China’s new hypersonic missile demonstrated an advanced space capability that caught US intelligence by surprise, report says

Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapons Concept (HAWC) missile in seen in an artist's conception.
Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapons Concept (HAWC) missile in seen in an artist’s conception. Raytheon Missiles & Defense/Reuters
  • In August, China tested a hypersonic missile that orbited the Earth before speeding towards its target.
  • The test demonstrated China’s advanced space capability, and took US intelligence officials by surprise.
  • The US, Russia and China have been competing to develop hypersonic weapons.

China demonstrated advanced space capability by testing a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile in August, the Financial Times reported, citing five sources familiar with the test.

The hypersonic glide vehicle launched by the Chinese military circled the globe in low-orbit space before speeding towards its target, sources told the paper.

Although the missile missed its target by about two-dozen miles, the test demonstrated China’s advanced space capability and took US intelligence by surprise, sources told the Financial Times.

The test showed that China had made “astounding progress” on hypersonic weapons and was far more advanced than US officials realized, two sources said, according to the paper.

“We have no idea how they did this,” another source told the paper.

Several countries, including the US, Russia, and China, are competing to develop hypersonic weapons. The missiles fly at low-altitude trajectories at more than five times the speed of sound.

Glide vehicles are a type of hypersonic weapon launched into space on a rocket but orbit the earth under their momentum.

Unlike ballistic missiles, they are maneuverable and do not follow a fixed trajectory, making them harder to track and defend against.

In August, General Glen VanHerck, head of North American Aerospace Defense Command, said that China’s advanced hypersonic capability would “provide significant challenges to my Norad capability to provide threat warning and attack assessment,” the Financial Times said.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) is a binational organization of the US and Canada that provides aerospace warning and protection for Northern America.

Sources also told the paper that the Chinese weapon could theoretically fly over the South Pole, another cause for concern for the US military, whose missile systems focus on the northern polar route.

China has been aggressively developing this technology, which they see as crucial to defending against US advances in hypersonic and other technologies, Al Jazeera reported, citing a recent report by the US Congressional Research Service (CRS).

News of the test comes amid increasing tensions between China and the US, as China increases its military activity near Taiwan.

Pentagon Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin previously said that developing hypersonic capabilities was “the highest technical priority,” according to Defense News.

This week the Pentagon said that developing hypersonic weapons was currently too expensive and that defense contractors should try and “drive towards more affordable hypersonics.”

The Pentagon’s budget request for hypersonic research in the 2022 financial year was $US3.8 ($AU5) billion, up from $US3.2 ($AU4) billion the year before, Reuters reported.