Over the weekend reports emerged that China successfully executed the fifth test of its WU-14 hypersonic glide vehicle. The test occurred at the Wuzhai missile range in northern China's Shanxi province and is believed to have occurred on August 19th.
Pentagon officials said the WU-14 traveled along the edge of the atmosphere and also demonstrated evasive maneuvering capabilities during the latest test, which was closely observed by the U.S. military.
This evasive maneuvering indicates that the hypersonic missile is designed to evade countermeasures, such as those that might be used by the United States during a conflict.
Current U.S. missile defense systems are designed to intercept ballistic missiles that follow predictable flight paths. Maneuverable warheads and glide vehicles cannot be countered by the current systems. This problem becomes even more difficult if the missiles are hypersonic, with speeds in excess of Mach 5.
The problems defending against these systems highlight their appeal to both U.S. and Chinese militaries. India and Russia are also working on similar systems but are not believed to be in such advanced stages of development.
Richard Fisher of the International Assessment and Strategy Center said that to counter the new glide vehicle the U.S. must speed up the development of its railgun technology, which uses an electromagnetic catapult system to launch a projectile at high speed.
The U.S. publicly debuted a demonstration of this technology in February of this year.
Lora Saalman, a hypersonic technology analyst who carefully studies Beijing, said the two most recent WU-14 flights are unprecedented both in terms of pace and frequency. The program appears to be moving along well and on target to be a fully deployed system in the coming years.
When deployed, the hypersonic glide system would extend the range and increase the flexibility of China's anti-access, area denial technologies beyond that of the already deployed DF-21D anti-ship missiles, says Saalman.
"If this conventional system is mounted to reach an intercontinental range, then it could represent an effort to catch up with or even beat the United States to the punch on its own Conventional Prompt Global Strike aspirations," Saalman said.
A WU-14 missile armed with a nuclear warhead would be a direct threat to the U.S. homeland with no countermeasures to stop it.
Admiral Cecil Haney, commander of the US Strategic Command, confirmed that hypersonic glide vehicles are emerging weapons that pose a direct threat to the United States.
The U.S. military, working with Boeing, has been testing similar technologies in its X-51 Waverider program, the details of which are largely classified.