America’s top General, Mark Milley, has provided the first official U.S. confirmation of China’s secret hypersonic nuclear-capable weapons test that shows Beijing is engaged in developing an Earth-orbiting system designed to evade America’s missile defences.
Milley said that it was "very close" to a Sputnik moment for the United States, referring to Russia's 1957 launch of the first satellite, which had put Moscow ahead in the Cold War-era space race.
"What we saw was a very significant event of a test of a hypersonic weapon system. It is very concerning and has all our attention," Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Bloomberg television on Wednesday.
"The Chinese military capabilities are much greater than that" single test, Milley said. "They're expanding rapidly in space, in cyber and then in the traditional domains of land, sea and air."
"China is very significant on our horizon," Milley added.
The Pentagon had avoided direct confirmation of the recent Chinese test, first reported by British newspaper Financial Times, although President Joe Biden and other officials have expressed concerns about China’s hypersonic weapons development.
China secretly tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile in August that circled the globe to get to its target, demonstrating an advanced space capability that caught US intelligence by surprise, according to the report in the Financial Times.
Five people familiar with the test said the Chinese military launched a rocket that carried a hypersonic glide vehicle which flew through low-orbit space before cruising down towards its target.
Although the missile missed its target by about two-dozen miles, the test showed that China had made astounding progress on hypersonic weapons and was far more advanced than US officials realised, the FT report said.
A Reuters report cited nuclear arms experts as saying China's weapons test appeared to be designed to evade U.S. defenses in two ways. First, hypersonics move at speeds of more than five times the speed of sound, or about 6,200 kph (3,853 mph), making them harder to detect and intercept.
Second, sources tell Reuters that the United States believes China's test involved a weapon that first orbited the Earth. That's something military experts say is a Cold War concept known as "fractional orbital bombardment."
Last month, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall alluded to his concerns about such a system, telling reporters about a weapon that would go into an orbit and then descend on a target.
"If you use that kind of an approach, you don't have to use a traditional ICBM trajectory — which is directly from the point of launch to the point of impact," he said.
"It's a way to avoid defences and missile warning systems."