Why China’s Hypersonic Missile Tests Are So Concerning

This weekend, the Financial Times reported that, back in August, China successfully tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile that went into space and orbited the globe before reentering earth’s atmosphere and landing within a couple dozen miles of its intended target. The article’s authors, Demetri Sevastopulo and Kathrin Hille, also claim American intelligence agencies were “surprised” by the test and that it “showed that China had made astounding progress on hypersonic weapons and was far more advanced than U.S. officials realized.”

Now nerds like me are all speculating about the implications of this development. What does this capability mean for the balance of power between the United States and China? Are the two nations now officially in a “cold war?” Are U.S. companies and technologies assisting China’s military rise? And, why were our intelligence agencies “surprised?”

I’ll take each of these questions in turn.

First, the capability that China demonstrated in August is not unique, but it is important. The United States, Russia, China, and other nations have been researching hypersonic missiles for quite some time. The United States has been pursuing these weapons since at least the early 2000s—with the Pentagon seeking to spend nearly $4 billion on hypersonic R&D in 2022. In 2019 Russia said it had already deployed a regiment of hypersonic nuclear-capable missiles. Likewise, American officials have known that Beijing is pursuing hypersonics and putting real money into these efforts. But apparently, we did not appreciate the progress of these programs (more on that later).

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