Take Note: China's Hypersonic Glide Vehicle Test was No 'Sputnik'?

Take Note: China's Hypersonic Glide Vehicle Test was No 'Sputnik'?

Air Force General John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the test was surprising but didn't elicit the same reaction as the 1957 Soviet satellite launch.

A top U.S. defense official has revealed new details of a hypersonic missile test previously conducted by the Chinese military.

"They launched a long-range missile," General John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CBS News. “It went around the world, dropped off a hypersonic glide vehicle that glided all the way back to China, that impacted a target in China."

Asked if the missile hit its target, Hyten replied, “close enough.”

According to reports describing an earlier U.S. intelligence assessment, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) tested a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) on July 27. HGVs are one of two primary categories of hypersonic weapons, with the other being hypersonic cruise missiles. HGVs separate to glide toward their target after being launched from a rocket booster. According to military experts, the sheer speed, trajectory, and unpredictable flight path of HGVs poses a pressing challenge to U.S. missile defenses.

“We don’t have any defense that could deny the employment of such a weapon,” Hyten said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in 2018.

"Why are they building all this capability? They look like a first-use weapon," Hyten told CBS. "That's what those weapons look like to me."

China’s hypersonic test has been likened to the surprise Soviet launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite in 1957, though the analogy has been questioned by some experts.

“This is no Sputnik moment—partly because it’s not entirely clear what was tested, but mostly because the threat of a Chinese nuclear attack on the United States isn’t remotely new,” wrote James Acton, co-director of the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

When asked about the Sputnik comparison, Hyten replied, "from a technology perspective, it's pretty impressive ... But Sputnik created a sense of urgency in the United States ... The test on July 27 did not create that sense of urgency.  I think it probably should create a sense of urgency."

Hyten has joined other senior U.S. officials, including Vice Admiral Jon Hill, in stressing the need for a new missile defense infrastructure capable of defending the United States from advanced missile threats being fielded by Russia and China.

The U.S. military is taking steps to catch up to its Chinese and Russian counterparts in hypersonic technology. The U.S. Army is slated to field the country’s first hypersonic weapon— the Long Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW)— by 2023, with the Navy’s hypersonic Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS) system not far behind. 

Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National Interest.

Image: Reuters.