The news that China has tested a new nuclear-capable hypersonic missile has been described by some as a turning point that stunned US officials. So how big is this deal, asks Jonathan Marcus of the Strategy and Security Institute, University of Exeter.
Twice in the summer, the Chinese military launched a rocket into space that circled the world before accelerating towards its target.
On the first occasion, it missed its target by about 24 miles (40 km), according to intelligence briefs speaking to the Financial Times, which broke the story.
While some US politicians and commentators were alarmed by China’s apparent progress, Beijing was quick to deny the report, insisting that it was actually a test for a reusable spacecraft.
China’s denial is “an act of obfuscation,” says Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Non-Proliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, because the story has been confirmed by US officials who have talked to other media.
And he finds the claim that China has tested an orbital bombing system [FOB] both “technically plausible and strategically reasonable for Beijing”.
What are ICBMs and FOBS?
- An ICBM is a long-range missile that leaves Earth’s atmosphere before re-entering, pursuing a parabolic trajectory towards its target.
- A fractional orbital bombing system sends missiles through a partial orbit around the earth to hit targets from an unexpected direction
Both the FT story and the Chinese denial may be right, says Aaron Stein, director of research at the Foreign Policy Institute in Philadelphia.
“A reusable space plane is a hypersonic glider. It just lands. A FOB system delivered via some kind of glider would do more or less the same thing as a reusable space plane, so I think the actual differences between the two stories are marginal.”
Indeed, a number of senior US officials have hinted at this kind of Chinese development in recent months.
FOB systems are by no means new.
The idea was pursued by the Soviet Union during the Cold War and now appears to be picked up by China. The idea is for a weapon to enter a partial orbit around the earth to hit targets from an unexpected direction.
What China appears to have done is combine FOBS technology with a hypersonic glider – they glide along the outer edge of the atmosphere avoiding radar and missile defenses – into a new system. But why?
“Beijing fears that the United States will use a combination of modernized nuclear forces and missile defenses to eliminate their nuclear deterrent,” Lewis says.
“If the US were to strike Beijing first, which we publicly reserve to do, the missile defense system in Alaska may be able to handle the small number of Chinese nuclear weapons that survive.”
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All major nuclear players are developing hypersonic systems, but they see them differently, says Aaron Stein. And these different points of view, he argues, fuel the paranoia of other parties, fueling the arms race.
Both Beijing and Moscow see hypersonic as a means of ensuring the defeat of missile defenses, he believes. But on the contrary, the US plans to use them to hit so-called hard targets such as things that support nuclear command and control, using conventional or non-nuclear warheads.
Some proponents of US rapid nuclear modernization have seen the recent Chinese tests as “a Sputnik moment” a reference to the surprise and alarm recorded in the US by the Soviet Union’s first orbital satellite in the late 1950s.
But some experts would disagree and don’t believe this China test creates a new threat. James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says the United States has been vulnerable to China’s nuclear attack since at least the 1980s.
But he thinks Chinese, Russian and North Korean intensive programs to defeat US missile defenses should prompt the US to reconsider whether treaties imposing limits on such defenses are, after all, in the US interest.
Mr. Lewis points out that the important thing now is for the United States to draw the right conclusions.
“I’m afraid this is much more like 9/11, where in the aftermath of surprise and stunned by a mix of fear and vulnerability, we embarked on a series of disastrous foreign policy decisions that have made us much less safe.
“In fact, one of the things we did was withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty or ABM, which is much more responsible for China’s development of this system than anything else.”
America’s potential adversaries are all trying to modernize and upgrade their nuclear weapons.
The Chinese arsenal, however, is still dwarfed by that of the United States. But concerns about US missile defenses and conventional long-range precision attack systems are all pushing to develop a larger and more diverse nuclear arsenal.
North Korea is also seeking to modernize and refine its nuclear capability, not least, as Carnegie Endowment’s Ankit Panda notes, to ensure greater influence in future diplomacy.
“For some years now,” he says, “they have been asking to be treated by the United States as an equal and they see the development of increasingly advanced nuclear and missile capabilities as a way to earn that respect.”
It all contributes to a growing nuclear headache for the Biden administration.
The collapse of much of the existing fabric of arms control agreements inherited from the Cold War does not help. Not even the growing tensions with Moscow and Beijing.
According to Ankit Panda, the most significant thing the US could do to stem and slow the ongoing arms race is to discuss the limits of strategic missile defenses, as it did during the Cold War.
“Putting missile defense on the table”, he says, “would allow Washington to gain significant concessions from Russia and China. It would also deter everyone from pursuing costly, convoluted and dangerous means of delivering nuclear weapons.”
Jonathan Marcus is Honorary Professor at the Strategy and Security Institute, University of Exeter, UK
- United States
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