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China’s Test of An Orbital Hypersonic Missile Is A Big Deal

Orbital Hypersonic Missile
Image: Creative Commons.

Earlier this week, the Financial Times reported that China had combined two advanced missile technologies in a test of a new nuclear capability. The test featured a so-called “Fractional Orbital Bombardment System” (FOBS), which is launched into space and can orbit the globe before releasing a missile at its target. The FOBS was reportedly armed with a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle, which can fly at low altitudes and maneuver to its target once released from space.

China’s Orbital Hypersonic Missile: Three Key Concepts 

This sophisticated test confirms three significant points.

First, the orbital hypersonic missile reinforces what we already knew: that the Chinese nuclear threat is only increasing. Ironically, nuclear disarmament advocates once held up China as a model, regarding China’s proclaimed “minimum deterrence” posture and “no first use” policy as worthy of emulation.  Earlier this year, House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) explicitly suggested the Biden administration look at whether we can “achieve the necessary level for deterrence for less money, like China has.”

Clearly, however, China threw its commitment to these policies out the window years ago.

Over the last several months, it has come to light that China is building hundreds of new long-range missile silos that could potentially accommodate missiles armed with multiple warheads. According to U.S. senior officials, China’s missile forces could soon exceed Russia’s, and nuclear superiority over the U.S. is now a realistic possibility.

Second, the test reminds us that China has consistently advanced its nuclear forces despite years of U.S. restraint in developing both defensive and offensive strategic capabilities.

In that vein, the claim that China’s hypersonic FOBS is a response to the U.S. homeland missile defense system of 44 interceptors is counter-factual.

The U.S. has made only minor upgrades to its homeland missile defenses over the last decade; the relatively steady-state of these capabilities cannot explain the rapid change in China’s nuclear posture.

Similarly, the U.S. has not made any advances in offensive nuclear weapons that could be provoking China’s nuclear expansion. U.S. nuclear forces have aged over time, and our nuclear modernization plans would only replace what we have on a one-to-one basis.

No, a more plausible explanation is that China’s nuclear ambitions conform with Chinese President Xi’s goal to transform China’s military into a first-tier force by 2050.

Third and perhaps most significantly, a hypersonic orbital nuclear weapon would provide China with specific military advantages, particularly because it could avoid U.S. early warning systems.

While the U.S. can detect most large rocket and missile launches, it might not be able to track a FOBS system throughout its orbit, or even determine if a Chinese orbital system is armed with a nuclear weapon. If effectively operationalized, orbiting a nuclear weapon through space could enable China to release the weapon from anywhere around the globe, exploiting gaps in U.S. early warning systems. Once released, the hypersonic nuclear vehicle can fly at low altitudes at hypersonic speeds and maneuver through the atmosphere, avoiding U.S. space- and land-based radars – further reducing warning time.

Some have claimed that this orbital hypersonic missile system does not truly change the threat we face since China can already strike the U.S. homeland with its existing arsenal. Yet the key difference is that the U.S. can largely detect and track those missiles, a capability that enables the U.S. to organize a retaliatory strike before incoming warheads reach their targets. This concept of assured nuclear retaliation is fundamental to deterrence.

However, 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. This undermines the core of deterrence, and, for this reason, such systems have been widely regarded as destabilizing.

While one test does not mean China is necessarily embracing a doctrine of nuclear pre-emption, the development of capabilities that might allow the mere contemplation of such an approach should be of great concern.

Furthermore, while some believe this orbital hypersonic missile capability doesn’t offer China military advantages, the dedication of time and resources toward it indicates that Beijing sees things differently.

As Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), ranking member of the Senate’s Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, questioned, “Why else would China pursue a new system like this? I find it difficult to believe China, or any other nation, would invest in a system it thought had no value.” She continued, “But, if they were building new nuclear-capable systems regardless of whether it really increases their capabilities – that wouldn’t be reassuring either. Any way you look at it, there’s real cause for concern.”

It’s time to stop giving China excuses and start viewing the threat with clear eyes. As the Biden administration continues its ongoing nuclear posture review, it should reject proposals to reduce the role of nuclear weapons. Instead, it should focus on accounting for advanced threats to ensure the U.S. can maintain strong nuclear deterrence.

Patty-Jane Geller is a policy analyst specializing in nuclear deterrence and missile defense in The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense.

Written By

Patty-Jane Geller is a policy analyst specializing in nuclear deterrence and missile defense in The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense.



  1. Slack

    October 20, 2021 at 6:19 pm

    There’s a lot of hyperbole or mass hysteria overplaying the ‘test’ of Aug 24 2021.

    The flight wasn’t exactly a missile test. It is actually similar to much earlier USAF trials of X-51 craft except that in the recent test the mother carrier was a LM rocket not a plane clearly showing the Chinese test was technically far more mature.

    The craft helmed by the LM entered space briefly and then flew through the upper atmosphere and landed miles off its intended location. Looks like a long range version of the deployed DF-17 glider being trialed which could be used in future to hit a hostile carrier sailing out of its home port half a world away. Not for igniting nuclear armageddon.

  2. NorEastern

    October 21, 2021 at 10:26 am

    So China just tested an extremely expensive cruise missile. And this is just another reason the US should abandon nuclear armed bombers and silo based ICBMs in favor of SLBMs. No fixed GPS coordinates.

  3. Brian Foley

    October 21, 2021 at 12:21 pm

    There’s a whole lotta “reportedly” in this article which is in itself suspect…but let’s say, for the sake of argument, that the Chinese did in fact launch a hypersonic FOBS…good for them. The question becomes what does America do about it ? Does America need to do something other than what it is already doing ? The US is developing it’s own hypersonic weapon, it has a well tested nuclear capability and a pretty good anti-ballistic system (SM-6)…so what else is there to do except over react to a “reportedly” story ?

  4. Cenebar

    October 21, 2021 at 7:17 pm

    The Defense Media is downplaying this, but then again the Defense Media also doesn’t hype up anything either.

    The miss was a “few dozen miles” and someone reported it as around 25 miles which is quite significant. If you’re landing a spaceplane 25 miles off target, you’re into the next airport or the neighboring nation which isn’t good at all.

    There are already COTS hypersonic SAMs that the USA and Israel make to counter ballistic missiles—the US DoD just needs to acquire and field them.

  5. BP

    October 22, 2021 at 2:47 am

    United States must have the coolest gadgets and the scariest weapons even when its credit card limit is max-out. The Chinese took care of their own people first in the last few decades; yet now their defend spend is less than half of US’s defense budget.

    From this we can see who has the right priority and who claims have the higher moral ground.

  6. Rising

    October 22, 2021 at 12:07 pm

    This never happened. You all are falling for and/or feeding into the propaganda that ccp is using to try, vainly, to ‘appear strong when weak’. They’ve done this before, and even sunk so pathetically low as to release an edited clip from a Transformers movie as evidence of their military capabilities.
    Yes, they really did that. Stop feeding into the chinese lie….and don’t forget that the Wuhan Virus came from Wuhan, and was given additional research and funding from Fauci, his little bottom-boys, and the brain-drain from ccp’s ‘thousand talents’ initiative. The ccp is the tumor of the world, and feeding the tumor, rather than dismantling it, is a pathetically stupid move.

  7. Bill

    October 22, 2021 at 2:10 pm

    The China nuclear build up and hypersonic missile technology will probably be used to make a threat and if we have the wrong administration in place, we may see a surrender. I’d rather face a nuclear war then surrender and lose my freedom to the Chinese. The US just needs to invest more in our trident nuclear submarine fleet. Even if China can knock out all of our land based ballistic missiles, then they will face a massive attack of submarine based ballistic missiles within a few days or weeks, which will essentially destroy their country. MAD will be our only hope to fend off the Chinese!

  8. Elvis Esparza

    October 23, 2021 at 9:28 am

    Why is it when Russia or China develop these weapons, it’s destabilizing, but if we do it, it’s not? We began deploying B-2 stealth bombers, which neither a broke Russia or a PLA with obsolete weapons, were able to track much less engage (especially if the B-2s were sent at night). During the administration of Bush Jr, we started development of the “Global Strike” weapon, an ICBM with a precision strike conventional warheads to take out jihadist mountain strongholds, and also Chinese and Iranian hardened facilities, bases, and bunkers (including command & control, and China’s nuclear bases where the road mobile ICBMs are located). How was that not destabilizing?

  9. Frank M.

    October 24, 2021 at 11:53 am

    We continue to do nothing about the long-term Chicom military build up. Only when we’ve suffered a loss will there be actions taken, by then too late. Our leadership over the last 30 years should be hung. They’ve been derelict to the nth degree.

  10. Sid Trevethan

    October 25, 2021 at 12:17 pm

    Two tests of hypersonic vehicles in July and August 2021 are not yet well understood outside PRC. Indications of problems with at least on of them may mean they have little incentive to clarify what happened? Reasoning from assumptions and speculation is a lousy way to engage in policy debate. At and after the Cold War ended we learned a great deal about Russian planning and capabilities. Not least that virtually EVERY assumption we had made was false. Lets try to do better in future.

  11. Larry Wortzel

    October 27, 2021 at 1:58 am

    Excellent summary of the importance of this. Readable, easy to understand. Great to see this is from Heritage. Your three points could be the basis for Congressional testimony or radio/tv appearances.

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