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Did China test a hypersonic weapon in August?

Long March 2C rocket
China’s Long March 2C rocket

On October 17th The Financial Times published a story claiming, based on anonymous sources, that one of China’s five launches in August tested a hypersonic weapon, which supposedly circled the globe to impact the Earth only 24 miles from its target.

The Financial Times story is behind a paywall, but not surprisingly it was picked up by much of the mainstream press, with the conservative press — as illustrated by this Daily Wire story — accepting the weapon as fact, while the leftist press — as illustrated by this CNN story — giving China the opportunity to deny the claim.

Did it actually happen? I have no idea. I would add however that I would not trust any story dependent wholly on anonymous sources, considering the unreliability of today’s press and the repeated evidence that numerous federal agencies in the military and intelligence communities routinely feed it disinformation for their own political purposes. These agencies, including the Space Force, want to encourage Congress to fund them, and creating a bogey man threat that the press can tout has for decades been the standard way to do it.

To get a better idea whether this hypersonic flight happened, let’s review the actual Chinese launches in August to see if any might be a likely candidate. For a launch to fit the description, there would have to be almost no information about its payload, and that payload would have to have not reached orbit, since the hypersonic test circled the globe once and then impacted the Earth.

On August 4th China used its Long March 6 rocket to launch two satellites testing new “interference suppression technology” aimed at satellite communications in certain wavelengths. Both satellites were built by China’s Academy of Sciences, but operated by the German company KLEO-connect. That European connection almost certainly rules this launch out. That both satellites reached orbit also tells us that this could not be the hypersonic launch.

On August 5th China used its Long March 3B rocket to launch what is believed to be the fourth in its Zhongxing series of military communications satellites, used for standard military communications. Whether this information, as released by China, is correct or a lie is of course impossible to confirm. However, the satellite reached orbit, once again eliminating this launch as the hypersonic test.

On August 19th China used its Long March 4B rocket to launch two radar surveying satellites. Once again, both satellites reached orbit, which means this launch could not be the hypersonic test flight.

On August 24th China completed two launches. First, a Long March 2C rocket launched two satellites testing technology for a planned large constellation of satellites to provide global internet capabilities, similar technology to SpaceX’s Starlink constellation. Both made orbit as planned, and thus could not be the hypersonic test. However, the launch also included a third unnamed satellite supposedly a “communications test demo mission.” No details about that third payload or its eventual fate in orbit were ever released. [See the comment below. This payload is definitely in orbit, and I have revised my essay below accordingly.]

The second August 24th launch used a Long March 3B rocket to launch a geosynchronous satellite claimed by China to be for communications. Since it reached orbit this could not be that hypersonic test.

Those are all of China’s launches in August. All put their payloads into orbit, where they remain. None involved a payload that reached orbit and then immediately returned to Earth.

Thus, I remain skeptical. The U.S. and Russia have been attempting to build a hypersonic missile for decades. Both the U.S. and Russia have claimed recently to have successfully tested such a rocket on a short flight (see here and here). Neither have come close to launching something that could circle the globe. Then again, neither have used a rocket to lift their hypersonic missile into orbit first.

For China to suddenly leap ahead of both seems unlikely. It is not impossible, but until the story is confirmed by more reliable sources or by another independent news organization, it remains questionable. More important, someone is going to have to identify the missile’s actual launch, which at this time remains nonexistent.

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On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

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  • Col Beausabre

    This reminds me of an old, old menace – FOBS

    “The system granted unlimited striking range with a nuclear weapon.

    The system allowed a strike to be carried out from any direction. For instance, the Soviet Union could launch an attack against the United States using a South Pole or North Pole flight path; technically, it could even execute both of these attack plans simultaneously.

    The system provided a way of evading early warning radar systems. This advantage comes from two different attributes of the FOBS: (1) that it could attack from any direction, as stated above, and (2) that it could travel along a very low Earth orbital path. The first point has to do with the fact that one of the primary missile defense radar systems of the US around the time of the FOBS’ early development was the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS). The BMEWS was oriented to detect ballistic missiles coming from the aforementioned ‘North Pole route’ (its three stations being located in Alaska, Greenland, and the United Kingdom) and therefore wouldn’t detect a strike flying along a southern orbital path. The second point considers that FOBS missiles could fly relatively close to the Earth’s surface; they could have a perigee of under 100 miles and an apogee as low as 125 miles above the ground. US radar systems like the BMEWS were configured to detect ICBMs that flew several hundred to upwards of 1000 miles above the surface, not low altitude missiles like that of the FOBS ”

    Sound familiar?

    “In 2021, United States Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall III stated that the People’s Liberation Army was potentially developing and testing a FOBS.”

  • James Fincannon

    I guess I do not follow this. Are they saying the August 24 launch launched 3 payloads and they think one of these were a hypersonic test vehicle that re-entered into the ocean? Look on It shows these 3 payloads. They are 49112 (large radar crosssection), 49113 (medium RCS), 49114 (large RCS). If these are orbital, they pass through the space fence. According to the orbital elements in this database, all of these are still in orbit up to today. So where is the hypersonic vehicle?

  • Tom Billings

    The old FOBS system was conceived as a means to strike at USAF missile silos before they could be alerted and their missiles launched. Fortunately, in a pre-GPS environment, their accuracy proved utterly incapable of performing that task with any reasonable warhead. *If* China is testing this means in a GPS environment, then their missile silos being added will make more sense. The 350 warheads China has had for some years have always been counter-value (city buster) weapons.

    If they expand along lines of counter-force weapons, that launch to the South, over Tibet, to strike the antiquated Minuteman III missiles in their silos, then they could have a significant gain in strategic and policy leverage. I do not regard this as yet probable, but as possible. It must have the NRO’s rapt attention.

    I have been told in the past that China has signed, … but has not ratified, the Outer Space Treaty, that banned such weapons and testing. Does anyone out there know if China’s ratification is a reality or not? If it is not, their path to this is clearer, especially if their intended replacement of the US as “Hegemon” on the planet is on a timescale that is shorter than the previously spoken of timespan in 2040-2049.

  • James Fincannon: Thank you. I did not know how to determine if that third payload was still in orbit. I will amend my essay.

  • Mark

    In his post, Bob grapples with whether this Chinese hypersonic flight happened or not, and I understand his skepticism. However I am somewhat less skeptical. I believe the Chinese are very serious about their military/ civilian Space Program, and that program has a lot of energy behind it.

    I base that on my previous familiarity with the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
    Here are some conclusions from their 116 page report on the Chinese Space Program from 18 months ago:

    “The PRC is a global space power…..China can achieve disruptive breakthroughs in space technology, including space launch, satellites, and counterspace capabilities.
    Chinese political authorities view space power—a domain managed by a diverse set of military and civilian organizations—as one element of a broader international S&T competition….Fusing civilian and military resources and administration, Chinese investment into space technology supports economic development and advances national defense modernization….
    The establishment of the PLA Strategic Support Force appears to have integrated organizational interests, operational planning, and acquisition. The PLASSF likely is integral to national- and theater-level command and control.
    The PRC’s advances in space are significant.”.

    Here is the link to the report:

    The energy behind this military/ civilian Space Program resides in many individuals in China who wield political power, and who fervently want to have a Space Program that adds to their National Greatness.

    From the BtB Dec 31, 2020 post reviewing the state of the Global Rocket Industry in the 21st Century, this is one observation Bob had regarding the National importance of a space program in China:
    “China now dominates the world’s space industry, with its only viable competitor the United States. I expect this growth in China to continue. It appears to be the long term policy of its government. More important, that government is unlikely to change direction, as it is dominated by managers who cut their teeth in that space program. In the past two decades China has treated its space program as the training ground for its government leaders, so that today many of its provincial governors and important rulers came from within that space program. This new generation of leaders is likely to have an ingrained loyalty to space exploration, and will likely to want to keep it going.”

    I think Bob’s observation from that post at the end of last year was spot on; and I hope we soon get confirmation one way or the other on the existence of the reported Hypersonic Weapon.

  • David Eastman

    Your focus on the unspecified, but known, third payload (which apparently has been tracked in orbit, per comment above) highlights the flaw in your analysis: the FOBS/Glider could have been an undeclared extra payload on any of those launches that you listed and declared “ruled out” because the known payloads have been tracked in orbit. Several of those launches can in fact be effectively ruled out as the trajectory was wrong or the known payloads approach the capacity of the vehicle, but there are several launches where we simply don’t have enough information to know how much extra capability there was, and how much this supposed test required.

    I’ve also seen reporting that the whole “August” part is the problem, China launched an X-37ish prototype in July, and they’re treating this whole thing as a mischaracterization of that launch.

  • David Eastman: Your points are well put, and quite valid. It is however important to question stories such as this, when based on relatively poor research and anonymous sources.

  • Mark: I absolutely agree with you in regards to China and its threat to the rest of the world. As I just noted to David Eastman, I also think it important to view such stories in the press with great skepticism.

  • sippin_bourbon

    Mr Z.

    How do we know about the launches you list above?

    It is because the Chinese government announced them.

    If they tested a hypersonic weapons platform, why would they announce that launch?

  • Sippin_bourbon: China is a signatory to the Outer Space Treaty, which requires them to announce all orbital launches. They do so, and I cover each launch here on BtB.

    Even if they did not, the U.S. military would track the launch and know it happened.

    The Financial Times story claimed the test was launched first on a Long March rocket. Such a launch is orbital, and would have to be announced. If China instead launched it directly from land (as the U.S. has) or from a submarine (as Russia has), then they would not need to announce it. It is possible it happened but the Times story was wrong in placing it on a rocket.

  • sippin_bourbon

    “Even if they did not, the U.S. military would track the launch and know it happened.”

    Yes I agree on this. Which is why the US Military not commenting on the current topic seems “sus”, as the kids are saying these days.

  • John

    The assumption is that the launch was an orbital rocket. It could have been something like a SM-3 with a scramjet upper stage. I doubt China would feel compelled to announce or declare the test after they blasted a satellite years ago. The US military probably could have tracked it, but the whole point is to stay low so it’s harder, and it may have looked like a missile test. China supposedly has the worlds largest and most capable hypersonic testing tunnel. With all the flat out lies from our government and media, I don’t trust the report or any of the rest of their steaming piles . However, it’s also not out of the question.

  • John

    BTW great post Mr. RZ. When I heard the reports, I thought of going to August’s BtB posts on chicom launches.

  • Tom Biggar

    Whether it happened or not, acceptance that it did happen by the US public provides an excuse for the Biden admin to let China take Taiwan without a fight, and for $Billions to flow to the deep state to counter the threat.

  • Edward

    David Eastman wrote: “the FOBS/Glider could have been an undeclared extra payload on any of those launches that you listed and declared “ruled out” because the known payloads have been tracked in orbit.

    I suspect that it would be counterproductive to launch a hypersonic vehicle with orbital spacecraft. The hypersonic vehicle would not be dropped off before the launch vehicle reached orbit, such as when it is at hypersonic speeds (5 to 10 Mach), as doing so would be exceedingly difficult. If the hypersonic vehicle were dropped off in orbit, then it would have to reenter before it could begin its test, and this would require a very different designed vehicle than a regular hypersonic one. If it reached orbit then dropped onto a target one orbit later, then it is an ICBM, not a hypersonic vehicle.

    On the other hand, since a hypersonic vehicle’s launch is not a space launch, does the Outer Space Treaty apply for the launch announcement? We may only know of such a launch from the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) early warning satellites.

    On the third hand, the Gripping Hand (for Niven-Pournelle fans), could China fly around the world without overflying another country’s airspace?

  • Edward: All your points confirm my instincts that this Financial Times story was bogus, and was instead disinformation from the military and intelligence community to encourage Congress to throw money their way.

  • MDN

    My sense is that most of this story is a military/industrial complex creation to trigger funding as Bob implies. And the description of this as a hypersonic “glider” strikes me as just an obtuse way to say MIRV warhead, each of which are hypersonic, and can maneuver to “independent targets.”

    My other sense is that Tom Biggar is right that if this happened it is China sending a message to suppress an allied response should they go for Taiwan.

    To that end I would suggest that we should engage with Taiwan to arm them with say 100-200 road mobile short range ballistic missiles topped with our best proven and effective Bunker Buster warheads so that they can credibly threaten the Three Gorges Dam with a Mini Me counter MAD deterrent. No need for nukes since China built this most convenient and vulnerable energy store capable of unleashing extremely widespread mass destruction just 850 miles from Taiwan.

  • Jeff Wright

    Yes because space advocates in the Pentagon are so well-funded compared to the starving fight jocks in the USAF.

    Bob-they should have more money. Our own mini spaceplane is proof you can have an asset stay up there for some time. Their habit of leaving dirty stages would be how I’d do a strike on the US…with a winged warhead jinxing to target amid other re-entry debis.
    But please-don’t let me distract you from your libertarian fictions….

  • Mark

    Note – Since it relates to both, I have also posted the reply below in comments to Bob’s Post – ‘Oct 19, 2021 Zimmerman / Batchelor Podcast’.

    Regarding Bob’s discussion with John Batchelor on the Chinese Hypersonic story, Bob expresses his skepticism to a large radio audience.

    Upon further review of sources outside of Behind the Black, I am now in agreement with Bob that this Hypersonic Flight story was a deep fake from the deep state with an assist from British intelligence who have a reputation for their literary creativity.

    Bob comments to Batchelor that the reason behind the story is probably that the military is trying to get more funding. While it’s true that there are other occasions in the past where the military has used ‘stories’ to lobby for more funding, in this Hypersonic story that is not what is happening behind the scenes and Bob is wrong to promote that theory.

    The US military has a phenomenal amount of funding, and more importantly Classified military spending accounts for more than 10 percent of the overall defense budget, and I’ll let you figure out the implications of that fact.

    Bob is missing the much bigger picture which is that after decades long government pronouncements embracing the ‘Peaceful Rise of China’, we now have to turn that very large ship around. The US intelligence services know the full story behind the Wuhan Lab leak and China’s actions to use that as part of their undeclared war on the United States. But the US cannot tell the world this story in full because Dr. Fauci abetted the creation of COVID 19 with his funding of the gain of function research. So the US Government together with our allies now have to push stories to play up the threat from China. The ‘facts’ behind some of these may be spot on while others will be murky.

    As a good journalist Mr. Z is following the facts of the Hypersonic Story.
    But let’s not miss the bigger story. We are at war and the American public has to be prepared for that. A Gray Zone War is still War, and Propaganda is one of the unsavory tools used. I know that Behind the Black is focused on Space, but don’t forget China is planning for War in Space just as they planned for Biological War (although they probably started that one accidentally). So i ask my fellow Space enthusiasts to put in some effort to understand our enemy’s aims in Space. The link below has the 116 page report on the Chinese Space Program from the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

    Link to the report:

    I don’t expect anyone to read the whole thing, but it would only take a few minutes to peruse the Table of Contents, and read over the Key Findings and Conclusions.
    We need to be prepared, and we need to help our fellow Americans understand that China is a ‘Present Danger’.

  • Mark: Lying by anyone for any reason is not acceptable to me. Especially by those who wield power over others.

  • sippin_bourbon

    Funding for whom?

    If this is the case, I am not opposed. MDA in general usually has less support from the left because they loved the ABM treaty. MDA also had it’s routes with SDI.

  • J Fincannon

    More careful thought about the data, I note that the launch in question did not list the rocket body at having orbited. Must have burned up prior to entering the US space radar fence. The 3 payloads seem to have a lot of orbital elements over the time period. So the question is could there have been a fourth one.

    Despite the rocket body never having been tracked, the US trackers knew about the launch because they will never list an object in the database unless they can track it back to a launch. If the launch included an object that changed course prior to hitting the space fence and it could not be back tracked to the launch, then it will not be posted in the database. Of course, if it reentered prior to the US fence, again it is not going to be recorded. Only objects that can be tied to a launch are listed. Incoming orbiting meteorites are stored in a nonpublic catalogue. Same for lots of debris. Its not easy to tie the data in time to a launch.

    I am wondering about this 24 miles ocean target estimate. Usually, aircraft and ships are told about an impact possibility. NOTAMs I think they are called. Used to do that a lot. Even Russia had their ocean spots. Does China have a specific location where they warn people off for tests? They seem to do a lot of tests in the South China sea. But likely they would not go around the globe with this kind of rocket. They would likely have tested/impacted it for aiming prior to going around the south pole. It launched southwards. So, a lot of ocean between the launch and the South Pole. After passing around the SP, its pretty close to South America, North America (passes over) and the North Pole and Russia. Not a good thing to offend all them.

  • Mark

    Bob – While I understand taking that stance at a personal level, you know deep down that the history of civilization has depended upon an acceptable levels of untruths communicated between the elites leading a society (at many levels) and the general populace.
    I could write 50 pages off the top of my head on this topic, but I’ll just point to a couple examples.

    * In your 2008 YouTube video detailing the background behind the development of Hubble , you talk at length about a ‘See No Evil, Speak No Evil, Hear No Evil’ photograph of three individuals managing the program who understood that estimated program costs communicated to Congress were false.
    * FDR used propaganda extensively to prepare the American People for the eventuality of WWII.
    * The overhyped threat of the the first Soviet satellite Sputnik, as well the “Missile Gap” that Kennedy campaigned on in 1960 were absolutely tools of propaganda to prepare the American People for the Cold War with the Soviets.
    * The part of the 1980s Reagan military buildup described as ‘Star Wars’ was part of the most successful Great Power geopolitical PsyOp since the end of the Second World War. It contributed in no small measure to the fall of the Soviet Union, and I applaud the propaganda that served that purpose.

    Philosophers, religious leaders and many others have struggled throughout time with how to reconcile our personal codes of conduct with the realities of governance that actually occurs. Just remember that Machiavelli still has a book that is currently published, read, and often quoted.

  • Mark: In every single case you cite, the lies caused more problems than they solved. And I include the buy-in lies related to Hubble.

    American exceptionalism is partly because, as a nation, our Constitution forced greater honesty from our politicians. Of course it did not eliminate their lying, but it made it more likely to get the worst liars removed from office – because until a half century ago the public insisted that honesty be applied to them.

    We no longer demand that standard, as your comments clearly illustrate. Thus, we get the lying, dishonest, and very corrupt government we deserve. Which we now have.

  • M Puckett

    FOBS plus MARV. Not MIRV.

    We tested MARV’s from Vandenberg on Atlas boosters in the 1967 timeframe.

    The problem with hypersonics is it becomes a catch-all that diminishes the meaning. It encompasses divergent technologies of greatly varying difficulty and utility.

    A maneuvering re-entry vehicle launched on a rocket become a hypersonic weapon. Think current Russia and China. We achieved that in the late 60’s and found at that time, to be of little advantage to our strategic posture vs. the then current USSR’s state of the art or lack thereof in defenses vs a conventional ballistic MIRV.

    When we are talking hypersonics domestically now, we are talking scramjets primarily. Scramjets are hard as you are aware. An order of magnitude harder than a MARV at least but theoretically provide a much more capable system..

  • Mark

    Bob – As fellow citizens of the late great American Constitutional Republic and the currently fast fading Global American Empire, I will assume that on friendly terms we can agree to disagree.
    Regarding mankind’s current great adventure to Space which you chronicle on BtB, I do believe both of us can agree with the Stoic Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger, who wrote “non est ad astra mollis e terris via” (“there is no easy way from the earth to the stars”).

  • Mark: Sure, we can agree to disagree. You might have noticed I do not censor opinions on BtB.

    However, you should note that our disagreement is that you want to rationalize the lying of powerful politicians and their minions in government, while I want to always call it to accounts.

    I just want there to be no confusion about this fact.

  • Edward

    Mark wrote: “The US military has a phenomenal amount of funding, and more importantly Classified military spending accounts for more than 10 percent of the overall defense budget, and I’ll let you figure out the implications of that fact.

    The U.S. military may have large funding, but the budget is in three parts: veterans, procurement, and operations. In Afghanistan, our military just left behind almost a year’s worth of procurement budget in equipment, which now leaves us with significantly less equipment with which to prosecute a war or a defense, such as defending Taiwan. Since we don’t get very much developed quickly, much of our procurement budget does not get us very far, either.

  • Jeff Wright

    Missile defense at least had a friend in Harry Brown-the only Libertarian most remember,..and the only member of his party that seemed Human…surrounded by feral little men with faces like balled up fists. We need to spend more on mil-space…and less everywhere else.

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