China's hypersonic weapon test this past summer revealed a technological advance that no country has previously demonstrated, the Financial Times reported.
The unprecedented military capability, which caught the Pentagon off-guard when it happened July 27, allowed Beijing to fire a missile from a hypersonic glide vehicle mid-flight in the atmosphere over the South China Sea as it traveled at least five times the speed of sound, people familiar with the intelligence told the outlet.
What's most puzzling to experts at the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is how China was able to fire a projectile from a vehicle traveling at hypersonic speeds.
Experts also don't know the purpose of the projectile, which had no obvious target when it was released. Some believe it was an air-to-air missile, while others hypothesize it would be meant to destroy missile-defense systems.
China, Russia and the United States have all pursued hypersonic weapons for years, with Russia saying it test-fired a missile in the arctic on Nov. 18 and the U.S. military in October holding several failed hypersonic missile tests.
But with Beijing's July demonstration, it appears its efforts are far beyond those of Moscow and Washington, officials say.
Gen. David Thompson, the Space Force's vice chief of space operations, on Saturday suggested the U.S. military lags behind the Chinese in weapons development.
"We have catching up to do very quickly, the Chinese have an incredible hypersonic program," Thompson said at the Halifax International Security Forum in Canada. "It's a very concerning development ... it greatly complicates the strategic warning problem."
And outgoing Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Gen. John Hyten earlier this month said that China is developing military capabilities at a "stunning" pace on track to surpass the United States "if we don't do something to change it."
In addition, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley called the test "very concerning" and "very close" to being a "Sputnik moment," referring to the Soviet Union's 1957 launch of the world's first space satellite that gave Moscow a lead in the space race and shocked the United States.
The White House so far has only said it remains concerned about the Chinese test.
Chinese officials, meanwhile, have denied the missile test and said it was instead a test of a reusable space vehicle. They have also accused the United States of fabricating such actions to justify an arms expansion.