A Chinese national flag | Bloomberg
A Chinese national flag | Bloomberg
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New Delhi: China’s test of a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile, which circled the globe before speeding toward its target, has taken the global strategic community by surprise, not just due to the experiment itself but also the fact that it was kept a secret for two months.

On Sunday, The Financial Times cited five unnamed people familiar with the test to report that the Chinese military launched a rocket in August that carried a hypersonic glide vehicle, which flew through low-orbit space before cruising down towards its target.

While the test came as a shocker to the world, especially the US intelligence, the Indian defence establishment is not alarmed. 

Sources in the establishment told ThePrint that it was well known that China was working on such a missile technology. They added that China’s experiment, which missed its target by “about two dozen miles”, according to the FT report, just goes to show that the country will master the technology in the coming years. 

“The test itself is not a surprise. It is a known fact that the Chinese were working on it. What’s surprising is that it remained secret till now. One will have to wait for more details on this,” said a source.


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China’s new missile a threat to the US

In August this year, a US Congress report had noted that both China and Russia have a number of hypersonic weapons programmes and “have likely fielded operational hypersonic glide vehicles —  potentially armed with nuclear warheads”.

It added that most of the US  hypersonic weapons, in contrast to those in Russia and China, are not being designed for use with a nuclear warhead.

As a result, US hypersonic weapons will likely require greater accuracy and will be more technically challenging to develop than nuclear-armed Chinese and Russian systems, it said.

The FT report said that the test in August showed China has made more progress on hypersonic weapons than the US officials realised.

The worrying aspect for the US is that the weapon could, in theory, fly over the South Pole. That would pose a big challenge for the US military because its missile defence systems are focused on the northern polar route, it reported.

Besides China, the US and Russia are also developing hypersonic weapons, including glide vehicles that are launched into space on a rocket but orbit the earth under their own momentum.

Hypersonic missiles travel at speeds faster than 6,115 km an hour and can deliver conventional or nuclear payloads within minutes. Unlike a ballistic missile, hypersonic rockets are manoeuvrable and do not follow a predictable arc through their travel. This means that these kinds of missiles are difficult to be tracked and taken down.

“No one should be surprised by orbital bombardment, although the glider is a nice touch. The Soviets deployed an orbital bombardment system in the 1970s. This is an old concept that is newly relevant as a way to defeat missile defences,” said Dr Jeffery Lewis, professor at The Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey in the US, in a tweet over the FT report.

India’s hypersonic missile programme

India is also working on hypersonic missiles and hopes to have one by 2025.

On 7 September 2020, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) had successfully test-fired Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HSTDV), making it only the fourth country in the world after the US, China and Russia to develop and test the technology.

At the time, sources had said India will be making its first hypersonic missile in the next five years. A similar test carried out in June 2019 had failed to meet all parameters, as reported by ThePrint.

India is also working on a hypersonic version of the BrahMos cruise missile.


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