Here's why China may have tested a new intercontinental hypersonic missile The U.S. and China are rushing to develop hypersonic weapons. Critics worry it's turning into a race without end.

Behind murky claim of a new hypersonic missile test, there lies a very real arms race

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China has reportedly tested a powerful new kind of weapon - a long-range hypersonic missile. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has more on what some fear is becoming a dangerous arms race.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: In July, the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology announced the 77th launch of one of its rockets. In late August, it announced the 79th. The question is what happened to launch No. 78. According to a report in the Financial Times this past weekend, it was a secret test of a powerful new kind of hypersonic missile.

JEFFREY LEWIS: I think the simplest way to imagine this weapon system is to imagine the space shuttle, put a nuclear weapon in the cargo bay and then don't bother with the landing gear.

BRUMFIEL: Jeffrey Lewis is a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. This hypersonic weapon launches briefly into orbit...

LEWIS: And it glides back to the Earth, just like the space shuttle, except for when it gets where it's going, it goes boom.

BRUMFIEL: The new weapon would be significant because it could attack the U.S. from an unexpected direction - even, say, the South Pole. The Pentagon would not comment on the report, and a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said it was an experimental spacecraft, not a weapon. But China has been investing heavily in shorter-range hypersonic missiles. They skim through the upper atmosphere at more than five times the speed of sound and can also change direction during flight.

Tong Zhao is with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Beijing.

TONG ZHAO: Given the capability for hypersonic missiles to maneuver during flight and given their rather fast speed, they can better penetrate missile defense systems.

BRUMFIEL: Zhao says that China sees U.S. missile defenses as a major threat. It's been building up its stockpile of shorter-range weapons. This long-distance one, if it was in fact tested, fits into that pattern. Zhao says, in the big picture, Chinese leadership wants to protect itself from what it sees as growing U.S. aggression.

ZHAO: China feels it needs a greater overall military power, including a stronger nuclear power, to basically ensure the U.S. wouldn't be able to interfere in China's internal matters.

BRUMFIEL: Not everyone agrees that China's buildup of hypersonic weapons is defensive. Michael Griffin is a former undersecretary of defense for research and engineering. He says China's hypersonic arsenal allows it to expand its influence in the region.

MICHAEL GRIFFIN: One can target airfields and aircraft carriers, within 15 or 20 minutes of flight time, literally thousands of kilometers away from the Chinese mainland.

BRUMFIEL: That puts the U.S., which is trying to expand its military presence in the western Pacific, at risk. Griffin says that the U.S. needs to develop and stockpile hypersonic missiles of its own to counter the Chinese threat. And if that sounds like an arms race, well...

GRIFFIN: I'm not one to mince words - it is an arms race. And critically, we didn't start it.

BRUMFIEL: But Jeffrey Lewis says a race is supposed to have a finish line. This is more like the two sides are on treadmills.

LEWIS: The only victory is to be first off the treadmill. So what we need to do is find a way to exit the arms race rather than accelerate it.

BRUMFIEL: One way, he believes, is for the U.S. to be more open to limits on missile defenses, which are driving the hypersonic craze. If the latest reports of this nuclear-capable, long-range Chinese weapon are true, the race seems to be speeding up for now. And the Pentagon is doing what it can to keep pace. Today, it announced it had tested parts of its own hypersonic design.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

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