China could use its hypersonic weapons in surprise nuclear attack on US: top military official

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New details about China’s summer test of a new hypersonic weapon emerged during an interview this week with the second-highest ranking member of the U.S. military.

Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Hyten (USAF) spoke with CBS News in an exclusive interview detailing the test that gained global attention in October – months after China conducted it. 

China ran two tests over the summer, according to The Financial Times. The first test, in July, launched a rocket that used a “fractional orbit bombardment” system to propel a nuclear-capable vehicle around the earth. China conducted the second test in August. 

White House and Pentagon officials have avoided providing specific details about the tests, but Hyten provided the first details from any current official on the test. 

Hyten revealed that China launched a long-range missile that circled the world and dropped a hypersonic vehicle that glided back to China and “impacted a target.” 

The missile may not have hit the target, but Hyten told CBS that it got “close enough.” 

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Hyten explained that the hypersonic glide vehicle presents a more serious threat than the more widely used intercontinental ballistic missile. Both are types of hypersonic weapons, but the missile follows a predictable arc that radars can track while the glide vehicle follows a path much closer to the earth’s surface, which is harder to track. 

Hyten acknowledged that the weapon might evoke comparisons to Sputnik, but he downplayed any such comparison, saying that the technology was “impressive” but did not create the same sense of urgency in the U.S. as did Sputnik. Last month Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, invoked the Sputnik comparison.

Gen. John Hyten appears before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 30, 2019, for his confirmation hearing to be vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Gen. John Hyten appears before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 30, 2019, for his confirmation hearing to be vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

“I think it probably should create a sense of urgency,” he added. 

The test reportedly surprised U.S. military personnel, with some sources admitting in a report by the Times last month that officials had “no idea” how China reached the achievement. 

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Adm. Charles Richard, the head of Strategic Command who oversees U.S. nuclear forces, told the Times that the “breathtaking expansion” of China’s weapons capability means it could “now execute any possible nuclear employment strategy.”

But Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear weapons expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, urged a “degree of skepticism” about China’s capabilities and took issue with how surprising it really should be.

A U.S. Air Force B-52 prepares to carry the X-51 Hypersonic Vehicle out to the range for a launch test from Edwards AFB, California in this handout photo provided by the U.S. Air Force on May 1, 2013. The X-51 achieved Mach 5.1 traveling 230 nautical miles in just over six minutes making this test the longest air-breathing hypersonic flight ever. REUTERS/Bobbi Zapka/USAF/Handout via Reuters 

A U.S. Air Force B-52 prepares to carry the X-51 Hypersonic Vehicle out to the range for a launch test from Edwards AFB, California in this handout photo provided by the U.S. Air Force on May 1, 2013. The X-51 achieved Mach 5.1 traveling 230 nautical miles in just over six minutes making this test the longest air-breathing hypersonic flight ever. REUTERS/Bobbi Zapka/USAF/Handout via Reuters 

“I would be careful about exaggerating characterizations that may help excuse a mundane intelligence failure,” Lewis said. “If we say some innovation is impossible to imagine, then no one is really responsible for missing it.” 

Last month, experts told Fox News that this weapon has been in development for some time, with the first tests occurring in 2014. 

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“The Chinese began this particular glide vehicle in 2014,” John Venable of D.C.-based think tank The Heritage Foundation said. “They had nine successful tests since then, approximately. The idea that this is new, that this is a revelation that caught the U.S. government by surprise is a misnomer.”

Venable noted that while the new system might be difficult to track, the U.S. would be aware of its launch thanks to a constellation of low-earth-orbit satellites. 

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“Any time you have a high flashpoint on the ground, there’s an array out there called the Space-Based Infrared System, and we can detect just about any major launch or explosion on the face of the Earth, but the ability to track those once they actually leave the atmosphere and start their trajectory is complicated by the movement of these vehicles,” he said.

The U.S. would need to expand its satellite constellation to “increase the fidelity of sensing.” 

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