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China’s test of hypersonic missile stuns US intelligence officials and raises concerns over new global arms race

China’s testing of a hypersonic missile designed to evade American nuclear defences has stunned US intelligence officials, sparking concern over a new global arms race.

The Financial Times reported on Beijing’s testing of a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile in the summer 2021, which demonstrated a level of space capability far more advanced than US intelligence realised. 

The missile, carried by a hypersonic glide vehicle, flew through low-orbit space and circled the globe before descending on it’s target, which it missed by approximately 24 miles. 

The FT reported that US intelligence officials briefed on the testing were stunned by the missile’s sophistication, saying “we have no idea how they did this.” The test has raised questions around the United States’ underestimation of China’s military modernisation, and what it means in terms of a global arms race now that conventional missile defence systems are threatened. 

Hypersonic missiles can fly at over five times the speed of sound and are more manoeuvrable in flight, making them harder to track and intercept than conventional ballistic missiles. 

Weapons of this kind are currently being developed by the US, Russian and Chinese militaries, and Beijing’s new apparatus appears to be a hybrid of existing missile technology, specifically Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) and Fractional Orbital Bombardment Systems (FOBS).

ICBMs and FOBS are long-established weapons in the arsenals of the US, Russia and China. An ICBM is a long-range missile that leaves the earth’s atmosphere before re-entry, and takes a parabolic trajectory towards its target. A Fractional Orbital Bombardment System sends missiles through a partial orbit around the earth to strike targets from an unexpected direction. They were first developed by Russia during the Cold War and designed to evade early-warning missile defence systems.

China’s new hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) has adapted FOBS technology, allowing warheads to travel further, faster, and more discreetly. In this case, China’s HGV would be able to travel over Antarctica, avoiding US missile detection systems focussed on the North Pole.

Though slower than a ballistic missile, an HGV flies at a lower level in the atmosphere and is not bound by the parabolic trajectory of an ICBM, making them more difficult to detect and track, potentially rendering existing US missile defence systems incapable of destroying the warhead in flight.

China and Russia are currently the only countries developing nuclear-capable HGVs. Other nations, including the UK, France, Australia, India, Japan and North Korea, are also developing the technology. Iran, Israel and South Korea have conducted basic research into it, according to a recent report by the US Congressional Research Service.

Relations between the US and China have become tense bordering on hostile as a result of Beijing’s increased militarisation and assertiveness towards Taiwan. The Biden administration has taken a hard stance against China’s military escalations in the region, stating in recent days that the US would defend Taiwan should China attack. 

China’s growing nuclear capability and military spending has been a headline concern for US defence this year. The Washington Post reported in June 2021 that commercial satellite imaging of China’s northcentral Gansu province revealed the construction of at least 120 new silos for ICBMs. More recent reports have put the number of newly built silos at 250, across three locations, including Xinjiang province. 

In 2020, Pentagon reports claimed China had between 250 and 350 nuclear warheads, meaning these newly constructed silos could double their current arsenal. China is not bound by any arms-control deals and has been unwilling to engage the US in talks about its nuclear arsenal and policy.

The Chinese foreign ministry has denied the testing of a hypersonic missile, claiming instead that it was a routine test of a space vehicle, carried out to verify the reusability of the technology.