Secret hypersonic launch shows China streaking ahead in arms race - article for the FT 17.10.21

The nuclear-capable missile circled the entire Earth at low orbit before descending on its target, ultimately missing by 20 miles


By Louise Watt and Marcus Parekh for the FT

17 October 2021


China’s test of a hypersonic missile in space is a “game-changer” that should fundamentally alter the US’s calculations about Beijing’s military leverage, experts have warned.


Over the weekend, it emerged that the Chinese military in August secretly launched a rocket carrying a hypersonic glide vehicle into space, which flew around the globe through low-orbit space before returning to Earth.


While the missile reportedly missed its target by about two dozen miles, the test shows China has made rapid progress on the lightning-fast weapons and is far more advanced than US intelligence officials had realised, according to the Financial Times, which broke the story.

“We have no idea how they did this,” the FT quoted one official as saying.


Countries including the US, UK, Russia and North Korea have all been working on developing hypersonic missiles, which have the advantages of fast flight – travelling at five times the speed of sound or more – and increased manoeuvrability that can make them very difficult to counter.


They also fly at lower altitudes than ballistic missiles, meaning they can potentially reach targets faster.


Drew Thompson, a former American defence department official with responsibility for China, said the test “really should change US calculations”.

“Especially if more tests improve the accuracy, establish its credibility, then I think it is a game changer in a way that little else has really shifted the balance,” said Mr Thompson, who is also a visiting research fellow at the National University of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. “Once it works, once it’s credible, it negates US missile defences and it makes the US vulnerable and that has to fundamentally change US strategic calculations about its leverage and China’s ability to hold at risk major cities throughout the United States.”


China’s ministry of defence did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Sunday.


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Hypersonic missiles are also being developed by Russia, the US, North Korea and several other nations Credit: KCNA via KNS

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