On July 19, China announced its 77th launch of the Long March 2C rocket, carrying three satellite sensors to orbit. The next month, the same rocket was used to put three telecommunications satellites in space.
What happened next confounded observers. China said the second launch, on Aug. 24, was the 79th time the country deployed the vehicle. But whatever happened to the 78th launch?
The record of the supposed launch is missing from the website of the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology, which publishes records of China’s rocket launches.
The launch could have been carrying something extraordinary—and secretive. According to a Financial Times report, Beijing tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile in August, a capability that reportedly caught U.S. intelligence by surprise.
The Long March rocket carried a glide vehicle that circled the globe in a low orbit before descending toward its target, the report said, citing anonymous sources.
The missile, despite missing its target by about two-dozen miles, showed that “China had made astounding progress on hypersonic weapons and was far more advanced than U.S. officials realized,” people briefed on U.S. intelligence were quoted as saying.
But China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on Monday denied Beijing had tested the missile, adding the launch was a “routine spacecraft test” conducted to test its reusability. Parts of the spacecraft, which Zhao did not name, would burn through the atmosphere and fall into the East China Sea, he said.
Conventional ballistic missiles fly toward outer space before returning to earth on free-falling trajectories. But the hypersonic missiles China tested could glide toward targets at low altitudes and are able to change course, making it more difficult for them to be tracked and intercepted.
Zhao Tong, a senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told VICE World News the test Beijing reportedly conducted showed the country was developing a type of missile that could theoretically keep orbiting the Earth before being guided toward targets.
Many countries, including the U.S., have the technological expertise to build such devices, Zhao said, but China could be the first one to be turning the concept into reality.
It’s unclear what Beijing intends to do with the vehicles, but it could add to the growing concerns in the U.S. about China moving away from its “minimum deterrent” nuclear strategy—keeping its nuclear capabilities at a low level and not seeking to use the weapons first in an offensive, but merely as a defense capability.
The U.S. military also recently sounded warnings about China’s expanding nuclear arsenal, following reports of the construction of some 230 new missile silos in northwestern China.
“To the U.S., it is an open-ended question, because China would not explain it,” Zhao said. “What the U.S. worries about is China plans to not only maintain its ability to strike back, but completely change its nuclear policy and pursue an offensive strategy.”
Even if the vehicles are used to carry conventional, non-nuclear weapons, they could still prompt the Pentagon to step up building a defence system targeting intercontinental missiles from China, Zhao said.
Sources told the Financial Times the hypersonic weapon’s potential ability to fly toward America over the South Pole would pose a major challenge for the existing U.S. missile defence systems, designed to focus on the northern polar route.
In a Sunday editorial, the Communist Party-run tabloid Global Times did not deny or confirm the hypersonic missile test, but said the latest weapon could potentially be “a new blow to the U.S.’ mentality of strategic superiority over China.”
“Greater survivability and penetration ability of Chinese nuclear missiles is clearly being accelerated through a variety of new missiles,” the editorial said. “Such development will ensure that neither country’s nuclear forces will be used as a tool to solve regional problems.”
The editorial said China had no intention to challenge the U.S.’ military hegemony, but it’s “inevitable” for Beijing to take an upper hand over Washington in areas such as Taiwan and the South China Sea.
Follow Viola Zhou on Twitter.