WASHINGTON – A Chinese test of a hypersonic missile designed to evade US nuclear defenses came “very close” to a “Sputnik moment” for the United States, said General Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the United States. the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Wednesday. , the first official confirmation of how Beijing’s demonstration of its capabilities surprised US officials.
Two separate tests took place this summer, conducted in a way that Chinese officials knew would be highly visible to US satellites. But the United States said nothing about it.
The test was notable in that hypersonic rockets can maneuver quickly and change course while flying under low Earth orbit. They are virtually impossible for existing US defenses designed for intercontinental ballistic missiles that follow a predictable path into space and re-enter the atmosphere, to intercept. The Chinese test was conducted in a way that made it clear that the hypersonic rocket could be launched to go over Antarctica; existing US defenses all face west and north across the Pacific, meaning they would be useless in countering an attack from the south.
“I don’t know if it’s a very Sputnik moment, but I think it’s very close to that,” General Milley told David Rubinstein, the billionaire philanthropist, who runs an interview show on Bloomberg Television. The tests, he said, were a “very important technological event,” and he said “it has our full attention.”
Sputnik was the launch, in 1957, of a Soviet satellite. It sparked fears in Washington that the Soviets were moving forward in the space race, and led to President John F. Kennedy’s declaration that the United States would be the first humans to land on the moon, a feat accomplished in less than a decade. But it also sparked the 20th century nuclear arms race, which was only suppressed in the last 30 years, after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Now the arms race is in danger of reviving. The United States itself has an active hypersonic program, as does Russia and North Korea, among others. But the US program has run into its own technical difficulties, and the Chinese test — which also doesn’t appear to have been entirely successful — could well set the stage for a new arms race just as President Biden was looking for ways to avoid a proposed modernization of the US nuclear forces and delivery systems.