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WASHINGTON – A Chinese test of a hypersonic missile designed to evade US nuclear defenses was “very close” to a “Sputnik moment” for the United States, General Mark A. Milley, chief executive officer, said on Wednesday. joint staff. , the first official confirmation of how Beijing’s demonstration of its capabilities took U.S. officials by surprise.

Two separate tests took place this summer, conducted in a way Chinese officials knew would be highly visible to US satellites. But the United States has not said anything about it.

The test was remarkable because hypersonic missiles can quickly maneuver and change course, flying below low earth orbit. They are virtually impossible to intercept for existing US defenses, designed for intercontinental ballistic missiles that follow a predictable path through space and re-enter the atmosphere. The Chinese test was conducted in such a way as to make it clear that the hypersonic missile could be launched to fly over Antarctica; the existing US defenses are all pointed west and north over the Pacific, meaning they would be useless in countering an attack from the south.

“I don’t know if it’s a Sputnik moment, but I think it’s very close to it,” General Milley told David Rubinstein, the billionaire and philanthropist, who runs an interview show on Bloomberg Television. . The testing, he said, was a “very important technological event”, and he said “it has our undivided attention”.

Sputnik was the launch, in 1957, of a Soviet satellite. This raised fears in Washington that the Soviets would take a lead in the space race and led to President John F. Kennedy’s declaration that the United States would be the first to send humans to the moon, an accomplishment that was achieved in less than a decade. . But it also spurred the 20th-century nuclear arms race, which has only been curbed in the last 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Now the arms race threatens to resume. The United States has its own active hypersonic program, as does Russia and, among others, North Korea. But the US program has run into its own technical difficulties, and the Chinese test – which also does not seem to have fully succeeded – may well form the basis of a new arms race, just as President Biden sought. ways to avoid a proposed trillion dollar modernization of US nuclear forces and launch systems.


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