The cold war with China is very nearly on. Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a House hearing Wednesday that China’s hypersonic missile test this past summer amounts to a “Sputnik moment.” Actually, he said, “I don’t know if it’s quite a Sputnik moment, but I think it’s very close to that”—a distinction without much of a difference.
Last week, when the Financial Times first reported this test, I wrote a column deriding it as hype—nothing new here, not really a threat to our missile defense systems, which don’t work very well anyway and were never meant to deal with a Russian or Chinese attack. Now that Milley (who last appeared in the media as the savior of democracy against the onslaught of Donald Trump) has not only confirmed the FT story but sanctified it as the harbinger of a dangerous new era, let’s take a close look at the meaning of “Sputnik moment”—which suggests that our top military officer is complicit in the danger.
Sputnik was the first earth-orbiting satellite, which the Soviets launched in 1957. The event set off hair-raising alarms. If the Russians can put a satellite on the tip of a rocket, they could also load it with a nuclear warhead; and if they can launch that rocket into space, they could also make it plunge back down to earth—specifically, down to U.S. territory. Meanwhile, the U.S. had failed to hoist a rocket of any size outside the atmosphere. Edward Teller, father of the H-bomb, declared on national television that America had lost “a battle more important than Pearl Harbor.” John Rinehart of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory proclaimed, “I would not be surprised if the Russians reached the moon within a week.”
As we now know, Teller and Rinehart, among many others, were way off the mark. But their overexcited imaginations spurred real-life effects. The Pentagon accelerated development of an intercontinental ballistic missile. By the end of the decade, the first U.S. spy satellite revealed that the Soviets—who were believed to have hundreds of ICBMs—possessed only a handful; other intelligence suggested that their missile program was a mess. However, by that time, the U.S. had started to field its own ICBMs in substantial number. The Soviets spent enormous sums to fix their problems and soon responded in kind. By the mid-1960s, less than a decade after Sputnik, the nuclear arms race—and missile race—was in full force.
Something similar is going on now. China is engaged in some provocative military activities, but the U.S. is way ahead in most areas. To dramatize the threat (and to justify a $770 billion defense budget), it would be useful if the Chinese were doing something new, something that we haven’t been doing at all. China’s hypersonic missile test serves the same function as the Soviet Union’s Sputnik launch 64 years ago.
In some ways, fear of Sputnik was more honest. An earth-orbiting satellite was a new thing—and something the U.S. had tried but failed to launch. Such a device did have frightening military potential; it marked the first time that the continental United States was vulnerable to attack, even theoretically.
By contrast, China’s hypersonic missile test is a bauble. Yes, it orbited the planet before plunging to its target, but it missed the target by 24 miles. Yes, such a weapon—if it were improved—could evade our missile defenses, but a much better way of doing that would be simply to fire two warheads at our most highly valued targets, since our defenses have never been tested against two incoming warheads at the same time. (Even in the one-on-one tests, our systems have succeeded less than half the time.) Finally, this technology is nothing new. The Russians developed the Fractional Orbital Bombardment System decades ago, but gave it up after the U.S. put up satellites that could warn of a missile attack from all angles. The U.S. worked on a similar contraption, but stopped after realizing it would provide little extra value at stupendous cost. If the Chinese want to waste their money now, let them.
However, the specter of China’s accomplishment, though shrug-worthy by objective measures, will certainly boost the political fortunes of the Pentagon’s ambitious plans for “nuclear modernization.” The U.S. is presently developing new models for its entire nuclear “Triad”—weapons launched from land, sea, and air that include a new ICBM, a new submarine-launched ballistic missile, and a new bomber aircraft, as well as a new cruise missile and various new warheads and bombs. The projected cost of building these weapons is $1.3 trillion over the next 30 years, though several senior Pentagon officials and Biden himself are known to be leery of modernizing all three legs of the Triad. Even if China’s hypersonic test had been successful and significant, it would not justify any, much less all, of these new nuclear weapons.
But objective analysis isn’t what usually fuels an arms race. A trillion-dollar arms program requires above all massive political support, which is stoked by smoky atmosphere, fiery rhetoric, funhouse mirrors—whatever works. Glum expressions of grave concern about a seemingly dramatic new Chinese weapon, with parallels drawn to the nation’s most perilous Cold War moment, just might do the trick.
Sputnik had two effects back in the late 1950s. On the one hand, it was exploited as an excuse to fund some of the most ambitious domestic programs since the New Deal—notably, the interstate highway system and massive funding of science education—on the sales pitch that they were needed to “keep up with the Russians.” Biden is replicating this stratagem to some degree, touting aspects of his infrastructure program (especially a surge of support for the microchip industry) as vital for staying ahead of China. But Sputnik also supplied the rationale for the most expensive, unnecessary, and potentially destructive arms race in human history. This is what Milley’s version of the new Sputnik moment is about. It should be yanked to a halt before it tears out of control.