What we know about China’s new hypersonic missile that circles globe before striking

Posted 45 days ago


China has reportedly tested a hypersonic missile that circles the globe before descending to hit its target. The missile in question is believed to be capable of carrying nuclear warheads, and its development has taken US intelligence agencies by surprise.

When did China launch the ‘missile’?

Though it was first reported by the Financial Times on Saturday evening, China actually conducted the test launch in August.

The FT quoted five people familiar with China’s launch saying that the object in question was a hypersonic missile which “flew through low-orbit space” in a way that could “negate” the US’s missile defence systems.

The report cited people who were familiar with the test and said that it demonstrates “astounding progress on hypersonic weapons.” They said that the weapons were far more advanced than the US officials realised. One of the officials familiar with the test said: “We have no idea how they did this.”

China broke its silence on the report on Monday afternoon, admitting that it had conducted a launch but playing down its significance. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian claimed the launch involved a spacecraft, not a missile, and was designed to see whether the craft can be re-used. The test was of “great significance for reducing the use-cost of spacecraft and could provide a convenient and affordable way to make a round trip for mankind’s peaceful use of space,” he said.

Earlier, the Communist Party-operated Global Times newspaper itself cited the FT as it gloated about the reported missile launch. “If the FT report is to be believed, it means that there is a key new member in China’s nuclear deterrence system, which is a new blow to the US’ mentality of strategic superiority over China,” the article read.

How surprising is the launch?

Earlier this year, commercial satellite images obtained by researchers at the James Martin Centre for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, California revealed that work was underway at scores of sites across a grid covering hundreds of square miles in Gansu province in China.

The 119 “nearly identical” construction sites were believed to be launch facilities for nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Experts had said that it signalled Beijing’s expansion of its nuclear capabilities, and the US military officials had also warned about it.

In September, US Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall had said that: “I have had the opportunity to catch up on the intelligence about China’s modernisation programmes. If anything, China has accelerated its pace of modernisation.”

Mr Kendall also said at the time that China’s modernisation was focussed on “long-range precision-guided munitions, hypersonic missiles, space and cyber weapons” and emphasised that there was “strong evidence” that China is pursuing silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and satellite-guided munitions to strike targets on Earth and in space.

In August, General Glen VanHerck, head of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, had also suggested that China demonstrated very advanced new hypersonic missile capabilities.

The FT cited several officials familiar with the test as saying that the weapons could, in theory, fly over the South Pole.

This detail in particular has alarmed US intelligence agencies, because the country’s missile defence systems are focused on the northern polar route.

According to the Arms Control Centre, the US has spent more than $400bn on various missile defence programmes. It adds, however, that “despite decades of research, development, and testing, there remains no reliably effective anti-missile system to counter intercontinental ballistic missiles”.

In 2019, China had also showcased its advancing weaponry including a... (Read more)