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China's reported hypersonic missile test "an important surprise" for U.S.

Inside the race to develop hypersonic weapons
Inside the race to develop hypersonic weapons 02:21

Hong Kong — China is shooting down a report claiming it successfully tested an advanced weapon known as a hypersonic missile. Beijing described the launch as a "routine" test of a reusable space vehicle, but Washington insiders say that if China really has successfully tested hypersonic missile technology, the U.S. is simply not ready to contend with the threat that poses.

Hypersonic rockets travel at least five times the speed of sound, and they can fly much lower to the ground than conventional ballistic missiles. That makes them much harder to trace, and thus much harder to stop.

The last time the world saw China's arsenal of hypersonic missiles was in 2019, as the Communist Party put its latest technology on display in a huge military parade through central Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

Military parade in Beijing marks 70th anniversary of Chinese People's Republic
DF-17 Dongfeng medium-range ballistic missiles equipped with DF-ZF hypersonic glide vehicles are seen in a military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the Chinese People's Republic, in Beijing, China, October 1, 2019. Zoya Rusinova/TASS/Getty

The report in The Financial Times over the weekend claimed that China launched a hypersonic missile over the summer, which it said circled the globe before landing about 25 miles from its intended target.

Retired U.S. Admiral James "Sandy" Winnefeld, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called the apparent Chinese test "an important surprise" for American, "because it demonstrates the capability to have a very long-reach hypersonic weapon that could cause a lot of damage without us being able to do anything about it."

On Monday, Beijing responded to the newspaper report, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian telling reporters it was "not a missile" but rather "a space vehicle" used in a "routine test" as China develops technology to lower the cost of future space travel.

Taiwan-China tensions heighten as Taiwan rejects China's forceful reunification plans 01:48

But China has continued to build-up its military capabilities. The country already boasts the world's largest standing military force, and it hasn't been shy about throwing that weight around — the record 149 military flight incursions into Taiwan's air defense zone this month being the most recent example.

In a "60 Minutes" interview over the weekend, Anderson Cooper asked former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates about China's military expansion, and the potential for a Chinese invasion of democratically governed Taiwan.

"There are two strategies that we need to focus on," Gates told Cooper. "One is deterrence — strengthening our own military presence in the region, and the second piece of the strategy is to strengthen Taiwan's ability to defend itself."

Robert Gates: The 2021 60 Minutes Interview 13:17

Only the top levels of China's leadership may know if the country really carried out a successful test flight of a hypersonic missile — or "space vehicle."

The U.S. and Russia have also been testing their own hypersonics, but if the Financial Times report is accurate, that would imply that China has taken the lead in the hypersonic arms race.

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