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Congress Reacts to Chinese Hypersonic Missile Test

by Mike Hoffman on January 14, 2014

hypersonic armyThe Chinese military executed a hypersonic missile test last week and three members of Congress are already saying the Chinese “appear to be leaping ahead of us” in regards to developing the technology.

It’s hard to tell if they are correct as few details have been released on the test and how it compares to the advances made by the U.S. military, which has executed multiple hypersonic tests in the past few years.

A hypersonic missile must travel between Mach 5 and Mach 10, or 3,840–7,680 miles per hour in order to be considered hypersonic.

U.S., China, India and Russia have all researched hypersonic missiles in order to pierce missile defense systems not built to intercept such fast moving missiles. Today’s cruise missiles travel about 500 to 600 miles per hour.

Republican House Armed Services Committee members Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, Rep. Randy Forbes and Rep. Mike Rogers issued a joint statement Tuesday saying they are concerned in light of hearing about the Chinese test about America’s ability to maintain its technological advantage with the level of budget cuts that Congress has approved.

“While round after round of defense cuts have knocked America’s technological advantage on its back, the Chinese and other competitor nations push towards military parity with the United States; in some cases, as in this one, they appear to be leaping ahead of us,” the lawmakers said in the statement. “This situation does nothing to support peaceful coexistence in the Pacific. We have dithered for three decades now, delaying badly needed replacement equipment for our troops, relying on hardware that was built during the Reagan years.”

It’s unclear how much the committee members know about the test versus what information exists in the media as all three attended a closed committee hearing Tuesday. However, for the Chinese to have leaped ahead of the U.S. on hypersonic missile technology, it means their missile test must have been as successful as the one flown by the U.S. last May.

During that test, the hypersonic missile tested by the U.S. Air Force reached a maximum speed of Mach 5.1 at 60,000 feet after the missile was released from a B-52H Stratofortress.

Called the X-51 WaveRider built by Boeing Co., the test was declared by the Air Force as the “longest air breathing hypersonic flight ever.” The test was the fourth and final mission of the nine-year $300 million project.

The WaveRider program has run out of money and the Air Force is waiting to see when a follow-on hypersonic missile program will be approved. Officials have said they hope to deploy unmanned hypersonic weapons as early as 2025.

The test executed by the Chinese appears to be different than the one completed by the U.S. Air Force in May. China has reportedly set up programs to develop both a scramjet that could be launched from a bomber and one launched from an intercontinental ballistic missile.

The test conducted last week by the Chinese was by a hypersonic missile launched from an intercontinental ballistic missile traveling over China. Under this scenario, the hypersonic weapon was launched from the ICBM before it returned to Earth. It’s unclear if the hypersonic missile hit a target or the speed the Chinese had hoped.

In 2011, the Army completed a similar test when it launched a three stage booster rocket equipped with the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon. The AHW glide vehicle reached hypersonic speeds after it was launched from Hawaii. The missile never left the Earth’s atmosphere.

Again, it’s hard to say if the Chinese hypersonic test was more advanced based on the lawmakers’ statement.

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