Don’t turn the Chinese missile test into a “Sputnik moment”
The recent Financial Times report that China has tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic weapon has experts, members of Congress and even Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley concerned for “a moment. Sputnik”. Given the failure of the US hypersonic missile test last week, it seems to many that a hypersonic missile ditch has opened up, affecting US security.
But even if China’s test means it has devised a new way to deliver a nuclear warhead – a big one – there’s no cause for alarm. A new nuclear delivery system will not significantly alter the balance of military power with the United States, nor will it allow a Chinese attack on American partners and allies in East Asia. China already had an assured capability to carry out a nuclear strike against the United States. This test just makes it harder to argue otherwise.
A “Sputnik moment” is actually something that American leaders should strive to avoid, not because it would pose a new threat to national security, but because it involves excessive panic. As was the case in 1957, when the Soviet Union’s launch of the first satellite into space sparked fears of a “missile gap” that was later proven to be unfounded, China’s recent test does not indicate that the United States is lagging behind in a home range. to American security. The greatest danger is overreacting with accelerating competition in hypersonic technology, space weapons, or other exotic new ways of spending money.
What exactly China would have tested in August remains a mystery. Beijing claims it was a “spacecraft routine test” similar to the United States’ X-37B, which reaches hypersonic speed and could be turned into a weapon. Chinese officials suggest that they are simply following US capability, and not leading the charge on new space weapons.
Anonymous sources told the Financial Times, however, that China tested a “nuclear-capable hypersonic missile that circled the globe before heading for its target.” Recent, albeit more vague, remarks by Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall lend credence to this point of view.
This interpretation suggests that the Chinese tested an advanced version of a Soviet-deployed Cold War-era weapon known as the “Fractional Orbital Bombing System,” which uses a rocket to deliver a nuclear weapon. in low earth orbit before it returns through the atmosphere to hit a target. It is a capability that would allow China to attack the United States via the South Pole, bypassing early warning radars and American missile defense systems, which are primarily designed to guard against launches from of the northern hemisphere. A lack of warning would leave even less time than usual to launch retaliatory strikes and move the leaders to bunkers.
Whatever the reality of their recent test, the Chinese have surprised many analysts with their technical prowess and likely improved their ability to deter a nuclear attack. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the United States is falling behind in the race for new hypersonic or space weapons. Even if it does, it doesn’t matter much. Sputnik provides a useful reminder why.
While China has achieved what analysts fear with this test, it has only strengthened its ability to retaliate against the United States.
In 1957, the United States and the Soviet Union were developing ballistic missiles to carry nuclear weapons, increasing arsenals that were then based on bombers. When the Soviets successfully launched the Sputnik satellite, demonstrating their ability to handle the mechanics of placing an intercontinental ballistic missile into space, but not the crucial component of the reentry of arms, some US politicians insisted on the fact that a missile hole had opened, leaving the United States vulnerable to a Soviet nuclear strike and therefore to coercion.
Then-President Dwight Eisenhower knew, in part from reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union, that it was in fact the United States that had the advantage of deploying missiles and developing nuclear weapons. However, he was unable to reveal the details publicly, so his attempts to reassure the public were unsuccessful, especially after the dismal failure of the first US satellite launch attempt later in the year. Public sentiment prompted Eisenhower to begin an increase in military spending that accelerated once John F. Kennedy became president, even as Kennedy realized that the missile ditch he had promoted was fictional.
Another aspect of the Sputnik moment is worth keeping in mind. Neither side was inclined to a surprise attack, although US officials have given it some thought. The balance of power stabilized around Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD, where the prospect of annihilation induced mutual prudence in relationships.
While US military planners have long worked to evade MAD logic and use nuclear threats as a tool of coercion, they have never really succeeded in gaining the capacity to destroy Moscow’s entire retaliatory capacity. Recent gains in the accuracy of US weapon systems have raised questions about whether MAD technically holds up, especially with China. The more precise the weapons, the less explosive power they need to destroy targets, even hardened bunkers. Therefore, US conventional missiles, potentially including the hypersonic type, could theoretically be used to destroy China’s arsenal of around 100 intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting US territory, thus suppressing Beijing’s second strike capability.
It follows that while China has achieved what analysts fear with this test, it has only strengthened its ability to retaliate against the United States. Even with a battery of this new weapon, however, China would still have no chance of a first strike that eliminates the risk of nuclear retaliation. It wouldn’t come close to having the capacity to destroy all of America’s nuclear-capable land bombers and missiles, let alone U.S. ballistic missiles launched from submarines, which Beijing has little ability to track.
Some analysts argue that China’s recent test, along with reports that it is building hundreds of new silos of long-range missiles, increases the likelihood of a conventional war, especially with Taiwan. According to this view, China fears that in the event of an attack on Taiwan or a military confrontation on the island, the United States could step in and use its nuclear advantage to force China to back down. But while the United States cannot be assured of eliminating China’s nuclear weapons in a disarming strike, it cannot use its own to defend Taipei, thus improving Beijing’s chances of success in a conventional war against Taiwan. .
The problem with this analysis is that China already has essentially secured deterrence with these 100 ICBMs capable of hitting the United States. Although the United States has improved the accuracy of its weapon systems, the possibility of a splendid first strike is not useful when the consequence of failure is to lose a few cities. A little uncertainty about nuclear carnage goes a long way in deterring, and the Chinese know it, so it’s unlikely that they will ever see a mad threat from the United States to withdraw all of its nuclear arsenal as credible enough that they are intimidated. Beijing therefore appears to have taken out insurance that it probably did not need. The subtle differences in the nuclear balance of terror will not affect his plans for Taiwan.
Nor would this new capacity destabilize the balance of power in Asia, where geography offers defenders advantages conducive to stability. If China invaded Japan, the Philippines or, more likely, Taiwan, it would mean an amphibious assault of ships vulnerable to coastal defenses. This makes war less likely.
Amphibious devices are ducks sitting down for weapons on the ground. Perhaps hypersonic missiles are part of a future ability to suppress such defensive fire and invade water, but space weapons are not needed for this, and it’s unclear why the Chinese would develop new types. missiles for this purpose. It would make more sense to devote resources to increasing the number and accuracy of existing missile types and to build more transport ships.
If commentators insist on alarming this test, Sputnik offers another lesson. After Eisenhower failed in his efforts to calm the public, he tried a more useful type of overreaction: channeling fear into scientific endeavors. The resulting new stream of federal research funding created new entities like the National Science Foundation. Reorganizations created NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.
Likewise, today the United States could use exaggerated fears about China’s technical superiority to increase federal spending on research and advanced technical education programs. Whether or not this is the best way to spend US tax dollars, you’d better run for space superiority or hypersonic weapons without any clear safety gains.
Benjamin H. Friedman is director of policy at Defense Priorities.