The return of 'FOBS': China moves the space arms race into the nuclear sphere

China recently demonstrated a new orbital hypersonic glide vehicle weapons system, to the surprise and alarm of senior leaders in Washington and allied capitals around the world. Their concern is well placed. This specific weapon is designed to be launched into space on a rocket and then race to targets at near-orbital velocity. The hypersonic payload is designed to reenter the atmosphere at high rates of speed, more than five times the speed of sound, and then maneuver to targets in ways difficult to intercept with current missile defense technologies. 

Defenses and tracking sensors against that sort of threat do not presently exist. That’s precisely why it is time for the U.S. Space Force to organize, train and equip to address threats in a warfighting fashion. That means defeating these sorts of capabilities. 

The deployment method used by the Chinese for their hypersonic glide vehicle is not new. From the 1960s to 1980s, the Soviet Union tested and deployed such a weapon. This system, called a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS), was designed to launch thermonuclear warheads on a south-to-north trajectory to take out northern-facing North American Aerospace Defense Command’s (NORAD) ballistic missile early-warning radars. Following the destruction of those radar sites, a Soviet bomber and missile strike force could launch undetected over the North Pole and take out the Strategic Air Command’s missile and bomber bases in a decapitating first strike. 

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This weapon was considered by many in the Department of Defense (DOD) as an existential threat to the American homeland and the U.S. nuclear deterrent forces. American leaders demanded a response. 

One option was to publicly and diplomatically declare the Soviet Union in breach of the recently ratified 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which declared that no nation be allowed to deploy weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, in orbit around Earth or on celestial bodies such as the moon. The Soviet FOBS system was a clear violation of this treaty. However, rather than take this option, the Johnson administration decided to not invoke the treaty; it believed that attempting to hold the Soviet Union accountable so soon after ratification would jeopardize the treaty and its probable benefits going forward. As a result, then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara let this option drop and looked toward other means to address the threat. 

Seeking a means with which to defend the U.S. deterrent forces against a nuclear strike from space, the DOD sought an offensive solution by repurposing existing missiles as a nuclear anti-satellite (ASAT) mission — an effort called Program 437. Missiles tipped with nuclear warheads were stationed at Johnston Island in the Pacific to intercept the overlying FOBS, should circumstances demand action. The crews of Program 437 stood watch until 1975, when President Gerald Ford ordered the mission terminated to pursue a non-nuclear ASAT system to replace it, coupled with a newer missile warning satellite and ground-phased array radar systems. 

Today, the United States has no dedicated, active countermeasure to the Chinese FOBS. Cold War systems were retired years ago. Adversarial actions now demand that the United States consider all options for how the Space Force and other agencies and services of the DOD might address this threat. 

This is not a case of armed adventurism. It comes down to fundamental responsibilities to deter conflict and defend the American public. China made the first move, and now the U.S. must respond. Cold War lessons learned will be instructive in considering the most effective, sensible path forward. Next steps include: 

  • The Biden administration should immediately declare China in breach of the Outer Space Treaty ban on weapons of mass destruction in space, given this system flew beyond the accepted ballistic flight path into a fractional-orbital or orbital flight path. 
  • Congress must prioritize funding to rapidly build and deploy both the Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared and proliferated low-Earth orbit-based tracking layer satellite systems to gain maximum tracking coverage for missile tracking of fired FOBS from China. 
  • The Space Force must begin to take nuclear threats in and from space more seriously. To accomplish this, the chief operating officer’s staff must begin to look at current programs of record that could be leveraged using rapid acquisition authorities to repurpose and rapidly deploy to address and, in the near term, negate this threat to the homeland and deployed, terrestrial forces. This should be conducted swiftly and included in the next president’s budget request.
  • U.S. Space Command must begin to create plans and requirements to address space warfighting and deterrence options up to and including nuclear options that operate in, from and to space as a means of deterring or defeating the Chinese FOBS threat. 

China’s recent actions have escalated the space arms race into the nuclear sphere. American leaders cannot ignore this threat. It manifests a level of danger we have not had to consider since the Cold War. The U.S. must prepare its forces to operate in a nuclear combat environment in, from and to the space domain soon. If the U.S. does not, it not only will cede its ability to protect and defend critical satellite infrastructure, but also will open the American homeland to a catastrophic attack. 

Christopher Stone is senior fellow for space studies at the Spacepower Advantage Research Center of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. He previously served as the special assistant to the deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy at the Pentagon.