Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley testifies during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the conclusion of military operations in Afghanistan and plans for future counterterrorism operations, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., September 28, 2021

China’s hypersonic test ‘very concerning’, says US general

Image credit: Sarahbeth Maney/Pool via Reuters

China recently conducted a ‘very concerning’ test of a hypersonic weapon system as part of its advance in space and military technologies, the US’s top military officer has said.

General Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was the first Pentagon official to confirm on the record the nature of a test this year by the Chinese military that the Financial Times had reported was a hypersonic weapon.

The article stated the nuclear-capable weapon was launched into space and orbited the Earth before re-entering the atmosphere and gliding toward its target in China. Military experts say this is a Cold War concept known as a 'fractional orbital bombardment system' (FOBS).

Milley said he could not discuss details because aspects involved classified intelligence.

But he said the US is also working on hypersonic weapons. Its key features include flight trajectory, speed and manoeuvrability that make them capable of evading early warning systems that are part of US missile defences.

The US has not conducted a hypersonic weapon test of the sort Milley said China had achieved.

“What we saw was a very significant event of a test of a hypersonic weapon system, and it is very concerning,” Milley said in an interview, adding that some newspapers referred to it as a “Sputnik moment”.

“I don’t know if it’s quite a Sputnik moment, but I think it’s very close to that,” he explained. “So it’s a very significant, technological event that occurred, or test that occurred, by China. And it has all of our attention.”

The launch of a Sputnik satellite by the Soviet Union in 1957 stunned the world and fed US fears it was falling behind technologically in an accelerating arms race in the early stages of the nuclear age.

China has disputed Western news reports about its test, saying it was working on technology for a reusable space vehicle for peaceful purposes.

When asked about Milley’s remarks on the matter, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said he was conveying concern about China’s military modernisation.

“They continue to pursue capabilities that increase tensions in the region,” she said. “And we continue to have concerns about that. And I think that was reflected in his comments.”

Last month, Air Force secretary Frank Kendall alluded to his concerns about a FOB system, telling reporters about a weapon that would go into an orbit and then descend on a target.

“If you use that kind of approach, you don’t have to use a traditional intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) trajectory – which is directly from the point of launch to the point of impact,” he said. “It’s a way to avoid defences and missile warning systems.”

However, some US defence experts say the worry about China’s work on a hypersonic weapon that could deliver a nuclear weapon from space are “overblown”.

James Acton, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in an essay last week that the US has long been vulnerable to a Chinese nuclear attack.

“While the prospect of a nuclear attack against the US 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 US isn’t remotely new,” Acton wrote.

Besides its advances in hypersonic weapons, China has been expanding its network of underground silos that could launch intercontinental-range nuclear missiles. It has also rebuffed US calls to join nuclear arms control talks.

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