Better late than never.
China’s testing of a hypersonic missile designed to evade American nuclear defenses was “very close” to a “Sputnik moment” for the United States, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday in the first official confirmation of how Beijing’s demonstration of its weapon capabilities had taken American officials by surprise.
The tests, which could revive fears of a Cold War-like arms race, come as Beijing is spending heavily to modernize its military and may be seeking to expand its nuclear arsenal.
Two separate tests, reported earlier by The Financial Times, took place this summer, conducted in a fashion that Chinese officials knew would be highly visible to American satellites. But United States officials remained mostly silent until General Milley spoke on Wednesday, talking about the tests on a Bloomberg Television interview show hosted by David Rubenstein, the billionaire investor and philanthropist.
“I don’t know if it’s quite a Sputnik moment, but I think it’s very close to that,” General Milley said, making it clear he and other officials were surprised. The tests, he said, were a “very significant technological event,” and he said “it has all of our attention.”
As a reminder, Sputnik 1 was the first artificial Earth satellite launched by the Soviet Union in 1957. The event also launched the Space Race, which led to the American program’s history of achievements.
During the tests, the nuclear-capable hypersonic weapon was launched into space and orbited the Earth before re-entering the atmosphere and gliding toward its target in China. Milley, who is also bruised from his decisions during the Afghan withdrawal debacle, indicated that the US was also working on hypersonic missile technology.
Milley said he could not discuss details because aspects involved classified intelligence. He said the United States also is working on hypersonic weapons, whose key features include flight trajectory, speed and maneuverability that make them capable of evading early warning systems that are part of U.S. missile defenses. The U.S. has not conducted a hypersonic weapon test of the sort Milley said China had achieved.
Milley has been heavily criticized during his tenure as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, both for leading what some consider making the military “woke,” and for the hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan on his watch.
China has disputed Western news reports about its test, saying it was working on technology for a re-useable space vehicle for peaceful purposes.
Some U.S. defense experts say the worry about the Chinese hypersonic weapon is overblown.
James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote in an essay last week that the United States has long been vulnerable to a Chinese nuclear attack.
“While the prospect of a nuclear attack against the United States is terrifying, this is no Sputnik moment — partly because it’s not entirely clear what was tested, but mostly because the threat of a Chinese nuclear attack on the United States isn’t remotely new,” Acton wrote.
However, given the recent failure of “experts” on other important matters, I am not consoled. It is past time for our military to focus on national defense rather than social justice.
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