The Financial Times reported this week that China tested a new hypersonic weapons system in August 2021. The missile circled the globe before speeding towards the target. It missed its mark by two dozen miles, however, the test showed astounding progress China has made in developing this technology. Later, the Financial Times reported that China conducted two hypersonic tests over the summer rather than the one test reported earlier. It first tested a rocket using a “fractional orbital bombardment system” (FOBS) to launch a “hypersonic glide vehicle” capable of carrying nuclear weapons on July 27 and followed that up with a second hypersonic test on August 13, the newspaper reported later this week.
Before discussing the details of what happened, its drivers and its impact, let’s first understand the science of hypersonic tech and the FOBS.
Several countries are developing hypersonic weapons, which fly around the speed of 4.7 to 5.2 times the sound of speed (around Mach 5/ a bit more than 6000 km/hour). There are two primary categories of hypersonic weapons: Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGV) and Hypersonic Cruise Missiles. The HGVs are launched from a rocket, perhaps even an existing ballistic missile booster, and then coast unpowered simply from their own momentum to glide towards their target. HCM, however, are powered by high-speed, air-breathing engines or “scramjets,” as they use oxygen from the air and produce thrust during their flight, just as other aircraft do. Ballistic missiles are faster than hypersonic missiles, however, unlike ballistic missiles, hypersonic missiles do not follow a fixed trajectory. It can manoeuvre and en route to its destination. The speed, manoeuvrability and low altitude flight make it extremely challenging for detection. Most of the current effort in the world, including the recent Chinese test, is directed toward the far easier boost-glide vehicles.