US says for 1st time China has tested hypersonic weapons and cites ‘Sputnik moment’

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US says for 1st time China has tested hypersonic weapons and cites ‘Sputnik moment’

The United States officially confirmed for the first time on Wednesday (27) that China has recently tested hypersonic weapons. The move was seen as an important advance in the Asians’ military capacity, especially to escape American defense systems.

The tests, carried out in July and August, were first reported by the British newspaper Financial Times, but are denied by the Chinese, who claim they launched a space vehicle, not a missile.

The Pentagon had also been struggling to avoid clear confirmation of the test. This Wednesday, however, General Mark Milley, the Chief of Staff of the United States, spoke about the episode in an interview with the Bloomberg news channel.

The top US military official said the test puts China “very close” to a “Sputnik moment”. Milley referred to Russia’s 1957 launch of the first artificial satellite, which put Moscow at the forefront of the Cold War space race.

“What we saw was a very significant event from a test of a hypersonic weapons system. And it’s very worrisome,” he said.

Nuclear weapons experts say the missile appears to have been designed to evade US defenses in two ways. First, hypersonic missiles move at speeds of more than five times the speed of sound, or about 6,200 km/h, making them harder to detect and intercept. Furthermore, they are maneuverable.

People familiar with the matter told the Reuters news agency that the US still believes China’s test involved a weapon that first orbited Earth, what in the Cold War was known as “fractional orbital bombing,” according to military experts.

“It’s a way of evading missile defenses and warning systems,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told reporters last month, explaining that in this system, the weapon enters orbit before falling on a target. In the traditional model known as ICBM, the missile goes directly from the launch point to the point of impact, according to him.

Fractional orbital bombing would work for China to avoid the US missile defenses in Alaska, designed to combat a limited number of weapons from a country like North Korea.

“The simplest way to think about the Chinese orbital bombing system is to imagine a space shuttle, put a nuclear weapon in the cargo bay and forget about the landing gear,” said Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute for International Studies. According to him, the difference is that the Chinese reentry system into orbit is a glider.

In the Financial Times, three people briefed on the first test in July said it surprised the Pentagon and US intelligence because China managed to demonstrate a new weapons capability.

One of the sources said government scientists were struggling to understand this capability, which the US does not currently have, and added that the Chinese achievement appeared to “challenge the laws of physics”.

The US anti-missile system is unable to combat a large-scale attack from China or Russia, and the US’s open search for more advanced defenses has led Moscow and Beijing to look for more effective weapons, experts say, including hypersonic weapons and, apparently, fractional orbital bombardment.

To the American newspaper The New York Times, Ambassador Robert Wood, who represents the United States in the arms control sections of the UN in Geneva, said that there are widespread doubts about how to defend against this type of weaponry. “We just don’t know how we can defend ourselves against this technology, neither China nor Russia do,” said he, who expressed concern about a new arms race.

This race, which also involves countries like North Korea, has led to the desire of American defense officials to press for more resources for the country’s hypersonic weapons program — which was already behind Russia and, now, apparently, the Chinese also.

Last week, President Joe Biden expressed concern about hypersonic weapons when asked by journalists if he was concerned about the development of high-speed maneuverable weapons. Laconically, he replied, “Yes.”

Also last week, the US program carried out three tests with prototypes of hypersonic weapons components, considered successful. But another rocket experiment, to check the aspects of hypersonic glider vehicles, had a setback, with an unspecified vehicle failure.

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