The message, which emerged over the weekend, sounded alarming: Two months ago, China, a growing military power, unexpectedly used a new space weapon. It circled the planet and then re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, gliding at a speed much faster than the speed of sound to its destination in China.
As a military weapon, bombing a target from orbit can thus overcome existing missile defenses. But many experts have expressed doubts about the report.
“We don’t know anything from reliable sources,” said Jonathan McDowell, a Harvard astronomer who tracks the launches of global space objects. According to McDowell, the US military unit that reports on orbital events has not released any information about China’s August launch that would match the weapon test statement.
“There are question marks in every aspect of this story,” he added.
Has China Really Tested and Developed Unexpected Space Weapons? Here are some of the military and technical points that are known about the system, as well as some of the answers and doubts regarding flight tests.
What has been reported about China’s flight tests?
The Financial Times reported on Saturday that China conducted flight tests in August of a hypersonic nuclear-capable missile that circled the world before reaching its target. The document, containing one of the few details about the test, says the weapon missed its target for about two dozen miles.
The report used a variety of anonymous sources, including one that the weapon test took US intelligence by surprise. “We do not know how they did it,” an unnamed source quoted the publication.
Has China approved the test?
On Monday, China’s foreign ministry said it was a flight test of a reusable spacecraft, not a hypersonic missile capable of carrying nuclear weapons. At a regular briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian called it a routine test.
“There are many companies all over the world that have conducted similar tests,” he said.
Mr. Zhao has previously been criticized by Western experts on China for making unsubstantiated statements and outlining conspiracy theories.
China initially named August as the test date, but later reported that the car was tested in July, Bloomberg News reported. Last September, the state-owned company that oversees China’s space industry announced testing of an experimental reusable spacecraft in low-Earth orbit.
Is it true that this test run came as a surprise?
Probably no. The most compelling aspect of this story is that Chinese weapons circled the globe before heading towards their target – these are old things. The technology was first used in the 1960s in the Soviet Union. It was then known as the Fractional Orbital Bombardment System or FOBS. It is so named because it never reaches a full orbit around the Earth, but only reaches part of it.
David Wright, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has studied space development for a long time, said that some of the descriptions of the test launch are causing panic.
“Any country that can send something into space can do it,” he said. “And we certainly shouldn’t be surprised that China was able to do this, given the complexity of its space program.”
Some experts believe China is challenging US dominance in space exploration. In the past year alone, the country has recovered soil samples from the Moon, installed a rover on Mars, and sent two teams of astronauts to the country’s new space station.
The country is also digging hundreds of new silos for long-range nuclear missiles, building an arsenal of anti-satellite weapons, and regularly launching more rockets into space than any other country.
How did the Biden administration react?
The Pentagon spoke about China’s military successes in general, but did not discuss the announced tests. “We will not comment on the details of these reports,” Defense Department chief John F. Kirby said in a statement. “We have made it clear that we are concerned about the military capabilities that China continues to develop – capabilities that only increase tensions in the region and beyond.”
A senior US official, who anonymously spoke about confidential intelligence assessments, said there was some skepticism about how the Financial Times portrayed the Chinese test. According to the official, the point is not that there were no flight tests, but the reliability of the image in the newspaper.
Ned Price, a State Department spokesman, echoed the Pentagon without giving specific details, but said in his daily briefing on Monday, “We are deeply concerned” about China’s rapidly expanding nuclear capabilities, “including the development of new delivery systems.”
Eric Schmitt and Michael Crowley presented coverage from Washington.