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China’s Nuclear-Capable Hypersonic Missile Test Takes Washington by Surprise

Jonathan Walker
Jonathan loves talking politics, economics and philosophy. He carries unique perspectives on everything making him a rather odd mix of liberal-conservative with a streak of independent Austrian thought.
Published: October 18, 2021
BEIJING, CHINA - JUNE 28: Performers dressed as military perform in front of a screen showing rockets being launched during a mass gala marking the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party on June 28, 2021 at the Olympic Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing, China. (Image: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile back in August, 2021 according to a Financial Times (FT) report. Individuals who knew about these tests revealed to the media outlet that the rocket carrying the hypersonic glide vehicle flew through low-orbit space and eventually crashed some two dozen miles away from its target.

U.S. intelligence officials are apparently surprised by China’s hypersonic missile development. One individual admitted that they had “no idea how they did this.” Two people said that the test shows the “astounding progress” achieved by China in the field. It was far more advanced than American officials realized. The missile test also raised questions on why Washington tends to underestimate the military modernization underway in China.

Republican Michael Gallagher, member of the House armed services committee, believes that the Chinese test should be a wake-up call for America. “The People’s Liberation Army now has an increasingly credible capability to undermine our missile defenses and threaten the American homeland with both conventional and nuclear strikes… Even more disturbing is the fact that American technology has contributed to the PLA’s hypersonic missile program,” Gallagher told the FT.

Chinese state-backed media outlet Global Times used the FT article as propaganda to showcase the PLA’s prowess. In an Oct. 17 editorial titled, “US should stop eyeing too much on China’s hypersonic missiles and broaden its horizons,” the outlet claimed that China is riding on an “unstoppable trend” of narrowing the gap with the U.S., in terms of military technologies. It claimed that China is capable of weakening America’s overall military advantages by “developing military power at its own pace.”

“The US generally has the ability to monitor global missile launches. If the FT report is to be believed, it means that there is a key new member in China’s nuclear deterrence system, which is a new blow to the US’ mentality of strategic superiority over China,” the editorial said.

At a press briefing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian dismissed the FT report, claiming that China had not tested a missile but a space vehicle. He added that the test was a routine one usually conducted to check the reusability of the vehicle. The test had apparently taken place in July and not August.

The FT article came amidst reports that Chinese PLA scientists are researching artificial intelligence (AI) enabled hypersonic missiles. A paper published by Xian Yong and Li Bangjie from Rocket Force Engineering University’s college of war support proposes using AI to rewrite a missile’s software “on the fly.” As a result, the weapon will be granted more decision-making powers. 

“Using their method, the AI would start work immediately after launch, before the weapon reached hypervelocity, to calculate its position using the signal from the GPS or BeiDou – China’s navigational positioning system – and compare it with the results generated by the on-board sensors to evaluate the actual condition of the hardware,” according to the South China Morning Post (SCMP). 

Based on this new information, the onboard AI will then create a unique positioning algorithm for the weapon before it enters the cruising stage of hypersonic flight. The study showed that the use of AI can keep hypersonic missiles accurate to about 10 meters or 32 feet. The researchers argue that handing over control of hypersonic weapons to machines will improve accuracy by over 10 times.