Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the United States is concerned about China’s development of hypersonic missiles, including the orbiting weapons tested in August.
“We have concerns about the military capabilities that the PRC continues to pursue, and the pursuit of those capabilities increases tensions in the region,” Mr. Austin said in Seoul. “And we know that China conducted a test of a hypersonic weapon on the 27th of July. It just underscores why we consider the PRC to be our pacing challenge.”
The United States continues to maintain what Mr. Austin said were a range of weapons and capabilities to both defend and deter threats posed by China.
The hypersonic missile test in July involved a unique capability called a “fractional orbital bombardment system,” or FOBS, first developed by the Soviet Union. Air Force Lt. Gen. Chance Saltzman, deputy of Space Force operations, confirmed in remarks Monday that the hypersonic glide vehicle involved a space-based orbiting strike test.
“I think the words that we use are important, so that we understand exactly what we’re talking about here. I hear things like ‘hypersonic missile,’ and I hear ‘suborbital’ sometimes,” Gen. Saltzman told the Mitchell Institute, noting the July test involved neither.
“This is a categorically different system, because a fractional orbit is different than suborbital. A fractional orbit means it can stay on orbit as long as the user determines and then it de-orbits it as a part of the flight path.”
The FOBS test involved a missile launch of a glider payload in low-Earth orbit that then re-enters the atmosphere and maintains speed above Mach 5, or five times the speed of sound, en route to the target. China has developed the capability specifically as a way to defeat U.S. strategic missile defenses.
Mr. Austin said the hypersonic missiles in China’s arsenal are not the only worry. “My job is to focus on the broader picture and to make sure that we can defend ourselves against any and all threats,” he said.
The Chinese space strike capability was first disclosed by Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall in a speech in September.
China’s new DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile, which is being deployed in new missile fields in western China, is expected to include a variant capable of carrying nuclear-armed hypersonic vehicles.
Air Force Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, commander of the Northern Command, told Congress in February 2020 that “China is testing a [nuclear-capable] intercontinental-range hypersonic glide vehicle … which is designed to fly at high speeds and low altitudes, complicating our ability to provide precise warning.”
Analysts said China’s July hypersonic test may violate a 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which China signed in 1983. Signatories to the pact agree not to orbit any objects carrying nuclear weapons or install weapons in space.
China also has deployed a hypersonic missile known as the DF-17 that carries the DF-ZF hypersonic glide vehicle.
The Pentagon’s forthcoming national defense strategy blueprint due in the coming weeks is expected to place a high priority on developing both offensive and defensive hypersonic weapons. Other new high-technology capabilities being developed for the military include artificial intelligence, autonomous weapons and robotics and directed energy arms.
The Pentagon requested $3.8 billion in fiscal 2022 for hypersonics weapons and $248 million for hypersonic defenses.
The Navy is building hypersonic weapons for its conventional prompt global strike programs — missiles that can hit hardened or time-sensitive targets with conventional warheads.
During talks in Seoul, Mr. Austin said the U.S. military commitment to its South Korean ally remains strong.
North Korea continues to pose a threat to the region by advancing its missile and weapons programs, a push that is “increasingly destabilizing for regional security,” he said.
The United States and South Korea are enhancing combined deterrence postures and approved a new strategic planning guidance for the two militaries.
“Nothing’s changed about our goal. We seek the complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, and we believe the best way to achieve that goal is a calibrated and practical approach to explore diplomacy with the DPRK, and that’s obviously backed up by a credible deterrent and military readiness,” Mr. Austin said, using the acronym for North Korea.
South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook sidestepped a reporters’ question when asked if Seoul would follow the recent announcement by Japan’s military and join the United States in a defense of Taiwan from a Chinese attack.
“We’re always exploring different means for continued cooperation between our countries,” Mr. Suh said, noting he did not discuss threats from specific countries.