WASHINGTON — A Chinese test 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 on Wednesday, the first official confirmation of how Beijing’s demonstration of its capabilities took American officials by surprise.
Two separate tests took place this summer, conducted in a fashion that Chinese officials knew would be highly visible to American satellites. But the United States said nothing about it.
The test was notable because hypersonic missiles can quickly maneuver and alter course, flying below low-earth orbit. They are virtually impossible for existing American defenses, designed for intercontinental ballistic missiles that follow a predictable path into space and re-enter the atmosphere, to intercept. The Chinese test was conducted in a manner that made it clear the hypersonic missile could be launched to go over Antarctica; existing American defenses are all pointed west and north over the Pacific, meaning they would be useless in countering an attack from the south.
“I don’t know if it’s quite a Sputnik moment, but I think it’s very close to that,” Gen. Milley told David Rubinstein, the billionaire and philanthropist, who conducts an interview show on Bloomberg Television. The tests, he said, were a “very significant technological event,” and he said “it has all of our attention.”
Sputnik was the launch, in 1957, of a Soviet satellite. It created fear in Washington that the Soviets were getting ahead in the space race, and led to President John F. Kennedy’s declaration that the United States would be the first to land humans on the moon, an accomplishment that was reached in less than a decade. But it also spurred the nuclear arms race of the 20th century, which was only tamped down in the past 30 years, after the Soviet Union’s collapse.
Now, the arms race is threatening to revive. The United States has an active hypersonic program of its own, as do Russia and, among others, North Korea. But the U.S. program has run into its own technical difficulties, and the Chinese test — which appears to have not been completely successful, either — may well form the basis of a new arms race, at the very moment that President Biden has been looking for ways to avoid a proposed trillion-dollar modernization of the American nuclear forces and delivery systems.