systems, while declining to comment directly on a report that Beijing had tested a nuclear-capable device. hypersonic missile .

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“We are closely following the development of China’s advanced weaponry and capabilities and systems which will only increase tensions in the region,” Austin told reporters during a visit to the former Soviet Republic of Georgia.

Senior U.S. arms control official Robert Wood said on Monday that the United States was concerned about hypersonic missile technology and its potential military applications by China and Russia.

“We are concerned about what China is doing on the hypersonic,” Wood, the US ambassador for disarmament, told reporters in Geneva.

“We just don’t know how we can defend against this kind of technology, neither can China or Russia,” said Wood, referring to the difficulty of missile defense systems in keeping up with high-speed weapons capable to maneuver and escape their shields.

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Wood’s concern comes after the Financial Times, citing five people familiar with the test, reported on Saturday that China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile in August that circled the world before heading for its target. .

The missile missed its target by about two dozen kilometers, according to three people with intelligence. But two said the test showed China had made astonishing progress on hypersonic weapons and was far further ahead than surprised U.S. officials thought.

“We have no idea how they did this,” said a fourth person.

Two of those familiar with the Chinese test said the weapon could, in theory, fly over the South Pole. This would pose a great challenge to the US military, as its missile defense systems are focused on the north polar route.

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China’s Foreign Ministry questioned the accuracy of the Financial Times report on Monday, saying it tested a spacecraft in July, not a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile.

“It was not a missile, it was a space vehicle,” ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said during a regular press briefing in Beijing when asked about the report, adding that he This was a “routine test” for the purpose of testing the technology to reuse the vehicle. .

The importance of a reusability test is that it can “provide a cheap and convenient method for humans to travel peacefully to and from space,” Zhao said, adding that many companies have performed similar tests.

The Long March 5B rocket, carrying the central module of the Chinese space station Tianhe, taking off from the Wenchang space launch center in Hainan province (southern China) on April 29, 2021.
The Long March 5B rocket, carrying the central module of the Chinese space station Tianhe, taking off from the Wenchang space launch center in Hainan province (southern China) on April 29, 2021. AFP Photo via Getty Images

The Foreign Office said the test took place in July, not August, as reported by the Financial Times.

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However, an Asian national security official said the Chinese military carried out the test in August. China generally announces the launch of Long March rockets – the type used to launch the hypersonic glide vehicle into orbit – but it has visibly concealed the August launch.

The security official and another Chinese security expert close to the People’s Liberation Army said the weapon was being developed by the Chinese Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics. CAAA is a research institute under the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, the leading state-owned company that manufactures missile systems and rockets for the country’s space program. Both sources said the hypersonic glide vehicle was launched on a Long March rocket, which is being used for the space program.

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The Chinese Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, which oversees the launches, said on July 19 on an official social media account that it had launched a Long March 2C rocket, which it said was the 77th launch of this rocket. On August 24, he announced that he had made a 79th flight. But there has been no announcement of a 78th launch, which has sparked speculation among observers of its space program about a secret launch. The CAAA did not respond to requests for comment.

The United States, Russia, and China are all developing hypersonic weapons, including glider vehicles that are launched into space on a rocket but orbit the earth on their own. They fly at five times the speed of sound, slower than a ballistic missile. But they don’t follow the fixed parabolic trajectory of a ballistic missile and are maneuverable, making them more difficult to follow.

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Taylor Fravel, an expert on Chinese nuclear weapons policy who was unaware of the test, said hypersonic glide vehicle armed with a nuclear warhead could help China “cancel” US missile defense systems designed to destroy incoming ballistic missiles.

“Hypersonic sliding vehicles. . . fly at lower trajectories and can maneuver in flight, making them difficult to track and destroy, ”said Fravel, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Fravel added that it would be “unsettling” if China fully developed and deployed such a weapon, but warned that a test does not necessarily mean Beijing will deploy the capability.

Growing concerns about China’s nuclear capabilities come as Beijing continues to build up its conventional military forces and engages in increasingly assertive military activity near Taiwan.

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Tensions between the United States and China have grown as the Biden administration took tough action against Beijing, which accused Washington of being too hostile.

Michael Gallagher, Republican member of the House Armed Services Committee, said the test should “serve as a call to action.”

“The People’s Liberation Army now has an increasingly credible ability to undermine our missile defenses and threaten the American homeland with both conventional and nuclear strikes,” said Gallagher. “Even more troubling is the fact that American technology has contributed to the PLA’s hypersonic missile program.”

In recent months, U.S. military officials have warned of China’s growing nuclear capabilities, especially after the release of satellite images showing it was building more than 200 intercontinental missile silos. China is not bound by any arms control agreement and was unwilling to engage the White House in talks over its nuclear arsenal and policy.

Reuters, the Financial Times

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