War Stories

What Should Really Alarm Us About China’s New “Hypersonic” Missile Test

It’s not the test itself.

Military vehicles carrying large missiles, with soldiers standing at attention nearby
China displays its DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missiles during a parade in Beijing in 2019. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

A new type of Chinese missile is triggering panic among some U.S. defense officials, but the alarms are overblown.

In a test this past August, according to an article in last weekend’s Financial Times, this missile flew at “hypersonic” speeds in a low orbit all the way around the globe. Toward the end of the flight, it released a vehicle (capable of containing a nuclear warhead), which then glided toward its target. Such a missile could approach the United States not just from the north—as normal ballistic missiles would—but from the east, west, or south. It would thus evade our warning radars and, as one official put it, “negate” our missile-defense systems.

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Chinese officials have denied the story, saying they were just testing a reusable civilian rocket. Wednesday’s New York Times raises questions about whether the test happened, at least in quite the way, or with the significance, that the FT breathlessly suggests. But let’s say the story is true. Let’s say that this new missile could render the U.S. missile-defense system useless.

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Well, our missile-defense system isn’t terribly useful at the moment, with or without China’s exotic efforts. According to the U.S. Missile Defense Agency’s latest figures (released just this past August), the one system designed to shoot down long-range missiles aimed at the United States—the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system—has successfully shot down a mock warhead in 12 of its 19 tests. Moreover, the system has not been tested at all since March 2019. And three of its last six tests were failures. That’s not exactly a formidable defense system to begin with, especially since the tests were planned well ahead of time, so that the technical crews knew exactly when, and from where, the mock warheads would appear in the sky.

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It’s also worth noting (and this is no state secret), the GBMD system has never been tested against more than one mock warhead at a time. If the Chinese wanted to “negate” our missile defenses, a more efficient way of doing this would be simply to fire two warheads (possibly from the same missile) at each of the most high-value targets. If the first warhead got shot down (not a sure thing), the second would very likely get through.

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The Chinese might eventually come to this conclusion themselves. The FT quoted an intelligence official as saying that China’s very complicated missile missed its target by about 24 miles. The most modern intercontinental ballistic missiles—those that follow a parabolic path from launch site to target—miss their targets by just one-tenth of one mile.

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Let’s clear up one more source of confusion—this talk of “hypersonic” missiles. The term means a missile that travels at five times the speed of sound or more. Regular ICBMs travel at 23 times the speed of sound. In other words, ICBMs, which have been around for 60 years, are also hypersonic missiles.

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The United States, Russia, and China are developing genuinely new types of hypersonic missiles. One type would be an ICBM fitted with a non-nuclear warhead. In the U.S. version (which doesn’t yet exist—none of these things yet exist), this would fit into the “Prompt Global Strike” program, which would allow the U.S. to hit targets anywhere on earth, very quickly, without having to resort to nuclear weapons. Another type of hypersonic missile would be a glider, which flies the entire way through the atmosphere (rather than arcing into outer space), thus evading certain kinds of warning radar. However, the Chinese missile in question is neither of these things. In the test, it released a “glide vehicle” only as the missile approached the target. Through most of its flight path, it behaved the same way as a ballistic missile, except that it orbited Earth at a lower altitude. In other words, if the U.S. bought more sensors to detect missiles coming at us from all directions, the GBMD would have no more trouble shooting down this missile than it would have shooting down other kinds of missiles.

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So what are the Chinese up to? It’s hard to tell. One possibility is that they’re doing just what some fear they’re doing—they’re trying to undermine the U.S. missile defense system, whose capabilities they are drastically overestimating. Some nuclear strategists have long warned that missile-defense systems only encourage adversaries to build more—or more sophisticated—offensive missiles. This is why the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Anti-Ballistic-Missile Treaty in 1972—to preempt an offense-defense arms race. President George W. Bush abrogated that treaty in 2001. Ever since, the U.S. has spent about $10 billion a year developing various types of missile-defense systems, most of them designed to deal with possible threats from the likes of North Korea and Iran. These systems have had little or no ability to deal with a major attack from Russia or China.

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But tell that to the Russians and Chinese.

This issue may seem strange from the get-go—but so is the logic of nuclear deterrence, where a good defense can augment a good offense. The worry is that Country A could launch a nuclear first-strike against Country B; then, when Country B retaliates with its surviving weapons, Country A will shoot them down with its missile-defense system. In this scenario, missile defense is the back-up shield that wipes out, or greatly reduces, a country’s ability to respond to a nuclear attack. (This is not fanciful. To many in the U.S. military in the 1950s and ’60s, the whole point of developing missile defenses was to enhance America’s first-strike capability.) The steps that China is now taking in nuclear weapons—this hybrid hypersonic-glide missile, as well as 200 silos that it’s dug, possibly to house 200 new ICBMs—could all be interpreted as steps to neutralize America’s missile-defense system and, therefore, to preserve its own nuclear deterrent.

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Should we, therefore, do nothing? John Pike, director of the private research firm GlobalSecurity.org, says that as long as we’re steeped in the bizarre logic of nuclear deterrence, the U.S. “has to address every countermeasure that China demonstrates, even though China does not deploy everything it demonstrates.” (Pike doesn’t necessarily endorse the bizarre logic.) In this sense, China may be playing a diabolical game—pressuring the U.S. to spend tens of billions of dollars on some new technology in order to defuse a demo that China doesn’t plan to turn into a weapon anyway.

Some are taking the bait. Michael Gallagher, a Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, told FT that the Chinese missile test should serve as a “call to action,” warning, “The People’s Liberation Army now has an increasingly credible capability to undermine our missile defenses and threaten the American homeland.” Gallagher seems to believe—as do many, for reasons that aren’t quite clear—that we actually have an effective missile-defense system that protects the United States. He also is wishfully blind to the fact that “the American homeland” and all the world’s homelands have been under threat of destruction since the nuclear age began in 1945—or at least since the missile age began in the early 1960s.

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It is a terrifying thought that enough nuclear weapons exist to destroy all life on the planet several times over—and that only a small fraction of these weapons are enough to kill most Americans and wipe out everything we hold dear. It is a fact that we would all like to ignore, to the extent we’re forced to think about it. Hence our fascination with missile-defense systems and the free ride that Congress has given the Missile Defense Agency all these years, despite the pathetic test record of its products. The problem is that a good defense, even if we succeeded in building one, would only prompt our adversaries to step up their offense—which China seems to be doing (as is Russia).

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The MDA will no doubt be answering Gallagher’s “call to action.” Expect requests for much more money to counter China’s hypersonic missile, even if it doesn’t yet exist, even if its sole demonstration missed the target by 24 miles. Speaking about the Chinese threat, Air Force Gen. Christopher Niemi, director of strategy, plans, programs, and requirements for U.S. Pacific Air Forces, told Defense One, “We should look at what is possible from a physics perspective, as opposed to what we think [China is] going to do.” From that view, the sky is the limit on what threats our generals might imagine—and what new weapons they might conceive, at what outlandish cost, to deal with them.

We’ve been down this road before. It ended, in good part, by luck, peacefully. The game seems to be back on, this time with more than two players, in a world that’s far more fragmented and far more technologically advanced. This time it might end badly. We should all figure out a way to call the game off.

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