China's suspected test of a hypersonic missile capable of carrying a nuclear payload was "very close" to a "Sputnik moment" for U.S. officials, according to Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"What we saw was a very significant event of a test of a hypersonic weapon system, and it is very concerning," Milley told "The David Rubenstein Show: Peer-to-Peer Conversations" on Bloomberg Television 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."
When the then-Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, it raised fears that the United States was lagging on the space race, and while Milley stopped short of calling the Chinese missile tests a full Sputnik-like launch, his comments revealed the depth of concern about the event.
It is also confirmed, in part, by the first reports from The Financial Times earlier this month that China "caught U.S. intelligence by surprise" by testing a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile that had flown through space and circled the globe before returning toward its target, missing it by about 20 miles.
The Chinese foreign ministry has denied the reports, saying that instead, it had tested a space vehicle.
Milley, meanwhile, told Bloomberg that the tests are part of a rapid expansion of the Chinese military "in space, in cyber, and then in the traditional domains of land, sea, and air. 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."
He further warned that over the next 10 to 25 years "there’s no question in my mind that the biggest geostrategic challenge to the United States is going to be China. They’ve developed a military that’s really significant.”
The general added that China's official defense spending figures are misleading because it does not cost "anywhere close" to as much money to train a soldier in China as it does to train a U.S. soldier.
Further, as China's military research and development is mostly performed by state-owned, commercial sector companies, that money is not counted as official defense spending, Milley told Bloomberg.
Meanwhile, weapons experts told Axios comparisons to Sputnik are not accurate, as the technology that China used in the missile test is similar to what was developed in the United States for the Space Shuttle program back in the 1970s.
"The point about Sputnik is that the Soviets had beaten us to the punch, they put the first satellite up," Joshua Pollack, a nuclear proliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, told Axios. "Weapons payload aside, this is old hat for the United States."
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