China’s hypersonic missile test: First shot in a space-based arms race?


A recent Financial Times report that China launched a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile, at least once and perhaps twice this summer, has unleashed a flurry of comments about Beijing’s capabilities and intentions. The FT reported that a Long March rocket carried the missile, which then circulated the earth at low orbit before it just missed its target. 

Washington reacted with a degree of alarm reminiscent of the American response to the 1957 Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite. Robert Wood, the Biden administration’s permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament, immediately underscored America’s concern, noting that “we just don’t know how we can defend against that type of [hypersonic] technology.” 

Because hypersonic missiles fly on a lower trajectory than ballistic missiles and are also maneuverable, they are far more difficult to track and defend against. Moreover, the fact that the missile was orbital indicates that, unlike a ballistic missile, it has unlimited range. All told, ballistic missile defenses are unlikely to intercept them. As Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall, himself an expert in the field, has noted, “If you use that kind of approach, you don’t have to use a traditional [intercontinental ballistic missile] trajectory. … It’s a way to avoid defenses and missile warning systems.”

Some analysts argue that these missiles will not alter the strategic balance with China, because, whereas missile defenses are meant to defeat small attacks from the likes of North Korea or possibly Iran, they were not intended to deter Russia and China, the major strategic nuclear powers. That argument presupposes reliance on the hoary theory of mutual assured destruction (MAD), to which the Soviet Union and Russia, its successor, may have adhered, but which China has neither accepted nor disavowed. 

China consistently has refused to participate in arms control, much less arms reduction negotiations, even as it has commenced a major land-based strategic nuclear buildup that could result in a force roughly half that of the United States by 2040. 

Moreover, frequent Chinese statements during the 1990s to visiting Americans, myself included, asking whether the United States would seriously be prepared to “trade Taipei for Los Angeles,” would indicate that China long has had a very different sense of how it might employ strategic nuclear weapons. 

Despite the assertions of those who posit that missile defenses are intended to defeat attacks from smaller powers, the impetus for the American missile defense program was not the threat of an attack from the likes of North Korea, but rather, from the Soviet Union. It reflected the Reagan administration’s skepticism regarding the efficacy of MAD. For that reason, arms controllers have opposed the program ever since its launch in 1983. Therefore, while arms controllers would extend their views of deterrence to China, skeptics are deeply concerned about the efficacy of defenses against a Chinese hypersonic missile attack on the American homeland.

One puzzling aspect of the Chinese launch is Beijing’s refusal to acknowledge that it was indeed a missile test. Zhao Lijian, spokesman for the foreign ministry, asserted that “this was a routine test of a space vehicle to verify technology of spacecraft’s reusability.” He pointed out that other countries had conducted similar tests in the past. 

Surely, if China wished to convey its ability to deter the United States from intervening to defend an attack on Taiwan, in a way that it could not during the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, it should have acknowledged the true nature of the test. Perhaps it refuses to do so for the same reasons it will not acknowledge its having nearly 230 ballistic missile silos under construction; it prefers strategic ambiguity. 

Moreover, China is a signatory to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which 110 other nations also have signed and which bans nuclear weapons in space. Beijing does not want to be accused of starting a new space race; yet, in fact, it is doing just that.

The Biden administration rightly is sounding the alarm about both China’s intentions and its growing capabilities. The administration should do all it can to bring China to the strategic nuclear arms negotiating table. And it should urgently organize an international effort to pressure Beijing to cease and desist in its efforts to overthrow a regime for the peaceful use of space that has functioned so effectively for more than a half century. 

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags arms race China hypersonic missiles Mutual assured destruction Nuclear buildup Space race

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