Military Tech

China’s Recent Hypersonic Weapon Test Was Weirder Than First Reported

A July test of a Chinese hypersonic weapon included one weird trick: as it streaked through the atmosphere after a planet-spanning flight, the weapon, traveling at faster than Mach 5, released an unknown projectile somewhere above the South China Sea. The release of a projectile, according to the Financial Times, has U.S. officials scratching their heads wondering exactly what was tested and what it released.

The test took place on July 27 and involved the launch of a Long March 2C rocket (picture above) from China, releasing a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV). Unlike nuclear-tipped ICBMs and spacebound rockets, HGVs spend only a short amount of time in orbit before nosing down and then gliding back into the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds. (Hypersonic speeds are defined as anything over Mach 5, or 3,800+ miles an hour.)

China’s Foreign Ministry denied that the vehicle tested was a missile, instead claiming it was a “space vehicle.”

“It could be a decoy, to distract the interceptor missile,” Joshua Pollack, editor of the Nonproliferation Review and a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, told Popular Mechanics. “It could even be designed to attack the interceptor missile, although that seems unlikely to me.”

China is known to be very concerned about U.S. ballistic missile defenses (BMDs), fearing that a scaling up of a system designed to counter just a handful of incoming missiles could block the effectiveness of the country’s relatively small nuclear deterrent. Both China and Russia are coming up with new weapons designed to skirt BMDs, either flying around them, under them, or avoiding them entirely.

Getting past BMDs is one of the most likely guesses at China’s July hypersonic weapon test.

“I’d venture that the single most likely scenario is an anti-radiation missile,” Pollack said, ”to home in on a radar tracking the HGV in terminal phase. Disable the radar and you’ve disabled the terminal defense, in theory. ”

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