The US ran three missile tests in response to Russia and China testing hypersonic missiles. While China and Russia hit their targets, one US missile exploded just after leaving the launch pad.
The Financial Times reported on Saturday that China had launched a nuclear-capable missile in August that circled the Earth at low orbit before missing its target by about 20 miles. The test, considered successful, caught US experts by surprise. Hypersonic weapons travel long distances through the atmosphere at speeds of Mach 5-10 making them invulnerable to any air or missile defense system. Hypersonic missiles fly in a much flatter arc, reaching their targets much more quickly while making them harder to track and intercept. This would permit China to launch an attack over the South Pole, evading US missile defenses, which are generally geared toward missiles coming over the North Pole.
The Chinese government denied that the launch was a weapon test, claiming instead that it was a test of reusable technology that could reduce the cost of launching spacecraft for peaceful purposes.
Despite China’s denials, the US ran several tests of hypersonic missiles this week, seemingly as a response to the revelation concerning Chinese advances. On Wednesday, the U.S. Navy and Army tested hypersonic weapon component prototypes. That test successfully “demonstrated advanced hypersonic technologies, capabilities, and prototype systems in a realistic operating environment,” the Pentagon said in a statement.
The Sandia National Laboratory ran the tests from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia which will help “inform the development of the Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS) and the Army’s Long Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW) offensive hypersonic strike,” a statement said.
The tests occurred the same day that U.S. President Joe Biden said he was concerned about Chinese hypersonic weapons.
On Thursday, the Pentagon tested components of a hypersonic missile at the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Kodiak, Alaska. During the test, the booster stack, which is the rocket used to accelerate the projectile to hypersonic speeds, failed and the test of the projectile, the hypersonic glide body, the key component needed to develop a hypersonic weapon, could not proceed, a Pentagon statement said.
A defense official told Defense News the rocket made it off the launch pad before failing.
“Experiments and tests — both successful and unsuccessful — are the backbone of developing highly complex, critical technologies at tremendous speed, as the department is doing with hypersonic technologies,” said Lt. Cdr. Tim Gorman, a Pentagon spokesman, in a statement.
In April, the Air Force’s hypersonic missile program suffered a setback when it failed to launch from a B-52. Instead, the AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) remained on the aircraft.
Two weeks ago, Russia successfully test-launched a Tsirkon (Zircon) hypersonic cruise missile from a submarine for the first time. The Severodvinsk submarine launched the missile from the Barents Sea and reportedly hit its intended target. Previously, the Russians successfully launched the Tsirkon from a warship in July.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a new arsenal of hypersonic weapons in 2018, claiming they could hit almost any point in the world and evade US defenses.