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Orbital Hypersonic Gliders Are Not China’s Secret First Strike Weapon

Orbital Hypersonic Missile
Image: Creative Commons.

Sending a hypersonic weapon into space has already scored one success for China: scaring the Pentagon into believing that China may launch a nuclear first strike on America.

“Why are they building all of this capability?” General John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asked during an interview with CBS News. “They look like a first-use weapon. That’s what those weapons look like to me.”

Hyten is not the only U.S. official worried by a Chinese test in August of an orbital hypersonic weapon, in which a Long March rocket lofted a hypersonic glider into low Earth orbit, which then circled around the planet before reentering the atmosphere and landing in China.

“They launched a long-range missile,” said Hyten. “It went around the world, dropped off a hypersonic glide vehicle that glided all the way back to China, that impacted a target in China.”

Why does this worry Washington? China already has more than 100 ICBMs that could devastate that the United States, and it is now building more than 250 new missile silos as part of a massive nuclear expansion that could swell China’s nuclear arsenal from an estimated 350 warheads, to 1,000 warheads by 2030.

But the Chinese hypersonic test is ominous because it marries old and new technologies. It is essentially a reboot of the Fractional Orbit Bombardment System (FOBS) deployed by the Soviet Union in the 1960s. The idea was to launch a nuclear warhead into a partial orbit and then have it reenter the atmosphere over the South Pole, thus bypassing U.S. missile warning radars, which are aimed northwards to detect ICBMs coming in over the North Pole.

What China has done is add a 21st Century hypersonic touch to FOBS. Instead of a nuclear warhead, the Chinese rocket carries a hypersonic glider (potentially nuclear armed) to create a G-FOBS (Glider- Fractional Orbit Bombing System). Unlike an ICBM warhead, which descend on a fast but predictable ballistic trajectory, hypersonic gliders can maneuver like airplanes within the atmosphere at speeds of Mach 20-plus. In theory, this would allow these gliders to change their flight paths to avoid radar coverage and missile defense interception.

However, these orbital gliders are far from superweapons. There were reasons why the Soviets mostly stuck with regular ICBMs, and eventually scrapped FOBS in the 1980s. Fractional-orbit systems was considered less accurate than a conventional ICBM, and carried a smaller nuclear payload. Most important, partially circling the Earth would take closer to an hour for the warhead to impact, rather than the 30 minutes for an ICBM on a direct North Pole trajectory. Once the U.S. deployed orbital missile detection satellites to supplement ground-based radar in the 1970s, FOBS lost much of its first strike surprise potential.

Does turning FOBS into G-FOBS create a better first-strike weapon? Using hypersonic gliders instead of ballistic reentry vehicles does offer advantages in terms of evading missile defense radar and anti-missile interceptors.

But that’s not the same as a successful nuclear first strike. The essence of nuclear deterrence is Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD): unless the attacker can almost totally wipe out the defender’s nuclear arsenal in one surprise blow, the retaliatory strike would inflict almost as much damage on the attacker. For Chinse leaders to rationally consider a first strike, they would have to be confident of eliminating almost the U.S. nuclear arsenal, including land-, air- and sea-based weapons. How exactly would hypersonic gliders destroy U.S. ballistic missile submarines hidden in the ocean vastness? How would a mass launch of G-FOBS rockets needed for a first strike be concealed from global U.S. missile detection satellites?

Of course, Chinese orbital gliders could be armed with conventional instead of nuclear warheads. Indeed, in the mid-2000s, the U.S. considered using conventionally-armed Trident ICBMs to strike any target on Earth within one hour – until Congress said no. The problem with these weapons is that any orbital launch – even of a communications or weather satellite – would be treated as a potential nuclear strike.

However, China’s orbital hypersonic glider may yet reap benefits. If the U.S. diverts resources to missile defense, that means less ships and aircraft to defend Taiwan and other U.S. interests in the Pacific. China’s new weapon may be a bluff – but it could be a successful one if America falls for it.

Michael Peck is a defense journalist. His work has appeared in Forbes, Foreign Policy Magazine, The National Interest and other publications. He can be found on Twitter and Linkedin.

Written By

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for Forbes. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy Magazine, Defense News, The National Interest, and other publications. He can be found on Twitter and Linkedin.

8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Mark Benson

    November 18, 2021 at 9:44 am

    I didn’t think either of these technologies was new – FOBS was certainly in discussion especially during the SDI days of the 1980’s, and hyper-sonic gliders have, at various times been referred to as MARV’s – the revolution would be a powered hyper-sonic re-entry vehicle, not a glider, and the issue there would be reduced payload. As it was back in the day, the purpose (like those of decoys, etc.) on the ICBM bus are as penetration aids in the event the adversary fields missile defenses.

    Gliders would have limited energy and therefore limited cross-range and a limited number of evasive maneuvers. Tactically these are old ideas. The new piece is China bringing their capability to a higher level, making deterrence (or defense) more complicated and costly.

  2. James Van de Velde

    November 18, 2021 at 11:28 am

    So the Chinese build an orbital system (that orbits below most detection radars) that can linger and command deliver a maneuverable glide vehicle that would provide at most 10 minutes of warning, and Mr. Peck’s argument is that its not a first strike weapon … because SSBNs would survive. Huh? Why did the Chinese build such a system?

  3. Frank Dracman

    November 18, 2021 at 12:30 pm

    Remember the CCP also employs information warfare practices which include shaping western public opinions by using the western media to push certain ideas. Perhaps “Orbital Hypersonic Gliders Are Not China’s Secret First Strike Weapon” is one of those!
    If your opponent raises alarm and awareness of your first strike weapon, a “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” response is wise.
    Move along, nothing to see here.

  4. Doyle

    November 18, 2021 at 1:38 pm

    If we had real leaders anymore, to counter this hypersonic nuclear weaponry of China and Russia, they would announce that as soon at the Pentagon verified either country had the capability that the US would go to a launch on launch status. Taking the first hit has always been a fools errand and now even more so. NO FREE SHOTS!

  5. Alton OBriant

    November 18, 2021 at 2:57 pm

    Assumption#1.

    The Chinese are not stupid.

    Therefore there was a viable reason to invest in this technology.

    If the Chinese allow us to know about this technology, then what are the possible impacts?

    #1. We are in a sort of hypersonic and technological arms race. This is just one of many possible implementations- such implementations support thier foriegn policy assertion that The United States is in decline and they are in ascendance.

    – Even if the technology is innefective the impression of standing up to the US will be admired by many.

    #2. As pointed out by another poster, once that glide vehicle is launched it’s ten minutes to target or less.

    – that’s not a lot of time to take out a hypersonic object.

    #3. Due to #1 The US may be forced to formulate a response .

    – the easiest response is to discount capability. But this is potentially very dangerous if taken seriously with a serious threat.

    I trust our military minds will analyze this threat thoroughly, formulating the proper response im not so confident in.

  6. Hobbledeehoy

    November 18, 2021 at 3:21 pm

    In a SCS conflict scenario assuming push came to shove over Taiwan, and US bases in the region came under conventional attack, a surprise tactical nuclear strike against Guam would essentially remove the US Navy’s ability to sustain operations deep in the Western Pacific.

    If a Guam nuclear strike resulted, what exactly would be the escalatory response options for the United States? It is difficult to believe US policy makers would risk uncontrolled nuclear escalation by retaliating against any mainland Chinese target. Seriously, what are we gonna do, hit Hainan? No. Djibouti? The same problem exists in regard to a potential nuclear strike against US Carriers at sea.

  7. Mark Benson

    November 18, 2021 at 5:55 pm

    Presumably if this gets deployed and tensions escalate, the USA will raise alert levels and modify rules of engagement, including launch-on-warning or launch on launch, rather than launch on impact. Bolt out of the blue is unlikely. Nonetheless, both sea and land based defense systems will have to at some point sit on active alert, and surveillance systems will need upgrades to be able to identify potentially hostile launches.

    For retaliation for a Guam strike, I think any of the fortified islands in the SCS would make a fine target-in-kind. For carrier or capital ship attacks, unrestricted surface and submarine warfare come to mind. There are always counter-force targets.

    If the USA and allies do not consider preserving Taiwanese independence to be a vital (inter)national interests, we all better find the exits. Welcome back to major power conflict – if we can’t direct operations without Guam, then we better figure out how to prevent or survive the attack while maintaining capability.

    Clearly the USA, AUKUS, Japan, and possibly S. Korea need to up their game in terms of both systems and deployments, measured by the PRC / CCP capabilities. China is not a party to any strategic arms limitations, and at this point they obviously do not feel it is in their interests to engage in any arms control.

    Get ready or get out – that’s where US and allies are at.

  8. alhorvaTH

    November 18, 2021 at 9:13 pm

    The Chinese attack will come in waves. The first wave will be biological. The next wave will be propaganda designed to create confusion and distrust, Once that is accomplished they will attack our economy, Only then will they use nuclear weapons.

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