The US’s top general has confirmed that China’s military had successfully carried out the test launch of a hypersonic missile, the first of its kind.
Gen Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Bloomberg Television’s Dave Rubenstein on Wednesday that the launch and the existence of the weapon in China’s arsenal was “very concerning” to the US military.
“What we saw was a very significant event of a test of a hypersonic weapon system. And it is very concerning,” he told Mr Rubenstein, billionaire chairman of the Carlyle Group private equity firm.
“I don’t know if it’s quite a Sputnik moment, but I think it’s very close to that. It has all of our attention,” he continued.
The comments are the first official confirmation from a US general of the weapon’s existence. The launch was previously reported just under two weeks ago by the Financial Times, and instantly denied by a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry.
“This was not a missile, this was a spacecraft,” the spokesperson said. “This is of great significance for reducing the cost of spacecraft use.”
At the time, US officials contended to the Financial Times that the missile circled the globe in low orbit before landing about 24 miles away from its intended target. The launch occurred in August, five sources told the newspaper.
“We have no idea how they did this,” an unnamed US official was quoted as saying.
Days after the report was published, the Biden administration’s envoy to the Geneva Conference on disarmament told reporters that the US currently has no effective defence against such weapons, which are thought to be nuclear-capable.
"We have concerns about what China is doing on hypersonic," Robert Wood told reporters.
"We just don't know how we can defend against that type of technology,” he continued, before clarifying: “[N]either does China or Russia.”
Top US military contractors have already begun collaborating with Pentagon on similar projects, but the US does not currently have the capability to launch a missile as described by Gen Milley and the Financial Times.
Raytheon, one of the largest US defense contractors, is among those companies; the firm’s CEO told the South China Morning Post in an interview published early Thursday morning that the US remains “years behind” China’s alleged development of hypersonic weapons which he argued were “the most destabilising threat to the homeland”.