A report says China tested a new hypersonic missile capability, but Beijing says it was testing spacecraft technology

DF-17 Dongfeng medium-range ballistic missiles equipped with a DF-ZF hypersonic glide vehicle, involved in a military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the Chinese People's Republic
DF-17 medium-range ballistic missiles equipped with a DF-ZF hypersonic glide vehicle in a military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the Chinese People’s Republic. Zoya RusinovaTASS via Getty Image
  • China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile that strikes from orbit, The Financial Times reported.
  • Beijing refuted the report, arguing it conducted a routine space vehicle test.
  • A missile-defense expert told Insider that the two explanations for what happened are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

The Financial Times, citing multiple sources, reported this weekend that China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile in August that orbited the planet before racing back down toward its target at more than five times the speed of sound.

Beijing refuted the report on Monday, saying that it had conducted a routine test of a space vehicle.

The Financial Times, citing five people familiar with the Chinese test, said Saturday that US intelligence was surprised by the capabilities demonstrated during the missile test, which sources said indicated that China is making far greater progress in developing hypersonic weapons than previously known.

But on Monday, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian argued that what China tested was reusable spacecraft technology, not a missile.

The two very different explanations provided for the testing are not necessarily mutually exclusive, an expert told Insider.

“It gets down to one of the issues with any kind of missile technology – that a lot of it has a dual-use function,” Ian Williams, deputy director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Insider.

“We’ve seen this with Iran. We saw this with North Korea when they were developing ICBMs. They test things that can kind of look a little like some kind of peaceful space technology, but in reality, there is a military purpose behind it,” he said.

The first intercontinental ballistic missile, Williams pointed out, was the Soviet R-7, which was the generally the same rocket that propelled Vostok, the first manned spacecraft, and cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space.

The Financial Times report followed a vague statement in August from North American Aerospace Defense Command chief Gen. Glen VanHerck, who said China had “recently demonstrated very advanced hypersonic glide vehicle capabilities.”

He also said that emerging Chinese capabilities could pose “significant challenges to my NORAD capability to provide threat warning and attack assessment,” according to the report.

In September, US Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said that China has “the potential for global strikes from space.”

“​​There is a potential for weapons to be launched into space, then go through this old concept from the Cold War called the Fractional Orbital Bombardment System,” Kendall said, explaining that this is a weapon system that is launched into orbit and then de-orbits to strike a target.

The Soviet Union deployed FOBS carrying nuclear warheads during the Cold War, but these systems were later abandoned.

“If you use that kind of approach, you don’t have to use a traditional ICBM trajectory,” Kendall said, explaining that “it’s a way to avoid defense systems and missile-warning systems.”

This weapon system allows an adversary to launch missiles over the South Pole, effectively bypassing US defensive systems focused on more traditional threats from ICBMs that would come over the North Pole.

After Kendall’s remarks, which did not say that China was actively pursuing a FOBS capability, Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Project at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, said he “would not be surprised if Russia, China, or North Korea revived FOBS” as a way to counter US missile-defense systems.

Unlike the FOBS that the Soviet Union deployed during the Cold War, the system that China reportedly tested uses a hypersonic glide vehicle rather than a traditional nuclear-capable re-entry vehicle.

Hypersonic missiles, a key area of strategic competition among major powers, are a daunting challenge for US missile defenses because these weapons have the ability to maneuver and can fly at high speeds along unpredictable flight paths, making them more difficult to track and intercept.

Those defense forces might not even see a FOBS attack coming, further complicating things. Williams speculated that if the US could track the orbital launch platform, it could attempt an intercept, but intercepting hypersonic glide vehicles are beyond current capabilities.

It remains unclear whether China is actually developing and testing a FOBS or any related system. Chinese media has said that reports that the country is testing a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile that can be launched from orbit are Western hype.

As is, China, which looks to be expanding its ICBM force, is believed to have a sufficient nuclear strike capability to overwhelm US defenses. The US has its own nuclear arsenal as a deterrent.