China has confirmed the successful test flight of a “hypersonic missile delivery vehicle,” but stresses that the system is not designed specifically to penetrate US missile defences.

The confirmation of the test was published in state news organ China Daily, and on the ministry of defence’s web site.

"It is normal for China to conduct scientific experiments within its borders according to its plans. The tests were not aimed at any nation nor any specific target,” the paper quotes the ministry as saying.

The story follows news reports in the US quoting Pentagon officials that said China had tested a hypersonic delivery vehicle designed to thwart missile defence systems.

The story goes on to quote Chinese defence experts as saying that US reports about the event contribute to distrust between the two countries.

Details about the test are sketchy, but it appears to have occurred the week of 6 January. It is not clear if this was the first test of the vehicle.

The vehicle is apparently designed to be launched aboard a conventional ICBM. It then, reportedly, would detach in space and manoeuvre to its target at many times the speed of sound.

The programme appears to resemble the US Department of Defense’s conventional prompt global strike (CPGS) effort, which calls for a capability to hit any target in the world in less than one hour.

In August 2011, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s (DARPA) hypersonic technology vehicle (HTV-2) failed during a test flight related to the CPGS programme.

For China, a hypersonic vehicle could have applications aboard the country’s DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM). A major application of the DF-21D would be engaging US warships in the event of conflict, but analysts question Beijing’s ability to provide effective targeting information to such a weapon. An autonomous vehicle, however, would theoretically be capable of guiding itself during the crucial last stage of the weapon’s flight.

The yet-to-be-tested DF-21D has gained notoriety as an “aircraft carrier killer,” but Chinese military thinkers appear to see it engaging a range of warship types, including cruisers and destroyers. What is more, the ASBM would not necessarily need to make a direct hit to be effective, because an air burst of bomblets above an enemy warship could degrade the target’s capabilities, perhaps resulting in a mission kill.

The mere threat of such a weapon would prove sufficient to force American naval assets to keep a good distance from mainland China in the event of a war.