A recent Chinese weapon test involved a hypersonic vehicle releasing an unknown projectile.
Most hypersonic tests involve vehicles that are weapons, but this one could have been some kind of launch vehicle, or even orbital bomber.
Although technically challenging, it’s hard to understand what advantage China would gain from the capability.
A July test of a Chinese hypersonic weapon included one weird trick: as it streaked through the atmosphere after a planet-spanning flight, the weapon, traveling at faster than Mach 5, released an unknown projectile somewhere above the South China Sea. The release of a projectile, according to the Financial Times, has U.S. officials scratching their heads wondering exactly what was tested and what it released.
The test took place on July 27 and involved the launch of a Long March 2C rocket (picture above) from China, releasing a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV). Unlike nuclear-tipped ICBMs and spacebound rockets, HGVs spend only a short amount of time in orbit before nosing down and then gliding back into the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds. (Hypersonic speeds are defined as anything over Mach 5, or 3,800+ miles an hour.)
In a new revelation, the Financial Times claims the HGV released a projectile over the South China Sea before finally crash landing in China, missing its target in China by about 24 miles. The flight profile matches that of a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS), a weapon that enters orbit on a shallow trajectory but spends only a fraction of a whole orbit in space. A FOBS weapon would ideally fly over the South Pole instead of the North Pole, sneaking in behind northward-pointing ballistic missile defenses to knock them out.
China’s Foreign Ministry denied that the vehicle tested was a missile, instead claiming it was a “space vehicle.”
What was the projectile and why would it release it? According to FT, U.S. officials believe it could have released an air-to-air missile or a countermeasure, one designed to confuse enemy defenses as the hypersonic weapon nears its target. Yet it seems overkill and not cost effective to launch an air-to-air missile on a space rocket that then circles around the world.
“It could be a decoy, to distract the interceptor missile,” Joshua Pollack, editor of the Nonproliferation Review and a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, told Popular Mechanics. “It could even be designed to attack the interceptor missile, although that seems unlikely to me.”
China is known to be very concerned about U.S. ballistic missile defenses (BMDs), fearing that a scaling up of a system designed to counter just a handful of incoming missiles could block the effectiveness of the country’s relatively small nuclear deterrent. Both China and Russia are coming up with new weapons designed to skirt BMDs, either flying around them, under them, or avoiding them entirely.
Getting past BMDs is one of the most likely guesses at China’s July hypersonic weapon test.
“I’d venture that the single most likely scenario is an anti-radiation missile,” Pollack said, ”to home in on a radar tracking the HGV in terminal phase. Disable the radar and you’ve disabled the terminal defense, in theory. ”
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