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China Pushes Forward Hypersonic Missile Tests

  • Li Bao

FILE - A Chinese warship launches a missile during a live-ammunition military drill held last year in the South China Sea.

FILE - A Chinese warship launches a missile during a live-ammunition military drill held last year in the South China Sea.

China has conducted four hypersonic weapons tests in just 18 months, a sign of its continued efforts to make advanced weapons.

Hypersonic weapon delivery vehicles can reach supersonic speeds more than five times the speed of sound (Mach 5 and above).

China confirmed conducting test flights of the new hypersonic missile delivery vehicles, most recently on June 9, but Beijing insisted that the testing of these vehicles, capable of delivering nuclear warheads with record breaking speed, is “purely scientific and not targeted at any country.”

The United States, Russia and India also have been developing hypersonic vehicles intended to counter hostile missile and space defenses and developed for precise targeting and rapid delivery of weapons.

Catching up to the US?

Even though one of China’s four tests reportedly failed, and China still lags far behind the United States in missile technology, it is developing hypersonic capability at a fast pace and could overtake the U.S. in the future, according to James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program and senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Acton spoke at a Congressional breakfast on missile threats last week.

“I would very tentatively suggest, very tentatively, that the available evidence implies that Chinese hypersonic glide development is significantly less advanced than the United States at the moment,” Acton said. But “that is not to deny that it can develop more quickly and that the U.S. lead isn’t forever,” he added.

US making progress

The U.S. military has been conducting hypersonic tests since 2010. It completed a fourth successful test two years ago. It is expected that hypersonic glide vehicles could be included in the military weaponry in as soon as five to 10 years, enhancing the United States' military ballistic strike capabilities.

Morley Stone, chief technology officer of the U.S. Air Force Research Lab, headquartered at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, said the U.S. military effort to develop hypersonic capability will continue.

”We know that we are going to need to have weapons and platforms that continue to go faster,” he said. “That requires us to sustain research efforts to continue to advance the state of the art, when it comes to hypersonic.”

Nevertheless, Acton said that, even with the lead the United States enjoys in developing hypersonic capability, China’s hypersonic weapons would still pose a serious threat to the U.S., since “there is no technically plausible way of defending wide areas against hypersonic weapons.”

“What one has to do is look for alternatives,” he said. “So if there are particularly high-valued targets, very high-valued military bases or satellite uplinks, one can defend critical targets.”

Congressional attention

The United States Congress in recent years has also voiced concerns over China’s advancement in the research and development of hypersonic technologies, expressing concern that the U.S. could be falling behind in the international hypersonic arms race.

“While round after round of defense cuts have knocked America’s technological advantage on its back, the Chinese and other competitor nations push towards military parity with the United States; in some cases… they appear to be leaping ahead of us,” former Chairman of the Armed Services Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, Buck McKeon (R-CA), and two other senior members of the committee said in a statement after China’s first test of hypersonic vehicles last year.

U.S. officials still hope that maintaining an advantage in quick global strike capability, such as hypersonic missiles, can keep potential enemies from launching attacks in the first place.

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