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China just tested a hypersonic weapon the US can’t defend against

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operational test at 2:10 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, U.S., August 2, 2017.
US Air Force/Senior Airman Ian Dudley/Handout via Reuters
An intercontinental ballistic missile is hard enough.
By Steve Mollman
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

China has successfully tested a new hypersonic aircraft that would likely make a mockery of US missile defense systems in battle. The experimental “waverider” vehicle, China’s first, rides the shock waves generated during hypersonic flight. It could one day carry multiple nuclear warheads.

According to state media reports published yesterday, the test was in northwestern China last Friday. The Starry Sky 2 was first carried airborne by a solid-propellant rocket. After separation, it glided back to down to earth at speeds reaching 7,344 km per hour (4,563 mph), displaying a high degree of maneuverability along the way.

The US’s existing missile defense systems, criticized for their high price and spotty track record, struggle to intercept more conventional projectiles, much less hypersonic aircraft, which travel in a less predictable manner and are hard to detect.

This is the first time China has officially confirmed its development of “waverider” technology, though it has been working on hypersonic glide vehicles since 2014. China, Russia, and the US are the main contenders in the hypersonic arena, and are engaged in what some see as a new arms race based on the technology.

The US Missile Defense Agency asked for $120 million in its 2019 budget to develop hypersonic missile defenses, up from $75 million in this year’s.

Admiral Harry Harris, former head of the US Pacific Command and now the ambassador to South Korea, said in February, “China’s hypersonic weapons development outpaces ours… we’re falling behind.”

In March, air force general John Hyten, commander of US Strategic Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “We don’t have any defense that could deny the employment of such a weapon against us.”

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