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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

China’s Nuclear-Capable Hypersonic Missile: How Should America Respond?

China's Nuclear-Capable Hypersonic Missile
Image of DF-17 missile. Image: Creative Commons.

Over at the Financial Times (hat tip: Tyler Rogoway, the WarZone), Demetri Sevastopulo and Kathrin Hille break the news that China tested a “fractional orbital bombardment system” last August. Such a hypersonic weapon can travel intercontinental distances and maneuver to evade anti-missile countermeasures. It might even elude detection altogether. The implications for U.S. nuclear strategy, premised as it is on early warning and response, could prove profound.

China’s Nuclear-Capable Hypersonic Missile: What We Should Think

Three quick points: One, never discount a rising challenger’s potential to spring a technological surprise of substantial amplitude. The Imperial Japanese Navy managed to develop shallow-running torpedoes suitable for use at Pearl Harbor, whereas the U.S. Navy dismissed such a prospect. Until December 7. Hostile weapon systems are black boxes in peacetime. It verges on impossible to peek inside a black box to determine how well a weapon will perform under combat conditions.

This makes peacetime net assessment a trial. The trick is to afford a rising competitor due respect while refusing to buy the hype until the evidence is in. And that competitor has every incentive to conceal its capabilities, or to disclose elements of its capabilities selectively to telegraph a message about its technological prowess. It enhances its capacity to deter or coerce, and thus to prevail without a fight. The implications for China are plain. If the Chinese Communist leadership wants to deter U.S. intervention in the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea, or the East China Sea, displaying a nuclear strike capability impervious to U.S. countermeasures is one way to do it.

What’s not to love if you’re Xi Jinping?

Two, the test could be much ado about something serious. Competitive strategies are the art and science of fielding affordable weapon systems to which an adversary feels compelled to respond, even at a steep cost to itself. If one contender competes at low cost and its opponent at high cost, it drains the opponent’s resources while imposing opportunity costs on it. If the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soon possesses a working orbital bombardment system, and if the Pentagon resolves to develop countermeasures, the effort promises to consume massive resources and intellectual energy. Those are resources that can’t go to other worthwhile enterprises.

Unless Congress is prepared to boost defense budgets substantially—a doubtful prospect of late—adapting to China’s new hypersonic project could sap resources from, say, efforts to bulk up the U.S. Navy fleet. Xi smiles once again.

But three, to what extent would a PLA fractional orbital bombardment system really change the dynamics of nuclear deterrence? The answer is less clear than it might seem. The logic of mutual assured destruction holds that both contenders will suffer unbearable damage from a nuclear exchange, and thus will both be deterred by the specter of atomic Armageddon. China long contented itself with a “minimal” deterrent force. Although it is determinedly building up its nuclear deterrent, it remains far behind the United States in numbers of payloads and delivery systems. Orbital bombardment—a capability guaranteed to strike home in wartime—could constitute the PLA’s great equalizer.

China’s Nuclear-Capable Hypersonic Missile: No Reason To Panic

Even so, an invulnerable second-strike capability—the ability to ride out an enemy first strike while retaining sufficient weapons to launch a devastating counterstrike—is the core of mutual assured destruction. From time to time experts on undersea warfare speculate that gee-whiz technology may soon render the oceans and seas transparent to sensors, imperiling submarine fleets—including U.S. Navy nuclear-powered ballistic-missile subs, the backbone of America’s second-strike capability. Thus far, though, subs have remained immune to high-tech detection, tracking, and targeting.

What can’t be found can’t be easily destroyed. Nuclear deterrence appears intact as well. Xi frowns.

DF-17 Hypersonic Missile

Chinese Nuclear Missiles

Chinese DF-17 missiles. Image: Chinese internet.


Such are the vagaries of strategy in the second nuclear age. More and more competitors of different shapes, sizes, and strategic cultures join the nuclear-weapons club, complicating the geometry of deterrence. And as newcomers join the club, oldtimers from the first nuclear age, a.k.a. the Cold War, ponder whether to reduce, hold static, or expand their nuclear inventories.

Asymmetry and complexity abound.

And yet. Strategy is a process of interaction among antagonists bent on imposing their will on rivals, preferably without resorting to armed force, but resorting to force should they feel driven to it. A seesaw, back-and-forth dynamic characterizes strategic competition as the parties to the competition try to outdo one another. China’s nuclear-capable hypersonic missile appears impressive from the sketchy information available to date.

There is no cause for panic. Let’s think strategically, allocate resources, and reply to the China challenge.

A 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Nonresident Fellow at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. The views voiced here are his alone.

Images are of DF-17 missile platform. All are Creative Commons. 

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”



  1. Slack

    October 19, 2021 at 2:45 pm

    America’s response should be similar to the kind used prior to Dec 1941. Lure the johnny-come-lately into a trap and them whammo. JUST JOKING.

    The alleged test was said to be quite inaccurate (the landing) probably due to the extreme heat and the projectile thus unable to receive corrections, so no danger at all. None to anyone.

    But the real danger is the unwanted overreaction or hyperventilation caused by the test and subsequent act of miscalculation by certain quarters. More provocations leading to physical interaction and actual confrontations.

  2. David Chang

    October 19, 2021 at 10:20 pm

    Experts on strategy and tactics make mistakes in the calculation of total war. They think that the calculation of socialism party is about morality, just like us. But the tactic of socialism party is sneak attack, even with nuclear weapon. Therefore, even if tactic experts believe that the UAV fleet can prevent from the major loss, but the survival of UAV fleet and space forces are limited by nuclear weapon and electromagnetic warfare. So we should find the way to save the aircraft carrier without using nuclear weapon to counterattack.

    Socialism Party always induce United States to join in China’s civil war.
    Since 60 years ago, United States explained clearly to all people in the world that United States can join the foreign war, and US military should have sufficient troops and transportation capabilities, but should not make the total war easily, because total war is the act of suicide.
    From the past few years of US defense budget debate, President Trump want to prepare tactic and strategic forces, but Biden’s socialism policy is destroying the defense forces of United States.
    According to the one-China policy of President Trump, people in United States hope that people in China become the free country like United States.
    In God we trust, since Tsai Ing-wen is the President of the Republic of China, the nuclear war should be avoided.
    So we should agree the one-China policy of President Trump to avoid nuclear war in the end.

  3. Christian J. Chuba

    October 20, 2021 at 12:13 pm

    I’ve been listening to FOX network.
    1. Immediately re-deploy to Afghanistan because leaving Afghanistan emboldened our enemies to begin with, ‘never have our friends been so afraid and our enemies so emboldened’.

    2. Add $100B annually to each military budget. FOX is claiming that the Democrats ‘gutted it’ again.

    Panic spending on these items will get us to where we need to be in 5 – 10yrs

  4. Drdhesq

    October 20, 2021 at 1:40 pm

    Conventional ICBMs are more than capable of overwhelming any missile defense that we have. They are hypersonic also. Maneuverable warheads are nice but not really needed to demolish any country.

    We seem to think that the next major war will be trading individual warheads/cities. Instead it will be a massive barrage. This is what MAD is all about.

  5. BobS

    October 20, 2021 at 3:17 pm

    The question posed in title:
    “China’s Nuclear-Capable Hypersonic Missile: How Should America Respond?”

    Aside from a factual description of the situation, this is the sum total of advice:

    ” Let’s think strategically, allocate resources, and reply to the China challenge.”

  6. sarsfield

    October 20, 2021 at 4:23 pm

    drdhesq is right – even say 100 CH icbms could overwhelm our small ABM forces in Alaska and VandenBerg. Those ABMs were built for a N Korea and maybe Iranian attack.

  7. Blair

    October 20, 2021 at 5:10 pm

    MAD has not been US strategic nuclear policy since the mid seventies, when improved ICBM and SLBM accuracy made it possible to at least “threaten” Soviet strategic nuclear forces (primarily, ICBM silos). Strategic deterrence switched to putting at risk Soviet nuclear warfighting assets and their leadership. This shift was necessary to offset a growing trend in Soviet military writings – and deployment of potential hard target kill ICBMs – that inferred the Soviets were prepared to fight and WIN a nuclear war if necessary. An example of the shift in US policy was the deployment of Peacekeeper ICBMs, which had more than enough warheads in total and an unbelievable single shot probability of kill (SSPK) against even the hardest Soviet ICBM silos. Couple that with the SDI efforts in the eighties, and the Soviets finally threw in the nuclear arms race towel. Unfortunately, Putin seems to be reviving it!

  8. Stefan Stackhouse

    October 20, 2021 at 5:51 pm

    The first responsibility of our government is to defend our territory and our people. It is named “Department of Defense” for a reason. However, it has been a long time since we made it our priority to have a defense that defends. Instead, we have largely had a “Department of Offense”, assuming that we were so invulnerable that real defense need not be our concern.

    No longer. The world is changing, and it is time to reset our priorities. Our priority needs to be developing a defense that defends. That sets an agenda for R&D and for weapons system procurement. This might not leave many resources left to sustain the global interventionism that has become our trademark mode of operation for the past few decades. If we must now disengage and redeploy behind a more compact defense perimeter to free more resources to actually mount an effective defense of that perimeter, then so be it.

  9. Ben d'Mydogtags

    October 21, 2021 at 10:38 pm

    If an enemy has the ability to penetrate your defenses and inflict losses at will, the tactical response is obvious. Disperse your forces so a single strike cannot take them all out. For the US nuclear arsenal that might mean stationing bombers and/or ICBMs in Alaska, Diego Garcia, the Marianas Islands (other than Guam), etc. And of course maintain or increase the fleet of missile subs and ships. Basically spread multiple types of delivery systems around the periphery of China so they know the response from the US can come in from any direction and in many forms.

  10. BP

    October 22, 2021 at 2:55 am

    US defense spending is already more than twice than that of China’s – with alarmingly high debt ceiling that has been max-out repeatedly.

    Regardless of what we say – China has correctly and humanely chose to focus on its own people welfare for decades before it increased its defense spending commensurately.

  11. tony

    October 22, 2021 at 1:30 pm

    @blair, they did not abondon, they invested in roadmobile systems, which made targeting the silo’s useless, in fact the missiles are not even targeted at the moment.

    The danger is that there is a serious train of thought, it started in the sovjet union, died, and returned in putins russia and seems to be in chinese minds now also

    Its the idea that you can use nukes in a limited theatre and prevent it from escalating in a full strategic war

    the sovjets thought that they could nuke nato forces and then bargain, russia has run wargames where a baltic/ukrain scenario escalates into a nato led response with tactical nukes used to protect gains, weapons like poseidon are only usefull in a pressure role for such scenario

    china’s fobs system is not much use for a full war, it does have use for taking out a specific target, even protected or by keeping it in orbit, to put pressure on the enemy

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