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Military vehicles carrying hypersonic missiles DF-17 travel past Tiananmen Square during a military parade marking the 70th founding anniversary of People's Republic of China on Oct. 1, 2019. China has surpassed the U.S. in the development of cutting-edge hypersonic missiles, a senior U.S. general said over the weekend.JASON LEE/Reuters

China and Russia have surpassed the United States in the development of cutting-edge hypersonic missiles – regarded by some as first-strike weapons – and Beijing is on track to one day overtake the Americans in space technology, a senior U.S. general says.

General David Thompson serves in the recently created United States Space Force and is its first vice-chief of space operations. He spoke at the Halifax International Security Forum this past weekend.

He said the world has become a “much more complicated place” with the advent of hypersonic missiles that can fly five times the speed of sound and change course midflight. This means, unlike with ballistic missiles, a targeted country cannot quickly predict where such missiles will land.

“We’re not as advanced as the Chinese or Russians in terms of hypersonic programs,” Gen. Thompson said.

“We have catching up to do very quickly. The Chinese have had an incredibility aggressive hypersonic missile program for several years,” he said. “It’s a very concerning development.”

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The military leader also talked about the vulnerability of U.S. and Western satellites, which he said are susceptible to being shot down, jammed or manipulated. “There is considerable vulnerability there,” he told the Halifax forum.

In previous-generation missile technology, once a missile is launched, a target country could more easily predict its course and judge whether it was a test flight. “You no longer have that predictability. It could be an attack and you don’t know until very late in the flight,” Gen. Thompson said.

China has moved very aggressively on space technology, he said. “In terms of their capability and technology I would argue that we – both the United States and our close partners and allies – are still the best in the world in that technology,” the military leader said.

But he said China is getting new technology up into space at twice the rate of the U.S., “and so if this pace maintains for some period of time, they are likely to exceed us in terms of their ability,” Gen. Thompson told the Halifax forum.

“They now have more than 200 intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance satellites on orbit. So they intend to use space the way they have watched us use it for decades … in addition to building a whole bunch of counterspace weapons.”

He said the U.S. has to find ways to accelerate deployment of new technology.

“Part of it is the bureaucracy we’ve build into our defence and acquisition enterprise … that has slowed us down in many areas,” he said. “The fact that we have not needed to move so quickly for a couple of decades, in the sense of a strategic competitor with these capabilities, has not driven us or required us to move that quickly.”

He said the U.S. has adopted a very “risk averse” approach to developing and building space technology because of the high cost.

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Last August, on the eve of the 2021 Canadian federal election campaign, Canada and the U.S. released a statement that foreshadowed concern about hypersonic missiles. The notice, which was overshadowed by the Canadian campaign, said the two countries intended to proceed with “co-ordinated investments” that bolster their ability to protect North America from “a greater and more complex conventional missile threat,” including gear that watches for incoming threats from “the sea floor to outer space.”

The forum also heard how vulnerable Western satellites, which support telecommunication and global positioning system relied upon for navigation, are to attack.

“They are incredibly capable and incredibly sophisticated, but they were never designed to operate under the threats we see today [including] a physical attack in space,” Gen. Thompson said of satellites.

He said any country that has ballistic missile defence technology has most of the capabilities to attack a satellite. Last Tuesday, Russia conducted a weapons test by firing at an old Russian satellite. U.S. officials said the collision created sufficient space debris to threaten the International Space Station and pose a hazard to spacefaring activities for years.

The U.S. is working on ways to deter attacks on its orbiting technology, including spreading out the work performed among a greater number of satellites.

Satellites are also at risk of being jammed by rogue signals because of their technology, which uses radio-frequency signals to communicate with the ground. “So the same mechanism by which you get data to the ground introduces the opportunity for somebody to jam the link and prevent you from using it,” Gen. Thompson said.

With a report from Reuters

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