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US in hypersonic weapon 'arms race' with China: Air Force chief

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
The US Navy, in collaboration with the US Army, conducts a static fire test of the first stage of the newly developed 34.5" common hypersonic missile that will be fielded by both services, in Promontory, Utah, US, in this handout image taken on October 28, 2021. (Reuters photo)

A hypersonic weapons "arms race" is well underway between the United States and China, the US Air Force secretary said on Tuesday.

"There is an arms race, not necessarily for increased numbers, but for increased quality," Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall told Reuters during an interview in his Pentagon offices.

"It's an arms race that has been going on for quite some time. The Chinese have been at it very aggressively."

Hypersonic weapons travel in the upper atmosphere at speeds of over five times the speed of sound, or about 6,200 kilometers (3,853 miles) per hour.

The remarks by Kendall come as the US Defense Department has held several hypersonic weapons tests with mixed success this year.

In October, the Navy successfully tested a booster rocket motor that could be used to power a launch vehicle carrying a hypersonic weapon aloft.

However, in the same month, a test for an experimental system from the Pacific Spaceport Complex on Kodiak Island in Alaska failed due to a problem with the booster system.

Meanwhile, China has conducted tests of its hypersonic weapons systems over the summer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley confirmed in October.

Kendall admitted the US has focused resources on Iraq and Afghanistan at the expense of developing hypersonic weapons.

"This isn't saying we've done nothing, but we haven't done enough," he said.

His remarks reflect a growing effort by Biden administration officials to focus more on China and Russia following the US’ chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in August.

Last month, US Space Force General David Thompson said the US’ hypersonic missile capabilities are "not as advanced" as those of China or Russia.

"We have catching up to do very quickly, the Chinese have an incredible hypersonic program," he said.

In its 2021 Global Posture Review, published Monday, the Pentagon said it was planning major infrastructure improvements at military airfields in Guam and Australia to counter China in the Asia-Pacific region.

For the fiscal year running through 2022, the US is planning to spend $3.8 billion on hypersonic missiles, according to a memo the Congressional Research Service (CRS) provided for US Congress on Oct. 19.


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