China’s hypersonic test: a second Sputnik shock?

To analyse

Status: 10/28/2021 3:54 a.m.

China relegates reports of a hypersonic missile test to the realm of the imagination. At the same time, it turns the charge of armament against the USA. So what’s the deal with worrying about a threatening technology?

By Steffen Wurzel, ARD-Studio Shanghai

It was not a rocket that had been tested, but a spacecraft. China’s government spokesman Zhao Lijian attached great importance to this difference when he was asked about the article in the Financial Times on China’s weapons ambitions. According to the report, China’s military tested a so-called hypersonic weapon in August. A weapon system that combines the advantages of an ICBM with those of cruise missiles.

That means: On the one hand, a hypersonic weapon is fast and has a long range with which theoretically every point on earth can be reached. On the other hand, hypersonic projectiles can be flexibly controlled during flight. They are also traveling relatively low, so they can only be detected relatively late by the opposing radar.

The flight was a routine test, said the spokesman for the state and party leadership. The aim was to test the extent to which space vehicles are reusable. The aim is to reduce the costs of flights into space and thus promote the peaceful use of space.

Cold War memories

Since Zhao Lijian’s statements at a press conference in mid-October, officials in the People’s Republic have not heard anything on the subject. In Chinese social media networks, however, there are numerous comments from users who are happy that the Chinese military has probably scared the Americans with the test.

In the USA, too, some media excitedly spoke of a kind of new Sputnik shock for the US military – this is how historians describe the Western reaction to the first launch of an artificial satellite in October 1957 by the Soviet Union. At that time, it suddenly became clear to the governments in the USA and Western Europe: Anyone who can shoot a beeping satellite into space can also fire nuclear missiles at cities in the USA and Western Europe.

China is advancing its presence in space. In mid-October, a “Long March 2F” launch vehicle was launched to launch the “Shenzou-13” spacecraft. The astronauts will then stay on the “Tianhe” space station for six months.

Build: AP

A well-known and proven technique

China’s supposed new hypersonic missile, however, is nowhere near as important, says Joshua Pollack from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Vermont, USA. He is one of the leading experts on nuclear weapons and nuclear arms control in the United States, particularly on Asia.

“The importance of this Chinese test is exaggerated. Because this is such an unusual technology, some observers were initially concerned and disturbed,” he says. “However, the Chinese missile is not a new technology, but one that the US developed back in the 1970s.”

Pollack refers to NASA’s space shuttle, which is basically comparable to the system now being tested by China’s military:

The whole thing is a rocket with an orbiter. This orbiter has wings so that when it re-enters the atmosphere it can slide towards its target. Of course, you can build such an orbiter not only as a civil space shuttle, but also as one that has no people on board and no satellites, but weapons.

A clear reference to the USA

It is obvious that China’s military is researching hypersonic weapons, says Pollack. It is the state and party leadership to demonstrate to the United States that it is in a position to overcome their previous missile defense systems in case of doubt. The test does not change the basic situation that the USA is militarily much stronger than China:

It seems a bit as if China’s leadership wants to show everyone that they are not helpless in the face of the overwhelming power of the United States. It wants to demonstrate that China is highly equipped and cannot simply be ignored or punished with contempt.

The biggest challenge

After the reports of China’s hypersonic weapons test, the US government was demonstratively calm, but also determined. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin emphasized that the American military had China’s rearmament in mind – and incidentally, it stayed that way: China was his greatest challenge as Secretary of Defense.

The poisoned relationship between China and the US is definitely a cause for concern, says US nuclear weapons expert Pollack, but he differentiates:

No single, specific development that we are observing – this weapon test, for example – is specifically worrying. The fundamental fact that both states are able to attack each other with nuclear weapons has not changed. Neither China nor the US are in a position to deprive the other side of this ability to carry out a nuclear attack.

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