Top US general says Chinese hypersonic weapon test very close to ‘Sputnik moment’ and ‘has all of our attention’

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
  • The top US general says a recent Chinese hypersonic weapon test is “very concerning.”
  • Gen. Mark Milley said the test was “very close” to a 1957 Soviet satellite launch that fueled the space race.
  • Milley said that going forward, “the biggest geostrategic challenge to the United States is going to be China.”

The highest-ranking US general said Wednesday that a recent Chinese hypersonic weapon test was “very close” to being a “Sputnik moment,” referencing when the Soviet Union shocked the US by taking an early lead in the space race during the Cold War.

The Financial Times reported recently that China tested a fractional orbital bombardment system this summer. During the test, which reportedly surprised US defense and intelligence observers, a hypersonic weapon first orbited the planet before speeding down toward its target.

The Soviet Union developed this kind of system during the Cold War as a way to bypass US defenses focused on traditional missile threats, though the Soviet version used ballistic missiles rather than hypersonic glide vehicles.

China has denied that it tested a weapon, with Chinese officials arguing that it tested reusable spaceflight technology. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley appeared to dispute that Wednesday.

“What we saw was a very significant event of a test of a hypersonic weapon system. And it is very concerning,” Milley said in an interview on Bloomberg Television. “I don’t know if it’s quite a Sputnik moment, but I think it’s very close to that. It has all of our attention.”

The general was referring to the moment in 1957 when the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite, stirring US fears that it was falling behind and fueling the space race.

Milley’s comments Wednesday follow other senior US military officials sounding the alarm about China’s growing military might and emerging strike capabilities in recent months.

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.”

VanHerck 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,” specifically stating that China has the potential to employ a fractional orbital bombardment system like what the Soviets, as well as the US, looked into during the Cold War.

During the interview on Bloomberg Television, Milley called attention to how quickly China’s military is becoming a capable combat force.

“They’re expanding rapidly – in space, in cyber, and then in the traditional domains of land, sea, and air,” he said. “They have gone from a peasant-based infantry army that was very, very large in 1979 to a very capable military that covers all the domains and has global ambitions.”

“As we go forward – over the next 10, 20, 25 years – there’s no question in my mind that the biggest geostrategic challenge to the United States is gonna be China,” Milley said, adding that “they’ve developed a military that’s really significant.”