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Chinese Space Nukes: A Hypersonic Game Changer?

Henry Choisser

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

- General Miley, U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs 

In late July and early August, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) successfully tested a next generation munitions payload delivery system known as a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV), which can carry a nuclear warhead and features a combination of speed, flight path, and maneuverability that make it nearly impossible to detect with ground based radar, and even harder to shoot down with existing missile defense systems. So, are hypersonic missiles a game changer? The top brass within the U.S. military are certainly concerned, but they aren't worried that these HGVs will cause a fundamental change in the balance of power. Just like the Soviet launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, this serves as a wake up call to the rising technological parity between Beijing and Washington. 

HGVs revolutionize the lethality of kinetic weapons, but given the dual use capabilities of the Chinese DF-21 and DF-26 medium and long range ballistic missiles, the threat of nuclear strikes evading existing missile defense systems was already a real possibility. The realization of hypersonics simply removes the perceived safety blanket provided by National Missile Defense systems (henceforth referred to as NMD’s). Even one of the world’s most advanced and actively tested NMDs - the Arrow Defense System colloquially known as the “Iron Dome” - can be partially overcome by decades old soviet rockets if used in large enough numbers. Likewise, during the Bush and Clinton presidencies, the American NMD system reoriented its purpose to a more limited goal of protection against a rogue nuclear state and non-peer militaries attempting nuclear blackmail or a strike on the U.S. homeland. In the event of a conflict against Russia or China, the only nations that have successfully tested hypersonic missiles, our NMD systems are already incapable of thwarting a determined adversary intent on a nuclear strike. 

With that being said, an important but often overlooked role of an effective NMD is to reduce the likelihood of an overreaction by the “targeted” nation. In the hypothetical event of a war with near peer adversaries (or the hair trigger era of the Cold War), if the U.S. feared that an incoming missile strike on an American City was from a nuclear armed missile, but was confident in its ability to prevent the attack with a salvo of kinetic kill vehicles (KKVs), then Washington would be far less inclined to launch a retaliatory strike. However in the event of a conflict, if the U.S. has no way to prevent an HGV from delivering its payload, Washington would be more likely to launch a retaliatory strike - especially if it cannot determine the nature of the payload. thereby carrying grave implications for the possibility of unintended and disastrous escalations between warring states. Essentially, having no effective defense could make the U.S. more trigger happy during a conflict with regards to ordering a retaliatory nuclear strike. 

As a policy brief by the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network notes: Any discussion at present must recognize that reliable details of what China actually tested remain scant in the public domain. However, we can make some guesses. Here’s a quick rundown of what we do know happened on July 27th, and August 13th: a spacecraft was launched into a very low orbit, engaged reverse thrust to reenter the atmosphere, and screamed down at over 1.7 miles per second before crashing into the pacific ocean 24 miles from its intended target. This stands in marked contrast to the malfunctions during recent testing of both Navy and Air Force hypersonic systems, which both failed to Launch in mid October. 

Publicly, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian claimed that “this test was a routine spacecraft experiment to verify the reusable technology of spacecraft” and “what separated from the spacecraft before returning was the supporting equipment of the spacecraft, which was burned and disintegrated in the process of falling into the atmosphere”. However there is evidence to the contrary.  

Namely, the public test of a reusable space plane by China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, or CASC, occurred on July 16th, yet there was no public statement regarding either of the other launches until publicized by the investigative report by the Financial times over two months later. 

Likewise, the launch and reentry carried all the hallmarks of a “fractional orbital bombardment system” (FOBS), which were conceived of by the Soviets as far back as the 1960s to evade northward facing U.S. ground radar systems without contravening the principles of the Outer Space Treaty, which expressly bans the placement of WMDs in orbit around the earth. The idea being to dodge detection by launching a nuclear attack over the south pole, and deorbiting them over the target locations before they complete a full “orbit” of the Earth, thus achieving a decisive surprise strike on the U.S. without violating international law. 

As you may have realized yourself, a number of things have changed since the 60’s. And you may not have heard much about FOBS because the U.S.S.R. abandoned the concept by the 80s in the face of the American nuclear triad and the lack of an effective U.S. anti-missile system to circumvent at such heavy costs. Similar limitations apply to the risk posed by Chinese HGVs - namely, both nations still possess the capacity to annihilate each other's cities but cannot prevent an unacceptable retaliatory strike. Additionally, the U.S. no longer relies on ground based systems to detect missile launches. The U.S. Space Command operates the world's most advanced Space Domain Awareness (SDA) system through a comprehensive array of detection satellites, air radar systems, and international commercial partnerships that augment the old school ground based platforms. 

Much of the strategic calculus remains the same. For context, the DARPA Glide Breaker interceptor program was funded a mere $27 million over the last 3 fiscal years, with expectations of initial operability in the late 2020’s. Whereas congress appropriated $543.3 million for SDA programs in the 2022 fiscal year alone - amounting to over a billion dollars in the same duration as Glide Breaker, and expects implementation by 2024. These allocations clearly illustrate the priorities within the Department of Defense - resilience of detection over robust interception. The U.S. considers the rest of its arsenal to be a far greater deterrent than its ability to stop an attack. Which ultimately is the very same reason that the advent of HGVs is in no way a strategic game changer.

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