Chinese Hypersonic Weapon Test

Financial Times

Demetri Sevastopulo and Kathrin Hille produced the world-beating scoop that China in July 2021 tested a hypersonic weapon that orbited the planet, demonstrating a new way to strike the US with a nuclear weapon.

Demetri and Kathrin (our respective US-China correspondent and Greater China correspondent) teamed up on many excellent exclusives in 2021. But the hypersonic story was a true blockbuster that went unmatched for days as top national security journalists from Beijing to London to Washington struggled to confirm the scoop. Their work had everything that makes a scoop special: truly important information, universally followed, revealing facts that officials wanted to keep secret, and subsequent confirmation that it was correct. The story shocked the world - no country had ever successfully tested a hypersonic weapon in this way before - and showed that China had moved far ahead of the US and Russia. Demetri and Kathrin revealed incredible detail about the test of the weapon, which was carried into space on a rocket before re-entering the atmosphere and speeding towards its target at over five times the speed of sound. They reported that US government military experts were stunned because China had demonstrated an absolutely cutting-edge technology that Pentagon scientists did not understand. The report was so remarkable that some scientists questioned the accuracy of their reporting. But they were vindicated two weeks later when General Mark Milley, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, confirmed the test, which he described as being close to a “Sputnik moment”. Demetri produced a second scoop - that the hypersonic weapon had fired a missile while flying over the South China Sea. He reported that experts at Darpa, the Pentagon’s advanced research arm, did not understand how the Chinese military had overcome the constraints of physics that they had believed made it impossible to shoot a missile from a weapon flying at such high speed. These scoops were incredibly hard to confirm because the information was highly classified. More than a year after the test, the US has still only confirmed a few details from the FT stories. The main scoops involved dogged reporting over months with sources who were taking huge risks in revealing top-secret information.