China has flight-tested a hypersonic missile delivery vehicle capable of penetrating any existing defence system with nuclear warheads, according to the Pentagon.
The hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV), dubbed the "Wu-14" by the United States, was detected flying at 10 times the speed of sound during a test flight over China on Thursday, a Pentagon official told the Washington Free Beacon, an online newspaper. A Pentagon spokesman later confirmed the report but declined to provide details.
"We routinely monitor foreign defence activities and we are aware of the test," Marine Corpsc spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jeffery Pool told the Beacon.
Chinese military experts yesterday hailed the test as a breakthrough.
It makes China the second country after the US to have successfully tested a hypersonic delivery vehicle capable of carrying nuclear warheads at a speed above Mach 10.
Such a weapon has long been seen as a game-changer by security experts as it can hit a target before any of the existing missile defence systems can react. Once deployed, it could significantly boost China's strategic and conventional missile force.
It is designed to be carried by an intercontinental ballistic missile. Once it reaches an undisclosed sub-orbital altitude, the vehicle jettisons from the rocket and nose-dives towards the target at a speed of Mach 10, or 12,359km/h.
Russia and India are also known to be working on such a weapon.
In 2010, the US tested the Lockheed HTV-2 - a similar delivery vehicle capable of reaching speeds of up to Mach 20.
Last week's test shows that China has managed to close the gaps with the US. Chinese scientists said China had put "enormous investment" into the project.
More than 100 teams from leading research institutes and universities have been involved in the project.
Purpose-built facilities test various parts of the weapons system. The Chinese Academy of Sciences, for instance, has recently built one of the world's largest and most advanced hypersonic wind tunnels to simulate flights at up to Mach 15 at the Institute of Mechanics in Beijing.
Professor Wang Yuhui , a researcher on hypersonic flight control at Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, said she was not surprised by the test last week because China was technologically ready.
The objective of hypersonic vehicles was to outmanoeuvre and penetrate a missile defence system, she said.
"With a speed of Mach 10 or higher, it cannot be caught or tracked because defence systems don't have enough time to respond," Wang said.
She said the US remained the indisputable leader in the field but no country was ready to deploy the first practical hypersonic missile as many technological challenges remained. One outstanding issue was how to achieve precise flight control at such high speeds.
Scientists are also trying to develop a better "super material" that can withstand the high temperatures during hypersonic flights.
"I am sure many tests will be carried out after last week's flight to solve the problems," Wang said. "It's just the beginning."
Li Jie , a Beijing-based naval expert, said hypersonic weapons were of strategic and tactical importance to China.
"Many technical issues have not been solved and no country has made it ready for use in the field," he said.
"But it is a challenge we must surmount, and we are throwing everything we have at it."
Ni Lexiong , a Shanghai-based naval expert, said China might still need some time to catch up with the US but the day could arrive sooner than many expect. "Missiles will play a dominant role in warfare and China has a very clear idea of what is important."