Oct 27, 2021 - World

Top general: China's hypersonic missile test "very close" to a "Sputnik moment"

Mark Milley

Gen. Mark Milley. Photo: Rod Lamkey-Pool/Getty Images

Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, warned Wednesday that China's test of a hypersonic missile is "very concerning" and "very close" to the kind of "Sputnik moment" that triggered the Space Race during the Cold War.

Why it matters: The comments by America's top uniformed general underscore the depths of U.S. concerns about China's rapid military expansion and development of advanced weaponry.

The big picture: In 1957, the Soviet Union's stunning launch of the Sputnik satellite raised alarms that the U.S. was falling behind in a technology race.

  • The Financial Times reported last week that China's test of a hypersonic missile, which could deliver a nuclear weapon that evades U.S. missile defenses, caught intelligence officials by surprise.
  • "I don’t know if it’s quite a Sputnik moment, but I think it’s very close to that. It has all of our attention," Milley told Bloomberg Television's "The David Rubenstein Show: Peer-to-Peer Conversations."

Between the lines: Weapons experts told Axios that the "Sputnik" comparisons are not appropriate, noting that the technology China employed is similar to what the U.S. developed with the Space Shuttle program in the 1970s.

  • "The point about Sputnik is that the Soviets had beaten us to the punch, they put the first satellite up," said Joshua Pollack, a nuclear proliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. "Weapons payload aside, this is old hat for the United States."
  • But the pace of China's progress, in tandem with its military aggression toward Taiwan, expansion of nuclear missile silos, and broader geopolitical tensions with the U.S., has been enough to spark fears of a "new cold war."

What they're saying: "They’re expanding rapidly — in space, in cyber and then in the traditional domains of land, sea and air,” Milley said. "And they have gone from a peasant-based infantry army that was very, very large in 1979 to a very capable military that covers all the domains and has global ambitions."

  • "As we go forward — over the next 10, 20, 25 years — there’s no question in my mind that the biggest geostrategic challenge to the United States is gonna be China," he added. "They’ve developed a military that’s really significant.” 
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