The Financial Times dropped two bombshells on the international and defense community over the weekend. They released this stunning information late Saturday night, on October 16, 2021. The first revelation was that back in August, China successfully conducted a test of a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile. The second, and perhaps more unexpected part of that report, is that the test allegedly caught the U.S. intelligence community completely by surprise.

The fact that China is developing hypersonic missiles is not new information; the U.S. has known this for years. The Pentagon even has nomenclature for the Chinese development of these weapons. However, according to the five sources quoted by the Financial Times, the capability displayed during this test flight was unexpected.

During the test, this missile circled the earth in a low-earth orbit, and then descended on its target — which it missed by 24 miles. In the report, these sources were quoted as saying, “The test showed that China had made astounding progress on hypersonic weapons and was far more advanced than U.S. officials realized.”

On Monday, October 18, 2021, the Chinese government denied that allegation. During a routine press briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian said, “It was not a missile, it was a space vehicle,” after he was asked about the launch. He added that the launch was a “routine test” as a part of the development of reusable technology for the vehicle. He added that reusability can “provide a cheap and convenient method for humans to peacefully travel to and from space.”

With that denial, it’s likely that China is simply playing a game of semantics.

AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon
Staff Sgt. Jacob Puente, 912th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, secures the AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon under the wing of a B-52H Stratofortress at Edwards Air Force Base, California. (Photo by Giancarlo Casem/USAF)


What Are Hypersonic Weapons?

A hypersonic missile is a weapon that flies five times (or more) faster than the speed of sound. In reference to hypersonic weapons, there are two distinct technologies. What separates the two types are their thrust and propulsion systems, and how they behave in flight.

The first, hypersonic cruise missiles, are similar to “normal” cruise missiles. They are like any other missile, that they rely on aerodynamic flight and a self-propulsion system; they carry their own propulsion through the entire flight. The United States Air Force is expected to deploy their first air-launched hypersonic cruise missiles soon, in FY 22.