By Logan Spurrier ‘22
On July 27th, 2021, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army successfully conducted the launch of a new, experimental weapon mounted atop an orbital rocket. The Financial Times reported that the launch of the weapon stunned U.S military officials.
“What we saw was a very significant event of a test of a hypersonic weapon system. And it is very concerning,” C.J.C.S. General Mark Milley said to Bloomberg.
Meanwhile, the Chinese have denied the launch was military-related.
Spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Zhao Lijian was quoted discussing the July test, “This was not a missile, this was a spacecraft.”
However, comments by Gen. Milley suggested it was intended for a military purpose.
This experimental weapon is referred to as a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System, or FOBS. As in this case, FOBS are launched via rockets just past the Karman Line into Low-Earth Orbit. Once the system has orbited into the correct position, the FOBS re-enters the atmosphere and a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) is detached.
Hypersonic glide vehicles, once detached, carry their payloads towards the target(s).
At sufficient distance, the payload that the HGV carried is likewise detached. These munitions will be traveling at hypersonic speeds, even if the payload itself is unpowered/subsonic, due to the velocity given to it by the glide vehicle.
Shortly thereafter, the payload strikes its target(s).
The true impact on the global stage of this experimental weapons’ launch is debated. Multiple nations are currently developing hypersonic tech for military purposes. The U.S has a plethora of projects, including the Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW), Russia is developing the Zircon and China has unveiled their new, experimental weapon added to their arsenal.
Therefore, the concept of China possessing a hypersonic weapon is not game-changing. On top of that, the FOBS idea was first conceptualized by the Soviets in the 1960s. So, despite how it may appear, the United States has been facing this threat for decades; the threat now comes from a new nation.
Meanwhile, Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy was quoted that the LRHW was accurate “within half a foot of targets.” Likewise, the Russian government has confirmed that their Zircon was able to successfully hit targets in recent launch tests. However, the Financial Times quoted an anonymous source as saying the experimental weapon “missed its target by two dozen miles.”
As such, it remains to be seen whether further development causes the experimental weapons launch by China to be a modern-day “Sputnik” moment or not.