Balloon With 3 Hypersonic Missiles Tested by China in 2018

By Andrew Thornebrooke
Andrew Thornebrooke
Andrew Thornebrooke
National Security Correspondent
Andrew Thornebrooke is a national security correspondent for The Epoch Times covering China-related issues with a focus on defense, military affairs, and national security. He holds a master's in military history from Norwich University.
February 6, 2023Updated: February 16, 2023

Chinese state-owned television aired footage of a high-altitude balloon dropping hypersonic weapons in 2018.

The stunning footage displays a high-altitude balloon, not dissimilar from the one that recently traversed the United States, carrying three hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs) into high altitude and dropping them for testing.

Chinese state broadcaster CCTV reported on the weapons test in September 2018. The footage has since been deleted from Chinese media, but photographs and short clips can still be found online.

In one post from 2018, a Twitter user shared footage from Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, that shows the balloon lifting the three HGVs from the ground.

HGVs are generally launched by rockets in a similar manner to traditional missiles. Upon reaching orbit, however, HGVs detach from the rocket and fly through the atmosphere using their own momentum.

Such weapons are much faster than other missiles while they’re in low orbit, but become much slower upon hitting the dense air of the atmosphere, as they have no jets to power them. The three HGVs dropped by the balloon in the footage appear to have been designed to test this phenomenon.

The balloon-dropped HGVs were part of an effort to develop precision warheads for hypersonic weapons, which would give the Chinese military an “unstoppable nuclear-capable weapon,” according to the South China Morning Post.

Balloons Just One Part of Regime’s War Preparations

Paul Crespo, president of the Center for American Defense Studies, said the balloon that recently traversed U.S. airspace could “absolutely” be a dry run for an attack using a balloon-mounted weapon, but that hypersonic missiles aren’t likely to be a first choice for China’s communist regime.

“While China has tested hypersonic missiles launched from balloons in the past, that isn’t a likely use for these airships,” Crespo told The Epoch Times in an email. “The biggest threat is sending one or more of these high altitude balloons over the U.S. with a small nuclear EMP (electro magnetic pulse) device.

Epoch Times Photo
Illustration of the payload containing three hypersonic glide vehicles tested by China in 2018. (The Epoch Times)

“Detonated at extremely high altitude, they could knock out power and communications across the United States, wreaking widespread havoc for a year or more without firing a shot on the ground.”

Although Crespo didn’t believe that balloon-dropped hypersonic missiles would be the next big thing in a nuclear conflict, the HGVs dropped in the footage may well have contributed to the development of the hypersonic weapon system secretly tested by China in 2021.

That system appeared to be intended for a “first-use” nuclear strike against the United States, then-Vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Hyten said.

“They look like a first-use weapon,” Hyten said.

“The pace [China is] moving and the trajectory that they’re on will surpass Russia and the United States if we don’t do something to change it.”

Communist China isn’t alone in developing novel ways to use high-altitude balloons as weapons of war.

The United States has researched and tested the use of such balloons for deploying swarms of explosive-laden suicide drones since at least 2018.

The Pentagon is also investing tens of millions of dollars into high-altitude balloons that it intends to use for surveillance and, notably, for potentially tracking the CCP’s hypersonic arsenal.

White House and Pentagon officials didn’t respond to requests by The Epoch Times for comment.