The news about China’s test-fire of hypersonic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads shocked US officials and was seen as a game changer. How big is the impact of this news?
The Chinese military launched rockets into space twice this summer, and the rocket flew to a target on the ground after orbiting the ground.
According to the news quoted by the Financial Times, the final result of the first launch was about 40 kilometers away from the target.
When some American politicians and commentators were wary of this remarkable development, Beijing quickly denied the report, saying it was only a test of a recoverable spacecraft.
Jeffrey Lewis, an expert on the proliferation of weapons in the United States, believes that China’s denial is an act of confusing concepts. In addition to the “Financial Times” report, this news has been affirmed by US officials.
He believes that China’s allegations of testing part of the Orbital Bombing System (FOB) are “technically reasonable and in line with Beijing’s strategy.”
The main difference between intercontinental ballistic missiles and partial orbital bombing systems
Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), as a long-range missile, will leave the atmosphere during its flight and then re-enter, following a certain parabolic trajectory to fly towards the target. After the fuel is burned, it can only maintain the predetermined course and cannot be changed.
The Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOB) will allow the missile to partially enter the space orbit, return to the atmosphere from an unpredictable direction, and fly to the target, thus making the traditional defense system lack of response time.
Aaron Stein, director of the research department of the Philadelphia Foreign Policy Institute, believes that the Financial Times report and the Chinese official statement may be correct.
“The recoverable spacecraft is also a hypersonic glider, but it has landed. Some orbital bombing systems and recoverable spacecraft can do roughly the same things. I think the difference between the two is very small.”
In fact, in the past few months, many senior US officials have also made similar hints.
Part of the orbital bombing system is actually not new.
This idea was sought after by the Soviet Union during the Cold War and now seems to be taken over by China. The core concept of the system is to allow a weapon to travel only partially in orbit, and eventually fly to the target from an unpredictable direction.
What China is currently doing seems to be to combine this system with a hypersonic glider, and then fly along the edge of outer space, avoiding radar surveillance and defense systems.
Why is China developing this new system?
Jeffrey Lewis believes that “Beijing is worried that the deployment of modern nuclear weapons and missile defense systems by the United States will eliminate China’s nuclear deterrence.”
“If the United States takes the lead in launching an attack on Beijing-of course we have publicly expressed reservations about this-the US missile defense system in Alaska may be able to deal with a small number of Chinese nuclear weapons.”
Stein said that the major nuclear nations are all developing hypersonic systems, but they have different perspectives. These different perspectives can make the country on the other side nervous and trigger an arms race.
He believes that Beijing and Moscow regard hypersonic weapons as a supplement to the failure of intercontinental missiles. But the United States plans to use this to strike important targets, such as nuclear weapons manipulation systems. The United States may use it to carry conventional non-nuclear warheads.
Some people who advocate the rapid modernization of nuclear weapons in the United States believe that China’s recent experiment is equivalent to the “Sputnik Moment” (the first satellite successfully launched by the Soviet Union) and deserves vigilance and attention.
However, some experts believe that similar experiments in China will not pose new threats. James Acton, a nuclear policy expert at the Carnegie Institute for International Peace, said that since at least the 1980s, the United States has been vulnerable to a possible nuclear strike from China.
But he also pointed out that China, Russia, and North Korea’s intensive development of these projects aimed at defeating US anti-missile weapons will only prompt the United States to reconsider whether the previously signed agreement to restrict anti-missile weapons is still in the US interest.
Lewis emphasized that at present, the key to the United States is to make correct conclusions.
“What I am worried about is that, just like the 9/11 incident, due to surprise and embarrassment, coupled with fear and powerlessness, we made a series of disastrous diplomatic decisions, which made us even more insecure.”
“We withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. In fact, the treaty is more binding on China.”
Potential US adversaries are now seeking to upgrade and modernize their nuclear arsenals.
Although compared to the United States, China’s arsenal is still relatively small. However, the United States has worries about its own anti-missile system and conventional long-range precision strike system, which has given birth to the call to expand its nuclear arsenal.
North Korea analyst Ankit Panda noted that at the same time, North Korea is also actively seeking to update its nuclear strike capabilities in order to increase its diplomatic weight in the future.
He said, “Over the years, they have demanded to be treated equally by the United States, and they have regarded more advanced nuclear weapons and missiles as a way to win respect.”
All these make the Biden administration feel more and more headaches in the field of nuclear weapons.
Most of the arms control agreements inherited from the Cold War are in a state of collapse. At the same time, relations between the United States and Moscow and Beijing are becoming increasingly tense, which is not helpful to the current situation.
Anjit Panda believes that the only meaningful thing for the United States to curb the arms race should be to discuss restrictions on the strategic missile defense system, as it did during the Cold War.
“Put the anti-missile system on the table,” he said, “to allow Washington to seek meaningful concessions from Russia and China, and at the same time discourage them from developing costly and dangerous nuclear weapons.”
Author: Jonathan Marcus, Professor, School of Strategy and Security, University of Exeter, UK