America cannot defend against hypersonic missiles, an official warned, after China allegedly tested new weaponry.
Robert Wood, America’s disarmament ambassador, said Washington was “very concerned” after a report suggested Beijing had secretly tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile that went around the globe in August.
Hypersonic missiles, like traditional ballistic missiles, can fly more than five times the speed of sound but are more manoeuvrable, making them harder to track.
US intelligence officials were alarmed by the launch because they had been unaware of Beijing’s rapid progress in the area, according to the Financial Times which first reported on the test.
Ambassador Wood said the US had “held back” from pursuing military applications for hypersonic technology but with China and Russia actively pursuing its use “we are just having to respond in kind”.
The White House said yesterday the United States has made clear to China its concern about its military developments after reports about the missile test.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki, speaking to reporters, would not comment on the missile launch itself.
Beijing yesterday denied it was testing a weapons system, saying the launch involved a new spacecraft.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said it was of “great significance for reducing the use-cost of spacecraft and could provide a convenient and affordable way to make a round trip for mankind’s peaceful use of space”.
According to the Financial Times, the Chinese military launched a rocket carrying a hypersonic glide vehicle into space, which flew around the globe through low-orbit space before returning to Earth in August.
The missile reportedly missed its target by about 40km, but showed that China has progressed much further than US officials had realised.
Hypersonic weapons are usually defined as missiles that fly more than five times the speed of sound, and a race is under way for the next generation of long-range weapons that are much harder to detect and intercept.
The Financial Times, quoting five people familiar with the matter, said at the weekend that China had tested a weapon in August that flew through space and circled the globe before cruising down towards a target.
The United States and Russia have both tested hypersonic weapons but Mr Wood said that Washington had concerns about their possible use.
“Hypersonic technology is something that we have been concerned about, the potential military applications of it and we have held back from pursuing military applications for this technology,” he told a small group of reporters in Geneva.
“But we have seen China and Russia pursuing very actively the use, the militarisation of this technology, so we are just having to respond in kind...We just don’t know how we can defend against that technology, neither does China, neither does Russia.”
Mr Wood was referring to the difficulty of missile defence systems to track such high-speed weapons that can manoeuvre and evade shields intended to stop them from entering territory.
“The Russians have a hypersonic glide vehicle called the Avangard, one of their heavy ICBMs (inter-continental ballistic missiles),” Mr Wood said.
“We have known about (that). They have, in essence, it’s captured in the New START agreement (on nuclear arms reduction), it’s not quite developed yet.”
“But this type of technology is worrisome, because we just haven’t had to face it before,” he added.
Mr Wood voiced hope that the new technology could be addressed or “captured” in some kind of internationally agreed principle or legal mechanism in the future.
America’s Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said separately that Washington was closely watching China’s development of advanced weapons systems though he declined to comment directly on the Financial Times report. (© Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2021)
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