In an event that U.S. Gen. Mark Milley was reported as stating as being close to a Sputnik moment, the Chinese military in August launched a hypersonic missile that traveled in low Earth orbit (LEO) around the globe and then returned to Earth as directed. “I don’t know if it’s quite a Sputnik moment, but I think it’s very close to that.”
The launch and travel of the missile was the first of such a hypersonic vehicle by any nation. The Chinese had managed to beat both the United States and Russia to using such technology successfully.
In response to questions about Gen. Milley’s comments and the event, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said, “They continue to pursue capabilities that increase tensions in the region, and we continue to have concerns about that.”
Tensions between the United States and China have been escalating for several months as U.S. ally Taiwan is increasingly threatened with invasion by Chinese forces. The Chinese Navy continues to surround the island and support aircraft that fly over and harass Taiwanese forces. Beijing has issued warnings to the U.S. and others about interfering with Chinese operations in the area, or with any attempt by China to take control of the island.
Taiwan technically is a Chinese property but operates independently and with a democratic government.
All three superpowers have been working to develop hypersonic technology for years. China, though, seems to have made breakthroughs that the others have not as evidenced by their successful launch and flight.
Hypersonic technology, technology that allows vehicles such as missiles to travel at speeds faster than five times the speed of sound (Mach-5), is important as it is seen in some circles as being unstoppable. Missiles and rockets currently deployed by various militaries reach a top speed of up to 2,300 miles per hour, or between Mach-2 and Mach-3. Hypersonic missiles would easily outmaneuver the current inventory of weapons.
Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a Defense Writers Group meeting on October 28, “The pace [at which China is moving] and the trajectory that they’re on will surpass Russia and the United States if we don’t do something to change it.” Gen. Hyten, though, went further to indicate that the U.S. Military is not in a position to “change it” at this point in time. Comparing what many see as the height of U.S. Military technology development to current times.
“During the 1960s, the United States researched, developed, and deployed some 800 rockets in just under five years during a push to counter similar development in the Soviet Union.” Having begun in 2015, “current efforts to develop the next generation of ICBMs, on the other hand…the weapons aren’t expected to be fully operational until 2035.”
Gen. Hyten placed the blame on delays in development squarely on politics.
“Such a capability could have been countered long ago, had bureaucracy not gotten in the way.”
Despite having started researching hypersonic technology before any other country, the U.S. has fallen victim to risk aversion. Invoking memories of the HTV-1 and HTV-2 systems, it was described that a single failed test in 2010 subjected the programs to years of investigation. The projects were then scrapped after a second failed test.
“We were developing hypersonics ahead of everybody in the world and the first test failed. The first test of everything fails,” Gen. Hyten was quoted as saying.
In the past five years, Gen. Hyten states that the U.S. has conducted nine hypersonic tests, compared to “hundreds” conducted by China. “Single digits versus hundreds is not a good place.”
Continuing the comparison of the 1960s to today, and the speed with which new technologies were adopted, tested, and deployed in that age, Gen. Hyten stated, “We can go fast if we want to. But the bureaucracy we’ve put in place is just brutal.”