The Buzz

Why America Should Fear China's Hypersonic Nuclear Missile

China all but confirmed it tested its hypersonic missile delivery vehicle a fourth time.

On Friday, China’s Defense Ministry seemed to confirm U.S. reports that Beijing tested its Wu-14 hypersonic vehicle on Sunday, June 7. Responding to an inquiry by the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, China’s Defense Ministry said, “The scheduled scientific research and experiments in our territory is normal, and those tests are not targeted at any country and specific goals.”

The statement was eerily similar to the one China’s Defense Ministry issued following the January 2014 test of the Wu-14. At that time, the defense ministry said: “It is normal for China to conduct scientific experiments within its borders according to its plans. The tests were not aimed at any nation nor any specific target.”

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Last week’s test was the fourth one China has conducted in just 18 months, suggesting it is a priority of China’s military. The Wu-14, which can carry nuclear or conventional warheads, can travel at ten times the speed of sound, or 7,680 miles per hour. Its maneuverability enables it to bypass U.S. missile defense systems.

This point was underscored by He Qisong, a defense expert at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law. Speaking to the SCMP, He said that “The Wu-14 … is designed to penetrate US missile defence systems, meaning the PLA is capable of defending China's territorial sovereignty."

He added: "But such a test is only a nuclear deterrence. Neither China nor the U.S. wants to declare war over the South China Sea issues."

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Richard Fisher, an expert on China’s military, has previously explained that “The beauty of the HGV [hypersonic glide vehicle] is that it can perform hypersonic precision strikes while maintaining a relatively low altitude and flat trajectory, making it far less vulnerable to missile defenses.”

Unlike the previous three tests, Bill Gertz's report on last week’s test said that the Wu-14 practiced “extreme maneuvers” designed to evade U.S. missile defense systems, which are only capable of destroying missiles that use predictable ballistic trajectories. Thus, the Wu-14, when officially fielded, will be a huge to boost to China, which has a small nuclear arsenal compared with the United States and Russia.

China has been improving its strategic deterrent in other ways in recent years. For example, the People’s Liberation Army Navy is using a new ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), the Type 094, to conduct deterrent patrols for the first time. In April of this year, Admiral Samuel Locklear, the then-Commander of U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), said that the PLAN currently has three Type 094 SSBNs and could field eight of them by the end of the decade.

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China is not the only country developing hypersonic capabilities. It is also believed that the United States, Russia and India are also pursuing these capabilities. Regarding America’s hypersonic capabilities, Robert Farley has previously explained on The National Interest:

“The United States is working on the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon, a long-range, land-based glide vehicle that operates within the atmosphere in order to avoid the appearance of a ballistic missile. The United States has also done work on the X-51 “Waverider,” an air-launched, scramjet-powered vehicle capable of Mach 6.”

The fourth test of the Wu-14 hypersonic vehicle came just a day before Fan Changlong, a vice-chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, began an extended trip to the United States where he has met with the likes of Ashton Carter and Susan Rice. It also comes as tensions grow in the South China Sea in response to Beijing’s massive land reclamation projects.

Zachary Keck is managing editor of The National Interest. You can find him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.