(CNSNews.com) – The White House, Pentagon and State Department declined to comment Monday on reports that China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile over the summer, but the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee described the alleged test as a “Sputnik moment” and a “wake-up call” for the United States.
“This is the most advanced, most dangerous weapon system that we cannot defend ourselves from,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) told Fox News, referring to a missile that flies in low-orbit at five times the speed of sound, changing trajectories in flight and so compromising the effectiveness of conventional missile defense shields.
“We knew they had these missiles when they paraded them in Tiananmen Square [at a 2019 National Day military parade],” McCaul said. “But, we have not seen them actually use it.”
“It’s a wake-up call for the United States and our allies,” he said. “It is also kind of a Sputnik moment, if you will, where we have to win this global competition against our greatest adversary, communist China.”
(The Soviet Union’s launching of the first satellite, Sputnik 1, in 1957, sparked a major U.S. reassessment of its Cold War’s foe’s capabilities, leading to the creation of NASA the following year as the “space race” heated up.)
“It’s like a new space race,” McCaul said. “A bit of a Cold War. We are in competition with them in space – that’s why we created the Space Force under the Trump administration, for this very reason.”
The Financial Times reported at the weekend that the People’s Liberation Army launched a hypersonic missile in August that circled the globe in low orbit before returning to Earth and towards a target – missing it “by about two dozen miles” but showing that “China had made astounding progress on hypersonic weapons and was far more advanced than U.S. officials realized.”
A Beijing foreign ministry spokesman on Monday disputed the report, saying the projectile had not been a missile but “a space vehicle” that was undergoing a “routine test” to see whether it could be re-used in China’s space program.
“It is of great significance to reducing the cost of using space vehicle and providing a convenient and cheap way for mankind’s two-way transportation in the peaceful use of space,” said Zhao Lijian.
Asked twice if he was talking about the same event that the FT had reported, Zhao appeared to confirm that he was.
“Is the missile you mentioned the same missile reported by the Financial Times?” he was asked. “As I just said, it’s not missile, but a space vehicle,” Zhao replied.
“The Financial Times reported that it’s hypersonic missile,” he was asked again moments later. “Are you saying that the missile mentioned in the report should be a space vehicle?”
“Yes,” Zhao said. He also said that it was his understanding the test had taken place in July, not August as reported by FT.
Asked during a visit to the republic of Georgia about the reported hypersonic missile test, Defense Secretary Gen. Lloyd Austin said he would not comment on the specific reports.
“What I can tell you is that we watch closely China’s development of armaments and advanced capabilities, and systems that will only increase tensions in the region,” he said. “You heard me say before that China is a challenge and we’re going to remain focused on that.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki also declined to comment on the FT report, but added, “generally speaking, we’ve made clear our concerns about the military capabilities that the PRC continues to pursue.”
State Department spokesman Ned Price, after declining to comment on the article or “matters that may pertain to intelligence,” also offered more general remarks.
“What we have said for some time now is that we are deeply concerned about the rapid expansion of the PRC’s nuclear capabilities, including its development of novel delivery systems,” he said. “These developments underscore that the PRC, as we’ve said before, is deviating from its decades-long nuclear strategy based on minimum deterrence.”
Price said the U.S. has made clear its interest in engaging with the Chinese about pursuing practical measures to “reduce nuclear risk.”
China’s nuclear weapons arsenal is not covered by the 2010 U.S.-Russia New START agreement, which limits the number of strategic nuclear weapons the two nations are allowed to possess.
As a non-member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), Beijing is also not bound by missile nonproliferation export control obligations, and has been sanctioned multiple times by the U.S. for supplying MTCR-restricted missiles or components to customers including Iran and Pakistan.
Russia was believed to be the first to develop and deploy hypersonic glide vehicle, the Avangard, which U.S. military officials confirmed in October last year was now operational.
Moscow’s defense ministry earlier this month announced the successful test-firing of another hypersonic missile, the Zircon, from a submarine.
A U.S. Army lieutenant general heading the military’s hypersonic weapon program said last week it remains on track to deliver an “operational offensive unit” by fiscal year 2023.
See also:Beijing Responds to Hypersonic Missile Test Reports: ‘China Is Narrowing the Gap’ (Oct. 18, 2021)