China's Hypersonic Missile Tests Leave U.S. Officials 'Stunned': Report

Two hypersonic missile tests conducted by the Chinese military over the summer have left U.S. officials both perplex and perturbed about Beijing's development of "a new generation of arms," the Financial Times reported on Wednesday.

In separate reports this week, the paper documented what its government sources suggested were unexpected technological advancements in a novel delivery system of China's nuclear weapons. The Biden administration has declined to comment in an official capacity due to the sensitive nature of the intelligence, the FT said.

According to its latest report, both tests—the first on July 27 and another on August 13—were conducted using a fractional orbital bombardment system (FOBS), a concept developed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It involves propelling weapons into low-Earth orbit, guiding them along an unpredictable trajectory, before striking their intended targets.

The Chinese military launched a pair of nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV) above the atmosphere on the back of unspecified models of its own Long March rocket, said the newspaper. They are the very same system China uses to send its satellites and astronauts into space.

The FT's first report on Saturday said the HGV circled the globe before striking the ground, missing its target by a few dozen miles. Unnamed sources told the paper that it was China's first such test.

The second trial two weeks later "stunned" the Defense Department and the U.S. intelligence officials, the FT's Demetri Sevastopulo wrote on Wednesday, "because China managed to demonstrate a brand new weapons capability."

"One person said government scientists were struggling to understand the capability, which the U.S. does not currently possess, adding that China's achievement appeared 'to defy the laws of physics,'" he added.

The Chinese government on Thursday denied knowledge of the August test. Its Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told reporters in Beijing that China had conducted a "routine test" of a spacecraft on July 16 in order to verify its technology—the same information offered by Wang's colleague, Zhao Lijian, on Monday.

China's Hypersonic Weapons Tests Stun U.S. Officials
File: A Long March 5B rocket lifts off from the the Wenchang launch site on China's southern Hainan island on May 5, 2020. Two hypersonic missile tests conducted by the Chinese military over the summer have reportedly left U.S. officials "stunned." STR/AFP via Getty Images

Nuclear weapons analyst Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in California, urged perspective and caution following the recent developments.

"We should be open to the reality that China is also capable of technological innovation," he was quoted as telling the FT.

"But I would be careful about exaggerated characterizations that may help excuse a mundane intelligence failure. If we say some innovation is impossible to imagine, then no one is really responsible for missing it," he added.

Lewis was part of a team that discovered 119 intercontinental ballistic missile silos being built in the deserts of western China in July.

Researchers with the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C., subsequently found 110 more nuclear missile silos under construction in nearby Xinjiang.

China insists it is not interested in an arms race with the U.S. and wants to maintain a "minimum nuclear deterrent."

On Wednesday, President Joe Biden's nominee for ambassador to China, Nicholas Burns, told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that Beijing was "blasting past that definition" with its nuclear buildup and development of hypersonic technologies.