Financial Times (FT) reported that China has successfully tested a hypersonic missile with nuclear capability in August, which “took US intelligence by surprise”. But a spokesman for the Beijing Foreign Ministry claimed that it has tested a spacecraft and not a hypersonic rocket with nuclear capability.
As per FT, a missile with a hypersonic gliding aircraft flew through low-orbit space, circling the globe, and then descended to hit the target. The hit did not happen, as the miss was about 32 kilometres. Nevertheless, tests have shown that China has advanced much further in developing hypersonic weapons than the United States anticipated.
“It wasn’t a missile; it was a spacecraft,” said Zhao Lijian, responding in a press conference. The spokesperson said it was a “routine test” to verify the spacecraft’s reusable technology.
Frontier India defence expert Joseph P Chacko looks at the launch at both tactical-strategic levels. This missile is not a challenge as it is an old technology that is nothing extraordinarily new. The technology has not been used for nuclear ballistic missiles because it is difficult to aim. But on the other hand, the launch irritates the Americans as the ‘demonstrative act’ stirs the waters and therefore is a gesture of defiance. This episode also demonstrates a new arms race, and the eternal struggle between the bullet and the armour is repeated.
The test should be viewed in the context of Chinese internal and external challenges, he explains.
On the domestic front, China faces a rise in the price of raw materials, a rise in gas and oil prices, and a real estate bubble. The developed world is already reopening after vaccinations, but China remains closed.
On external challenges, China is pursuing conflict as a strategy with Taiwan and India. Xi has repeated that he wanted to reunify Taiwan, and the Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea have created another front.
The Indian border situation is even more delicate. The two demographic superpowers armed to the teeth have broken the negotiations on the territorial dispute. The Chinese have a tactical advantage with heavy artillery, missiles, and a logistic system that connects that border area between occupied Tibet and India with the country’s industrial heart. The Indians are less armed and do not have the same logistical system backing them.
However, he said, the launch was a ‘Sputnik moment’ for the United States. The event is vital as the launch of Soviet Sputnik, which was a shock to Americans at the beginning of the first. Cold War, when they realized that the Soviet Union was overtaking them in the space race. The US is facing an equally traumatic event concerning missiles that can carry nuclear weapons.
“Back in 1965, the USSR had carried out the first test launch of an orbital warhead of a heavy ICBM R-36-orb. It could fly around the Earth like an artificial satellite and hit the target from any desired direction. But the experimental launch of such a rocket and spacecraft is one thing and the creation and deployment of a real combat system are quite another,” he said.