LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - China fired a missile from a hypersonic weapon as it approached a target during a test in July, the Financial Times reported, adding the Pentagon was surprised because no nation was known to have the capability.
A hypersonic glide vehicle launched by China fired the projectile over the South China Sea while moving at five times the speed of sound, the newspaper reported, citing people familiar with the intelligence.
Some military experts believe an air-to-air missile was fired, the newspaper said. Others thought it was a countermeasure that could hurt the ability of missile defence systems to knock out the hypersonic weapon, which can carry a nuclear warhead, in a battle.
The Financial Times reported last month that China conducted hypersonic weapons tests on July 27 and again on Aug 13, raising concern in Washington about Beijing's advancing military capabilities.
China's Foreign Ministry said in October the nation had tested "a routine spacecraft" to see if it was reusable, an assertion that ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian repeated on Monday at a regular press briefing in Beijing.
In an apparent effort to dismiss the idea the spacecraft launched anything, Zhao added: "After separating from the spacecraft before its return, the supporting devices will burn up when they are falling in the atmosphere."
If China's tests of hypersonic weapons are confirmed, it would suggest that Beijing may be exploring orbital strikes as a way to counter American advancements in shooting down ballistic missiles before they can threaten the US homeland.
Last year, the US Navy successfully intercepted a mock intercontinental ballistic missile.
"I certainly can't think of any technical precedent to a hypersonic glide vehicle releasing some sort of payload - implied to be a missile by the FT story," said Mr Ankit Panda, the Stanton senior fellow in the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"I do wonder, however, if this 'missile' may have been some other sort of payload, perhaps a countermeasure or some other sort of support mechanism," he said.
Mr Panda added there are questions about the military utility of such a demonstration, and the international community should not assume China intends to deploy such a weapon in the field.