New space race? US tests components for hypersonic weapons

Tests come amid President Joe Biden’s concerns about Chinese hypersonic weapons that can evade advanced radar.

The Pentagon said this week's tests of hypersonic missile components will help the US develop new weapons [File: Al Drago/Reuters]

US forces have conducted three tests of hypersonic missile component prototypes, the Pentagon said, amid concerns from President Joe Biden about China’s advances in hypersonic weapons.

Sandia National Laboratories, a US government contractor, said on Thursday that it had conducted three tests successfully in Virginia a day earlier.

The tests will inform the development of new weapons systems, the Pentagon said in a statement. The US army and navy are set to conduct hypersonic missile test flights in 2022.

“Our purpose is to generate a rapid testbed tempo at reduced cost to the taxpayer for future hypersonic weapons systems development and upgrades,” Sandia Program Manager Ben English said in a statement. “We are the technological stepping stone between ground-based lab testing and simulations, and a full weapons test.”

A booster rocket carrying a hypersonic weapon failed during a separate test on Thursday, Reuters news agency reported.

Hypersonic weapons travel in the upper atmosphere at more than five times the speed of sound — or about 6,200 kilometres per hour (3852 miles per hour) — and they can evade advanced radar systems.

These tests “demonstrated advanced hypersonic technologies, capabilities, and prototype systems in a realistic operating environment,” the Pentagon said in a statement.

Biden expressed concern on Wednesday about Chinese hypersonic missiles, days after a report in the Financial Times newspaper that Beijing had tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide weapon.

In response to the FT’s initial report, China’s foreign ministry said that it had only launched a space plane.

“It’s understood that this was a routine test of a space vehicle to verify technology of the spacecraft’s reusability,” Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Monday.

The United States has actively pursued the development of hypersonic weapons as part of its Conventional Prompt Global Strike programme since the early 2000s. Other US hypersonic missile component tests have been marred by failure, Reuters reported on Thursday.

The United States and its global rivals, including China and Russia, have quickened their pace to build hypersonic weapons, the next generation of arms that rob adversaries of reaction time.

In July, Russia reported another successful test launch of a Tsirkon hypersonic cruise missile, a weapon President Vladimir Putin has touted as part of a new generation of missile systems without equal in the world.

Russian defence officials said the missile travelled at approximately seven times the speed of sound before successfully hitting a ground target on the coastline of the Barents Sea more than 350 kilometres away.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies