#QuickExplainer: China’s Secret Hypersonic Missile Test

4 min readOct 18, 2021

China’s recent missile test has taken the U.S. officials by surprise. So, what does it mean to India?

What’s New?

A report by the Financial Times said, according to sources, the Chinese military launched a rocket that carried a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle in August. The missile flew through low-orbit space before speeding towards its target. This demo showing an advanced space capability has caught the U.S. intelligence by surprise, the report added.

According to three people briefed on the intelligence, the missile missed its target by around two-dozen miles. However, two people told FT that the test showed that China had made astounding progress on hypersonic weapons and was far more advanced than U.S. officials realised.

What Is It?

This missile might have made people worry, but what is this missile anyway? And how powerful is it? A hypersonic missile travels at speeds of Mach 5 and higher, which is five times faster than the speed of sound (3836 mph), (i.e.) around 1 mile per second. Some missiles, like Russia’s Kh-47M2 Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile are allegedly capable of reaching Mach 10 speeds (7672 mph) and distances up to 1200 miles.

There are two variants of hypersonic missiles: hypersonic cruise missiles and hypersonic glide vehicles.

Hypersonic cruise missile: This type of missile reaches its target with the help of a high-speed jet engine. This jet engine allows it to travel at extreme speeds, more than Mach-5. It is non-ballistic, which means it is the opposite of traditional Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM), as ICBM utilises gravitational forces to reach its target.

Hypersonic glide vehicle: This type of missile uses re-entry vehicles. Initially, the missile is launched into space on an arching trajectory, where the warheads are released and fall towards the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds. Instead of leaving the payload at the mercy of gravitational forces, the warheads are attached to a glide vehicle which re-enters the atmosphere. Using its aerodynamic shape, this missile can ride the shockwaves generated by its own lift, as it breaches the speed of sound, which provides it enough speed to overcome existing missile defence systems. The glide vehicle surfs on the atmosphere between 40–100k, in altitude and reaches its destination by leveraging aerodynamic forces.

The Impact

China developing and testing hypersonic missiles might emerge as a potential problem for several countries, including the U.S and India. But why is it a problem? The report said, two of the people familiar with the test said the weapon could, in theory fly over the South Pole. This would pose a big challenge for the U.S. military because its missile defence systems are focused on the northern polar route.

Also, Taylor Fravel, an expert on Chinese nuclear weapons policy who was unaware of the test, told FT, a hypersonic glide vehicle armed with a nuclear warhead could help China “negate” US missile defence systems which are designed to destroy incoming ballistic missiles. Fravel added, “Hypersonic glide vehicles…fly at lower trajectories and can manoeuvre in flight, which makes them hard to track and destroy.”

The timing of the test is also concerning since Beijing is at loggerheads with Taiwan at the moment. China is continuing to enhance its conventional military forces and engages in increasingly assertive military activity near Taiwan. Since India is also a neighbour of India, this test also worries our nation, as both the countries are capable of hitting each other with nuclear weapons even without hypersonic missiles.

Air Marshal Bhushan Gokhale (Retd), former Vice Chief of Air Staff told The Indian Express, “This test by China certainly needs to be watched closely by the world, especially India considering relations with China in the recent past.” He added, “Such capabilities also highlight the threat for our space assets along with the surface assets. The offence system operating at these speeds would mean requirement to develop defence systems at these speeds.”

What Did China Say?

The Chinese embassy declined to comment on the test. However, spokesperson, Liu Pengyu told FT, China always pursued a military policy that was “defensive in nature” and its military development did not target any country. Liu added, “We don’t have a global strategy and plans of military operations like the US does. And we are not at all interested in having an arms race with other countries.”

Liu also said, “In contrast, the US has in recent years been fabricating excuses like ‘the China threat’ to justify its arms expansion and development of hypersonic weapons. This has directly intensified arms race in this category and severely undermined global strategic stability.”

In The End

China testing the missile doesn’t mean that it is going to launch it at other countries. Not only China, the U.S., Russia and India have also developed Hypersonic Technology. The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) launched the Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle (HSTDV) in its maiden test successfully. So, countries are prepared to tackle this situation in case a problem arises. We have to wait and see whether China will conduct more tests and how other countries will react to this in the upcoming days.




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