Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Milley warns of 'Sputnik moment' for China

Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Milley warns of 'Sputnik moment' for China
© Getty Images

It's Wednesday, welcome to Overnight Defense & National Security, your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark MilleyMark MilleyTrump calls Milley a 'f---ing idiot' over Afghanistan withdrawal The bully who pulls the levers of Trump's mind never learns Overnight Defense & National Security — US tries to deter Russian invasion of Ukraine MORE made headlines on Wednesday when he warned that China’s testing of a hypersonic weapons system is “very close” to a “Sputnik moment.”

Plus, Iran announced that it would resume negotiations to re-enter the 2015 nuclear deal.

I’m Jordan Williams, and will soon be joining Ellen Mitchell on the defense beat. Write to Ellen or me with tips: emitchell@thehill.com and jwilliams@thehill.com.

Let’s get to it.


Milley calls China weapons test 'very significant'

Mark Milley testifies before the Senate

Gen. Mark Milley warned on Wednesday of a “very significant” test of a hypersonic weapons system, which he said was concerning.

Milley didn’t directly compare the event to a “Sputnik moment,” but he said it was close.

“What we saw was a very significant event of a test of a hypersonic weapon system. And it is very concerning,” Milley told Bloomberg Television’s “The David Rubenstein Show: Peer-to-Peer Conversations.”

“I don’t know if it’s quite a Sputnik moment, but I think it’s very close to that," Milley added. "It has all of our attention.”

Wait, let’s back up: The Financial Times first reported last week that China conducted two hypersonic weapons tests over the summer.

The Chinese military launched a rocket that used a “fractional orbital bombardment” system to propel a nuclear-capable “hypersonic glide vehicle” around the Earth on July 27. A second test occurred on Aug. 13.

The news outlet reported that the Pentagon had been “shocked” by the tests because it showed that China demonstrated a new weapons capability.

What the administration says: White House press secretary Jen PsakiJen PsakiUS expected to announce diplomatic boycott of Beijing Olympics soon: report Joe Biden: The Brian Williams presidency Biden plan for free at-home tests faces hurdles MORE told reporters that Milley was discussing the concern that “we all have” about China’s efforts to modernize its military.

“They continue to pursue capabilities that continue to produce tensions in the region, and we continue to have concerns about that. And, I think that was reflected in his comments,” Psaki said.

Pentagon press secretary John KirbyJohn KirbyOklahoma sues to exempt National Guard from Pentagon vaccine mandate Overnight Defense & National Security — US, Iran return to negotiating table Four-star general to lead Pentagon investigation into Syria airstrike that killed dozens MORE told reporters that he doesn't think it does “any good for us to characterize this and put a label on it,” referring to the test.  

“There's a suite of issues with respect to China from the security perspective,” Kirby told reporters on Wednesday. “And that's what our job here is at the department that that deeply concern us about the trajectory of where things are going in the Indo-Pacific”


Boeing is helping the U.S. and its allies get ready for the future fight with digitally advanced, flexible real-time mission support to win at the speed of now. Learn more.


The “Sputnik moment” refers to the Soviet Union launching the world’s first artificial satellite in 1957. This left the U.S. and the rest of the world in shock because it wasn’t clear that the Soviets had been that far ahead.

Matthew Kroenig, deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, told The Hill that China’s weapons test is “important, but it’s not close to a Sputnik moment.”

“We kind of knew already that China was working on hypersonic missiles, probably that they were ahead in some ways,” Kroenig said. “If the United States wanted to go ahead and test a system like this, we almost certainly could." 

Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation specializing in China’s military and foreign policy, says the U.S. should be concerned that the test went into orbit, because it means every Chinese satellite could theoretically be a “very low warning, first-strike weapon.”

“We should be concerned because it is further evidence that the Chinese are pushing a very broad military modernization effort that includes hypersonics, it includes other highly sophisticated high-tech weapons,” Cheng said.

Samuel Hickey, a research analyst for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, says the test shows that the U.S. and China need to communicate with each other on strategic defense.

“All it really does is say that the United States and China really need to sit down and have a conversation about their nuclear weapons, about what their plans are, what their intentions are, and how they view each other's strategic deterrence,” Hickey said.

Iran to return to nuclear talks next month

Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Ali Bagheri, announced on Wednesday that his country will return to negotiations to restart the 2015 nuclear deal by the end of next month.

Bagheri made the announcement on Twitter following a meeting with Enrique Mora, the European official serving as the chief coordinators for talks.

“Had with @enriquemora_ on the essential elements for successful negotiations. We agree to start negotiations before the end of November. Exact date would be announced in the course of the next week,” Bagheri said on Twitter.

Where things stand: Talks in Vienna aimed at reviving the deal — formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — were halted in June following the election of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who is a hard-line critic of the West.

Former President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden heading to Kansas City to promote infrastructure package Trump calls Milley a 'f---ing idiot' over Afghanistan withdrawal First rally for far-right French candidate Zemmour prompts protests, violence MORE withdrew the U.S. from the JCPOA in 2018, arguing that it would not prevent Iran form obtaining nuclear weapons out of nuclear weapons.

Iran stopped complying in 2019 but has said it would not return to the deal until the White House lifts sanctions that were put in place under the Trump administration. Meanwhile, the U.S. has insisted Tehran return to compliance before sanctions relief.

Iran’s compliance has been concerning: The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has warned of ongoing troubles monitoring Iran’s nuclear program. 

Last week, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi said the monitoring program was “no longer intact” after it was denied access to cameras in a facility used to make centrifuge parts.” 

Read more here.


ISIS-K could try to attack in six months: official 

Colin Kahl, undersecretary of defense policy, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that the group known as Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K) could be able to attack the United States in six months.

What he’s saying: Kahl said that both al Qaeda and ISIS-K intend to conduct “external operations, including against the United States,” but neither currently have the capability to do so.

“We could see ISIS-K generate that capability in somewhere between six and twelve months," Kahl said. “I think the current assessments by the intelligence community is that al Qaeda would take a year or two to reconstitute that capability.”

Previously: During the U.S.’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in August, ISIS-K carried out out a suicide bombing outside Kabul’s international airport that killed 13 U.S. service members and more than 170 Afghans. ISIS-K has since claimed responsibility for multiple suicide bombings over the past few weeks.

Gen. Mark Milley said late last month that al Qaeda or ISIS could reconstitute by early spring 2022.

“It's a real possibility in the not too distant future, six, 12, 18, 24, 36 months, that kind of time frame, for reconstitution of al Qaeda or ISIS,” Milley said at the time. 

Read more here.



Boeing is helping the U.S. and its allies get ready for the future fight with digitally advanced, flexible real-time mission support to win at the speed of now. Learn more.


That’s it for today. Check out The Hill’s defense and national security pages for the latest coverage. We'll see you Thursday.