The top US general has said China’s suspected hypersonic missile test is close to a Sputnik moment, referring to the Soviet satellite launch that sparked the Cold War arms race.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said in an interview with Bloomberg News that the Chinese military is “expanding rapidly”.
The Financial Times reported this month that the test stunned the US military.
Beijing denies any missile test, saying instead it was a spacecraft.
“What we saw was a very significant event of a test of a hypersonic weapon system. And it is very concerning,” Gen Milley told Bloomberg on Wednesday.
“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.”
His comment is the first official acknowledgement by the US of claims that China conducted two missile tests over the summer. Reports indicate that it was a nuclear-capable missile that could evade US air defence systems.
The 1957 Soviet satellite launch of Sputnik shocked Americans, who feared that the Soviets were pulling ahead in technological ability.
The event spurred President John F Kennedy to declare that the US would land men on the moon, a goal achieved in less than a decade.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby refused to comment on the general’s remarks at a Wednesday briefing, saying: “This is not a technology that is alien to us, that we haven’t been thinking about for a while.”
He added that the US is working to strengthen defence systems and pursuing its own hypersonic capabilities.
Hypersonic missiles are capable of travelling at five times the speed of sound.
They are considered more manoeuvrable than conventional missiles and more capable of avoiding interception from air defence.