China’s Hypersonic Weapons Tests Don’t Have to Be a Sputnik Moment
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.
– Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Oct. 27, 2021
This summer, China conducted a series of tests with nuclear-capable hypersonic weapons systems that have clearly gotten the attention of officials across the U.S. government. The tests included a hypersonic glide vehicle — a delivery mechanism that can maneuver through the Earth’s atmosphere towards its target — and also incorporated a fractional orbital bombardment system. Because a fractional orbital bombardment system can deliver its payload by entering into lower orbit and then “dropping” it on the target, it could reach the U.S. homeland via the South Pole, bypassing U.S. early warning systems and missile defenses, which are primarily geared towards the interception of ballistic missiles from the north.
Although China has denied the test, many American policymakers have sounded the alarm about the dangers posed by China’s use of hypersonic missiles. Even though America’s missile defense systems are only designed to shoot down unsophisticated ballistic missiles from rogue actors like North Korea, some commentators claim that hypersonic weapons systems would be harder to detect and destroy due to their speed, maneuverability, and flight at low altitudes. Unlike hypersonics, ballistic missiles move through outer space for most of their flight along a predictable parabolic trajectory. Observers fear that China’s recent tests signal a new ability to threaten the U.S. homeland with nuclear and conventional strikes. Rep. Mike Gallagher, member of the House Armed Services Committee, concluded in a recent statement: “This test should serve as a call to action.”
But do the tests that China conducted this summer constitute a Sputnik moment, as Milley suggested? Are hypersonic weapons a “game changer”? The United States should indeed be worried about hypersonics — but perhaps not for the reasons that many policymakers seem to think. China’s tests of nuclear-capable hypersonic weapon do not change the United States’ strategic calculus. China already has a sufficiently large arsenal of long-range ballistic missiles that threatens the United States with nuclear catastrophe in case of an attack. However, Chinese investments in hypersonics are part of a new arms race, driven in large part by America’s unabating pursuit of missile defenses. As a result, the United States should embark on a conversation around the strategic implications of missile defense, take seriously the downsides of U.S. missile defenses in their current form, and rein in the ever-expanding missile defense mission.
Reasons Why China’s New System Isn’t a Problem
The pursuit of hypersonic missiles is not new. China is not the only — nor is it the first — country to pursue these kinds of missiles. At the moment, China, Russia, and the United States are all developing hypersonic missiles, albeit with mixed success. Even North Korea claims that it has tested such a system. In fact, many of these efforts date back to the Cold War period, with the United States developing a hypersonic glider and the Soviet Union a fractional orbital bombardment system in the 1960s, but both abandoning the projects later on.
Even if China is ahead of the United States in the race to hypersonics, these missiles do not provide a definitive advantage. Hypersonic missiles are said to be incredibly fast, traveling at least five times the speed of sound. Yet, they are slower than ballistic missiles, which travel 20 times the speed of sound for most of their trajectories. In fact, the average speed of hypersonics over the entirety of the flight is lower than that of ballistic missiles. This is due to the fact that hypersonics face air resistance within the relatively dense atmosphere — and they slow down even further when maneuvering during flight.
Hypersonics fly at low altitudes relative to ballistic missiles, which means that the curvature of the earth blocks them from view of radars until they are quite close (with the exception of over-the-horizon radars). Additionally, fractional orbital bombardment systems could approach the U.S. homeland from the south, rather than the north, where the United States has less radar coverage. This, however, does not mean that hypersonic missiles will be “unseen.” Despite these challenges, hypersonics are still trackable. The United States possesses space-based infrared sensors. These would observe the engines of hypersonics burning during launch and then, in the case of fractional orbital bombardment systems, deorbit. That would give the United States ample time to determine where the missiles came from and the direction in which they are heading.
While hypersonic missiles may be less susceptible to current missile defenses due to their maneuverability, intercontinental ballistic missiles are also likely to evade existing missile defense systems. Current missile defense systems are designed to intercept a small salvo of relatively unsophisticated ballistic missiles — but only those without countermeasures. Even the 2019 Missile Defense Review recognized this, stating that the United States is primarily effective against rogue states, such as North Korea. This may still be too optimistic. Missile defense systems like the ground-based midcourse defense system have, even in the most ideal circumstances (such as during a test), not worked optimally.
Reasons Why China’s New System Is Actually a Problem
While the pursuit of hypersonic missiles as such is unlikely to change the strategic calculus, China’s tests are worrisome for a different reason. Hypersonic missiles are part of a broader move among the nuclear powers to modernize their nuclear arsenals and add all sorts of new, potentially destabilizing capabilities to their military toolkits.
After decades of sticking with a minimal deterrent, China is engaging in both nuclear expansion by building new missile silos and qualitative improvements in terms of investing in more diversified platforms to deliver nuclear payloads. The latter includes hypersonics, nuclear submarines, long-range missiles with multiple warheads, and air-launched ballistic missiles. And China is not the only one. All nuclear weapon states are currently modernizing their nuclear arsenals. The United States is planning to upgrade each element of its nuclear force posture, plus investing in a nuclear-armed sea-launch cruise missile and a low-yield warhead for the system. Russia, meanwhile, proposed a whole range of exotic weapon systems along its nuclear modernization plans, including long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles, a nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed cruise missile; a nuclear-powered, nuclear-armed underwater drone; a hypersonic air-to-ground missile; and a hypersonic boost-glide missile. Even smaller nuclear powers are taking steps to develop new systems. The United Kingdom’s integrated review reversed the country’s policy of reducing its nuclear capabilities. Both India and Pakistan also appear to be expanding their nuclear arsenals. North Korea has continued to advance its nuclear weapons program.
This new arms race — one almost entirely unconstrained by arms control measures — is troublesome for at least two reasons. First, states are increasingly seeking technologies and doctrines that straddle the boundaries between nuclear and conventional capabilities. While the United States, for example, is developing conventionally-armed long-range hypersonic missiles, China and Russia have opted for nuclear-capable versions. With the surge in dual-capable technology, one can imagine a situation in which states do not know whether an incoming missile has a nuclear or conventional payload. Moreover, a country may decide to co-locate nuclear and conventionally armed missiles. All of this increases the risk for strategic confusion and miscalculation.
Second, unlike for much of the Cold War, the United States and China have few formal and informal channels of communication on nuclear and military matters. Not only does this render it difficult to gauge the other’s capabilities and intentions, it could also create tricky situations in times of crisis. As tensions between the United States and China continue to grow — and tests like the hypersonic launches will only add to that process — it will be increasingly important to develop crisis management approaches and avenues for dialogue about strategic stability.
U.S. Missile Defense Is Driving China’s Strategic Weapons Development
China’s nuclear modernization efforts are driven in large part by U.S. investments in missile defense. According to analyst Tong Zhao, “Beijing worries that, in a conflict, the United States might attack China’s nuclear forces and then use its defenses to block China’s few surviving weapons.”
For decades, scholars and analysts predicted that adversaries would develop novel capabilities, particularly those aimed at evading defenses, in response to U.S. efforts to construct missile defenses. Still, U.S. investments in missile defense persisted — and were significantly accelerated under President George W. Bush, who withdrew the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia. Though proponents of missile defense have argued that the U.S. missile defense architecture is limited to dealing with the threat from North Korea and Iran — and would thus not threaten the Chinese and Russian nuclear deterrent, both of whom have a larger and more sophisticated arsenal of nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles — this is not necessarily how these countries have perceived it.
Across these investments, the ever-expanding nature of the U.S. missile defense program has proven particularly problematic. Though the 2019 Missile Defense Review stated that “the United States relies on nuclear deterrence to address the large and more sophisticated Russian and Chinese intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities,” U.S. officials have repeatedly expressed their desire to expand the U.S. missile defense mission to include tackling threats from China and Russia. In fact, the 2019 Missile Defense Review hinted at such long-term ambitions — as did President Donald Trump’s remarks.
Beyond these declarations, U.S. missile defense capabilities have continued to sprawl. The United States has kept pursuing novel capabilities, with the latest iteration revolving around a return to space-based interceptors. The United States has also continuously redesigned existing technology to fit into new missions, particularly those aimed at addressing more complex threats. This was demonstrated by the recent test of the Aegis SM-3 Block IIA missile against an intercontinental ballistic missile-type target. Lastly, the United States has proliferated its missile defense systems around the globe, creating regional architectures in Europe, the Asia-Pacific, and, to some extent, in the Middle East. In fact, missile defense has even been elevated into one of the core missions within NATO.
These developments have not gone unnoticed. Russian and Chinese decision-makers have feared that U.S. missile defenses, even if they do not yet challenge the effectiveness of their nuclear arsenals, are “unstoppable.” Leaders in Russia and China have said as much. When announcing the aforementioned exotic systems in March 2018, President Vladimir Putin, for instance, said that they were a “response to the unilateral withdrawal of the United States of America from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the practical deployment of their missile defense systems both in the US and beyond their national borders.” These fears have motivated new investments in more advanced delivery capabilities, particularly those that could evade U.S. missile defense as evidenced by the hypersonic features in China’s latest tests. That is, the continued expansion of U.S. missile defense capabilities — although they have likely provided little tangible strategic value to the United States to date — nonetheless undermined Russian and Chinese confidence in their nuclear deterrents. In this way, U.S. missile defense policy has been an important driver in the nuclear weapons developments that we see today.
What the United States Should Do Next
Chinese — and Russian — investments in new nuclear technologies offer U.S. policymakers an opportunity to reconsider current approaches to deterrence and missile defense. Rather than advancing the status quo, the United States should critically examine its missile defense mission, as well as reflect upon possible limitations to impose upon its programs.
Over the last 20 years, the strategic implications of missile defense, particularly as it relates to the relationship with China and Russia, have been overlooked or downplayed in the U.S. national security debate. Especially in the U.S. Congress, the missile defense debate has been predominantly inwards-looking — often involving emotional appeals around the protection of citizens. Opposition, though limited, has been primarily framed in terms of financial cost and technological feasibility. In fact, ever since the Bush administration ramped up investments in missile defense, members of Congress have generally accepted the idea that missile defenses are beneficial for nuclear deterrence. Indeed, strategic arguments have been largely absent from the debate. Along the same lines, past administrations have refused to take the complaints from China and Russia seriously. For example, driven by the belief that missile defense investments were key to gain support from Republicans in Congress, the Obama administration pushed hard to ensure that the New START agreement did not constrain U.S. missile defense programs, even though the Russians wanted to discuss the matter further.
In order to break with this track record, policymakers should reopen the debate around U.S. missile defense, especially as it relates to the consequences of missile defense for strategic stability. Congress could, for instance, hold hearings that address not just the technical and financial feasibility of missile defense, but also its strategic effects. Reinvigorating such discussions would open up the possibility to critically examine the U.S. missile defense mission. This could then be taken up by President Joe Biden — who gave a strong rebuttal against the development of homeland missile defenses in the early 2000s. More specifically, the Biden administration should take the following steps: build sufficient linkages between the nuclear posture review and the missile defense review, reflect upon the ways in which missile defenses are counterproductive, and come up with ways to limit the ever-expanding missile defense mission. The latter could, for example, be realized through clear declaratory policy regarding the purpose of missile defenses, as well as restrictions on the development of missile defense capabilities. On the international stage, the United States should bring missile defense to the negotiating table. Indeed, missile defense is likely to be an integral part of any talks around strategic stability and arms control going forward. In doing so, the United States should put forward realistic proposals, ranging from joint technical studies and transparency measures to actual limits on missile defense capabilities. While the politics around missile defense in Washington can be brutal, the administration ought to make the case for a more restrained missile defense posture to Congress and the American people.
China’s recent tests with hypersonic weapons systems — and the added layer of fractional orbital bombardment systems — are not a Sputnik moment. The technology is far less dangerous than it is often portrayed. However, these hypersonic tests fit in a broader pattern of the nuclear powers advancing their nuclear arsenals in ways that make the world less safe. Rather than trying to outbid China in a costly arms race, U.S. policymakers should start a conversation around the strategic implications of missile defense and rein in the ever-expanding U.S. missile defense mission.
Sanne Cornelia J. Verschuren is a Stanton Nuclear Security Postdoctoral Fellow with the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. Her research interests include the development of military technology, shifts in military strategy and tactics, and the role of ideas and norms therein. She received her Ph.D. in political science from Brown University in August 2021.