China reportedly carried out its first successful test launch of an intercontinental range hypersonic glide vehicle in August, with the Financial Times reporting that the previously unknown test “caught the U.S. government by surprise” as the Pentagon refused to make any specific comment on the incident. Russia was previously the only country to field such assets after deploying Avangard hypersonic glide vehicles from December 2019. China was previously the only country to deploy shorter ranged tactical hypersonic glide vehicles with its DF-17 missile, although North Korea tested a missile reported to have similar capabilities, the Hwasong-8, in late September. The possibility of technology sharing between the three U.S. adversaries has been raised multiple times. Hypersonic glide vehicles rely on rocket boosters to gain high speeds and altitudes, which are much higher for intercontinental range platforms, before detaching and following an atmospheric flight trajectory with high manoeuvrability. This optimises such missiles for evading air defences with no known air defence system thought to be able to come close to neutralising such threats. While hypersonic cruise missiles fly at lower altitudes throughout their trajectories and have lower manoeuvrability, glide vehicles fly considerably higher. Their sheer speed, however, makes them very difficult to track for modern missile defence systems.
China tests hypersonic missile, surprises US intelligence with advancement
China tested a hypersonic missile that could carry nuclear warhead(s) in August 2021, which accelerated to its target after circling the globe, and although it ultimately missed its target, U.S. intelligence was quite surprised by China’s space capabilities, according to Chinese media citing a British “Financial Times” report on Oct. 16.
The report cited multiple sources as saying that in August 2021, China launched a hypersonic glide vehicle into orbit during a Long March rocket (Changzheng Rocket) launch. The nuclear warhead-capable vehicle circled the globe in low Earth orbit and then descended to its target, eventually missing it by about 24 miles.
The report said the hypersonic missile can travel up to five times the speed of sound, and although slower than a ballistic missile, the missile does not follow the fixed parabolic trajectory of a ballistic missile and is more flexible, making it more difficult to track.
The report also said that some source pointed out that this Chinese hypersonic missile test shows that China has made amazing progress in hypersonic weapons and is much more advanced than U.S. officials realized.
The Financial Times’ news is not an idle one, as the U.S. Air Force secretary claimed that China was making progress in its “orbital strike” capability, while the commander of NORAD warned in August that China’s hypersonic nuclear weapons posed a “significant challenge” to NORAD.
In response, a Chinese expert claimed that this “in-orbit hypersonic weapon” can indeed theoretically have a strong surprise effect on all existing anti-missile and early warning systems. However, ballistic missiles used for nuclear strikes tend to have limited throw weight, and such “orbital hypersonic weapons” would require a large payload for orbit and re-entry, resulting in low strike efficiency and not a particularly powerful weapon for operational effectiveness.
He pointed out that even if there are such experiments, they are used in other areas of spaceflight, such as frontier configuration exploration, aerodynamic and thermal model building, data collection, etc., which have excellent results, rather than militarized use. And, the U.S. has previously developed in-orbit hypersonic test programs such as the HTV-3X and X-37B, but not for military use.
“I don’t know how the Chinese did it,” the Financial Times reported, citing a source familiar with the matter. The test raises new questions about why the United States often underestimates China’s military modernization progress, the report said.
Countries have different definitions of hypersonic weapons, which generally refer to weapons that travel at more than five times the speed of sound in the atmosphere. Currently, only China has operational hypersonic weapons in the world today. Neither the United States nor Russia has officially commissioned hypersonic weapons. Compared to traditional ballistic missiles, hypersonic missiles spend most of their time flying in the atmosphere, making it difficult for current interceptors to intercept hypersonic weapons.
Two people familiar with the inside story of the test launch said that theoretically China’s hypersonic glide vehicle could take the Antarctic route to carry out attacks against the target, which would pose a major challenge to the U.S. military. And the U.S. military’s existing early warning radars are mostly deployed in Alaska bases near the North Pole and the U.S. North, which can defend against ballistic missiles on the Arctic route, but they lack early warning in the Southern Hemisphere and Antarctic direction, and this new hypersonic missile from China could further compress the U.S. military’s warning time.