The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and two senior committee members voiced concerns Monday about China’s first test of a new high-speed missile vehicle.
"While round after round of defense cuts have knocked America’s technological advantage on its back, the Chinese and other competitor nations push towards military parity with the United States; in some cases, as in this one, they appear to be leaping ahead of us," Chairman Rep. Howard P. "Buck " McKeon (R., Calif.) and Reps. Randy Forbes (R., Va.) and Mike Rogers (R., Ala.) said in a statement.
Forbes is chairman of the Armed Services subcommittee on seapower and projection forces and Rogers leads the strategic forces subcommittee.
The lawmakers commented on a report published Monday in the Washington Free Beacon revealing that China last week carried out the first flight test of a hypersonic glide vehicle, a new military capability designed to deliver warheads at ultra-high speeds.
Defense officials disclosed that China’s new hypersonic glide vehicle, dubbed WU-14, was flight tested above China at extremely high speed.
The vehicle is similar to U.S. hypersonic vehicles under development as part of a program called "prompt global strike," a U.S. strategic strike system involving rapid attacks at any location on earth within minutes.
Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas) also expressed concerns about China’s high-technology military advance.
"Considering the Obama administration’s penchant for continually indebting ourselves to the Chinese government rather than taking the necessary steps to put our nation on a strong fiscal footing, these reports about China’s military advancements are all the more disturbing," Cornyn said. "We cannot allow ourselves to take second seat to any military power, and our mounting debt to China is forcing us to do so."
The development of high-tech weapons like hypersonic missiles "does nothing to support peaceful coexistence in the Pacific," the three House leaders said.
"We have dithered for three decades now, delaying badly needed replacement equipment for our troops, relying on hardware that was built during the Reagan years," McKeon, Forbes, and Rogers said.
"The Asia Pacific is fast becoming a powder keg. Allowing nations that do not share our respect for free and open avenues of commerce to gain a strategic advantage over the United States and her allies only brings us closer to lighting the fuse."
Kenneth deGraffenreid, a former White House intelligence policymaker during the Reagan administration and Pentagon official during the George W. Bush administration, said the emergence of China’s hypersonic weapons is alarming.
He compared China’s military buildup to that undertaken by the Soviet Union during the détente period of the 1970s.
"We are seeing dramatic military developments by the Chinese," he said. "They are making strategic advances and it seems that nobody is noticing it."
Only several years ago, large numbers of U.S. officials and academic specialists dismissed Chinese military developments as insignificant and non-threatening, deGraffenreid said.
"In China, we’re seeing a rate of military change that is huge," he said, adding that China’s goals are not limited to being a regional power but are building long-range range strategic capabilities.
The hypersonic program appears to be part of China’s efforts to negate U.S. missile defenses. "That is dramatic," deGraffenreid said. "Hypersonics are not just an advanced technology, they’re a game changer, strategically."
DeGraffenreid, a former senior counterintelligence policymaker, also suggested China likely obtained the hypersonic technology from the United States. "We know the Chinese have a campaign to develop strategic capabilities by stealing them from us," he said.
A Chinese embassy spokeswoman did not return emails seeking comment. A spokesman for the Chinese Defense Ministry could not be reached for comment.
Defense analysts said the hypersonic test is a major advance for China’s high technology weapons systems, often dubbed "assassin’s mace" arms. The weapons include cyber weapons, strategic and conventional missiles, anti-satellite weapons, and other high-tech arms.
Defense officials said the new hypersonic vehicle appears to be designed for launch atop a missile. It is boosted to near space, around 62 miles from the earth, and then glides and maneuvers to its target at speeds of between Mach 5 and Mach 10, or 3,840 miles per hour and 7,680 miles per hour.
Those speeds are designed to make it more difficult for long-range missile defenses, like those deployed by the United States, to counter the high-speed vehicles that can be armed with both nuclear and conventional warheads.
A Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Pool, confirmed the test but declined to provide details.
The Chinese test is widely viewed in intelligence and defense circles as a military surprise—the rapid development leading to a test of a cutting edge military capability.
The Pentagon’s most recent annual report on China’s military revealed that China opened in May 2012 the world’s largest hypersonic wind tunnel that is being used to test hypersonic vehicles traveling between Mach 5 and Mach 9.
Additionally, Russia is racing to develop hypersonic arms. The Russian government has said it is developing hypersonic weapons, including missile vehicles capable of penetrating U.S. missile defenses with nuclear warheads.
U.S. hypersonic vehicles include the Lockheed HTV-2 or Hypersonic Technology Vehicle, an unmanned, missile-launched maneuverable aircraft that glides to earth at speeds up to Mach 20, or 13,000 miles per hour.
A second U.S. program is called the Boeing X-51 WaveRider, an aircraft-launched, scramjet-powered vehicle that is being designed for hypersonic attack, reconnaissance, and commercial transport.