China’s hypersonic weapon test close to a ‘Sputnik moment’, says top US general

Gen Mark Milley confirms Beijing has tested advanced nuclear-capable weapon

Chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Gen Mark Milley has confirmed China tested an advanced hypersonic weapon. File photograph: Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times

Chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Gen Mark Milley has confirmed China tested an advanced hypersonic weapon. File photograph: Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times


The US military’s top officer has confirmed that China recently tested an advanced hypersonic weapon, calling it a “very significant” development to which Washington was giving close attention.

Gen Mark Milley, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, said the test of the nuclear-capable weapon was close to a “Sputnik moment” – referring to the start of the space race between the US and Soviet Union when the world’s first artificial satellite was launched by Moscow in 1957.

“What we saw was a very significant event of a test of a hypersonic weapon system. It is very concerning,” Gen Milley told Bloomberg television.

“I don’t know if it’s quite a Sputnik moment, but I think it’s very close to that. So it is a very significant technological event or test that occurred by the Chinese, and it has all of our attention,” Gen Milley added.

Gen Milley is the first official to confirm a Financial Times report that China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic weapon. On July 27th, China launched a hypersonic glide vehicle – which travels at more than five times the speed of sound and can manoeuvre like a space shuttle – on a rocket.

The Long March rocket went into lower Earth orbit before the glide vehicle at some point detached, re-entered the atmosphere and sped towards its target. The test marked the first time any country had sent a hypersonic weapon fully around the Earth.

China used a technology called an “orbital bombardment system” to send the vehicle around the planet. This rocket system follows a lower trajectory than an intercontinental ballistic missile, which makes it harder for early-warning systems to detect. It can also come over the South Pole, whereas most US missile defence systems are aimed at attacks over the North Pole.

The vehicle in the test missed its target by roughly 38km. But three people familiar with the intelligence about the test said the Chinese weapons system at one point demonstrated a highly advanced capability – shocking the Pentagon because US military scientists do not understand how it was accomplished.

The Financial Times also reported that China conducted a second secret hypersonic weapons test on August 13th.

Nuclear expansion

Members of Congress have called on the Pentagon to provide briefings about the launches. The tests came after senior US commanders had for months warned about China’s rapidly expanding nuclear forces.

Admiral Charles Richard, who oversees US nuclear forces as the head of Strategic Command, in April told Congress that China was engaged in a “remarkable expansion” of its nuclear forces and was aiming to become a nuclear peer by the end of the decade. Several months later, commercially obtained satellite imagery revealed that China was building hundreds of silos to house its land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The revelations come as the Biden administration is conducting a “nuclear posture review” that will determine the future of US nuclear forces. Mike Gallagher, a Republican politician, said he hoped the July 27th test would alert the administration about the threat from China.

“The Biden administration has said they want to reduce the role of US nuclear forces in our defence capabilities. That’s the exact opposite of what the Chinese Communist party is doing,” Mr Gallagher said. “I hope Gen Milley is making his concerns about this test clear to the president, because we can’t afford to be asleep at the wheel one second longer.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021