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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

China’s Orbital Hypersonic Nuclear-Capable Weapon Is a Big Deal

Orbital Hypersonic Missile
Image: Creative Commons.

In October 2021, the Financial Times reported that “China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile in August [2021] that circled the globe before speeding towards its target, demonstrating an advanced space capability that caught U.S. intelligence by surprise.” The article continued, “Five people familiar with the test said the Chinese military launched a rocket that carried a hypersonic glide vehicle which flew through low-orbit space before cruising down towards its target.” As a result of this report, which many news organizations picked up, the following exchange took place between a reporter and the White House Press Secretary:

Reporter: And then, can you comment on reports that China tested at nuclear-capable hypersonic missiles over the summer to the surprise of U.S. officials? Are these accurate? And do these raise concerns about China’s nuclear capabilities?

Jen Psaki: Well, I know General — Secretary Austin, I should say, was asked this question this morning and addressed it, but I’m not going to comment on the specific report. I can say and would echo what he said, which is, generally speaking, we’ve made clear our concerns about the military capabilities that the PRC continues to pursue. And we have been consistent in our approach with China: We welcome stiff competition, but we do not want that competition to veer into conflict. And that is certainly what we convey privately as well. (Emphasis added)

This is certainly one of the most amazing statements any White House has made about nuclear weapons. We want “stiff competition” in nuclear weapons while we are doing nothing more than stockpile stewardship and China is developing and deploying new types of nuclear weapons? We want “stiff competition” in nuclear-capable hypersonic missiles when the U.S. is not developing any and China is? We want “stiff competition” in orbital nuclear weapons when the Space Treaty bans them, and the U.S. is not developing such a capability while China is? President Biden has said he is concerned about the Chinese hypersonic missile test. However, it is unclear if this is real or political. It is also unclear who is running the store in the Biden administration. Immediately after President Biden said that the U.S. would defend Taiwan if China attacked it, the White House walked it back. The White House did not walk back Ms. Psaski’s statement.

While the media has generally characterized the Chinese test as a “hypersonic missile,” it really is a space weapon that carries a hypersonic glider. The space weapons aspect of it is much more important; it is a secondary issue whether it carried a ballistic RV or a hypersonic glider. It has been described in the press as a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS). This terminology was developed in the 1960s when the Soviets tested such a system. This type of system raised a compliance issue with the Space Treaty. Article IV of this treaty states, “States Parties to the Treaty undertake not to place in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, install such weapons on celestial bodies, or station such weapons in outer space in any other manner.” The Chinese rocket reportedly entered orbit before releasing the hypersonic missile. Another important aspect of such a weapon is its potential to launch a surprise nuclear EMP attack. Such an attack would be devastating. This is now a demonstrated capability that does not require the use of an ICBM, an SLBM, or any other type of ballistic missile. This has critical implications for attack warning.

From press reports, we do not know how long this vehicle can remain in orbit before releasing its nuclear payload. It may be more than a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System. Patty-Jane Geller of the Heritage Foundation, who characterized it as an “orbital  hypersonic missile,” pointed out one of the implications of this new capability: “…systems able to avoid early-warning satellites and radars raise the prospect of a disarming surprise attack that cripples the nation’s ability to respond.” David Axe of Forbes magazine wrote, “…a FOBS has great potential for an atomic sneak-attack.’’ The surprise attack aspect is made worse by the report that the launch vehicle was not an ICBM but a Long March space launch vehicle. The U.K. Express reported that:

Dr. Nikolai Sokov, a former Russian diplomat who now works at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, warned the development of such a missile could change the face of global power. He said: ‘The remarkable thing about that missile is the simple fact that it can approach the United States from almost any direction.’ ‘And the most important thing it can evade early warning systems and the missile defence systems in the United States all look north.’ And in a shocking admission, he said that the USA could do ‘almost nothing’ to stop China’s forward march into Space and its capability to attack the USA with hypersonic missiles.

Space launches are common and generally not regarded as threatening. However, they now pose a serious Chinese threat to time-critical targets such as U.S. nuclear command authority, bomber and SLBM bases. The Financial Times reported that its sources were surprised at the Chinese capability. They should not have been. It has long been obvious what China was doing. In 2019, the Trump Administration, in its “Nuclear Employment Strategy,” stated that, “Russia and China are developing, testing, and procuring nuclear weapons and delivery systems to support their efforts to upset the international order, including claiming disputed territories and forcefully occupying neighboring lands. Russia, for instance, is expected to grow the size and increase the capabilities of its nuclear arsenal significantly over the next decade.” In August  2021, the Commander of U.S. Strategic Command Admiral Charles Richard said, “We are witnessing a strategic breakout by China….The explosive growth in their nuclear and conventional forces can only be what I described as breathtaking.” He added that “…frankly, that word ‘breathtaking’ may not be enough.” Admiral Richard characterized China as a “peer” nuclear competitor and noted that we now face two nuclear “peer” competitors, Russia and China, compared to one during the Cold War. What Admiral Richard was talking about was the massive Chinese silo construction program for the large, multiple-warhead DF-41 ICBM. In September 2021, General John Hyten, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed that these missiles could carry 10 warheads.

The massive Chinese silo construction was initially reported by analysts at two NGOs using commercial satellite photography. Admiral Richard confirmed the reports of two new ICBM fields and that each had about 120 silos for the large Chinese DF-41 ICBM. On August 12, 2021, Bill Gertz wrote in The Washington Times that a third ICBM field had been discovered and that, “Together, the three new missile bases will house 350 to 400 new long-range nuclear missiles, U.S. officials said. If 10 warheads are deployed on the DF-41s, China‘s warhead level will increase to more than 4,000 warheads on its DF-41s alone.” Subsequently, Gertz revised the silo number to 350.

Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall has warned that “China is acquiring a first-strike capability.” As early as 2006, former U.S. military attaché’s to China, Col. (ret.) Larry Wortzel, Co-Chairman of the U.S.-China Commission, wrote that China’s nuclear “no first use” pledge is a cleverly worded but meaningless formulation. It is no longer just Chinese generals that have been threatening nuclear weapons first use. The Communist Party of China recently threatened Japan: “We will use nuclear bombs first…. We will use nuclear bombs continuously. We will do this until Japan declares unconditional surrender for the second time.”

Unfortunately, the Biden White House does not appear to be taking the Chinese nuclear threat seriously. The Biden Nuclear Posture Review may actually make cuts in the legacy Obama-Trump programs. In light of the Chinese threat to Taiwan and other Asian nations, this is irresponsible. The actual Chinese nuclear programs are far greater than just the ICBM silos and the FOB program. Like those of Russia, they dwarf current U.S. nuclear modernization programs, and the threat must be countered.

Dr. Mark B. Schneider is a Senior Analyst with the National Institute for Public Policy. Before his retirement from the Department of Defense Senior Executive Service, Dr. Schneider served in a number of senior positions within the Office of Secretary of Defense for Policy including Principal Director for Forces Policy, Principal Director for Strategic Defense, Space and Verification Policy, Director for Strategic Arms Control Policy and Representative of the Secretary of Defense to the Nuclear Arms Control Implementation Commissions.  He also served in the senior Foreign Service as a Member of the State Department Policy Planning Staff.

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