To those old enough to remember the Cold War, the term “arms race” conjures up images of America and the Soviet Union building ever larger stockpiles of nuclear warheads vying for the upper hand … deterred only by the threat of mutually assured destruction.
By the 1970s, as the era of detente lowered tensions between the two superpowers, a series of treaties led both nations to reduce their nuclear arsenals and fear of catastrophe receded.
Since the fall of the USSR, the United States has enjoyed what it assumed was an insurmountable lead in global weapon superiority. Even as the 9/11 attacks showed the country’s vulnerability to terrorism and impasses in Iraq proved the boundaries of limited warfare, there remained a belief that, should the U.S. unleash the power of its war chest, no other nation could match it.
Yet, over the past months, a set of revelations over China’s increasingly daring hypersonic missile tests threw that confidence into question.
“What we saw was a very significant event of a test of a hypersonic weapon system. And it is very concerning,” General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told an interviewer.
On a recent trip to South Korea, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin voiced “concerns about the military capabilities that the PRC [People’s Republic of China] continues to pursue,” saying that such actions “increases tensions in the region.”
The most recent hypersonic test was not picked up on until months after it occurred in July. Last month, American military personnel admitted that they were even more perturbed by a glide system that allowed the device to release a second projectile in mid-orbit. While the Chinese interest and advancement in hypersonic has been known for over a decade, it was not suspected that their technology had reached such an advanced stage. The glide vehicle, which works somewhat like a spacecraft, is an advancement that neither the United States nor any other county has achieved.
Russia, which has also stepped up its hypersonic arsenal in recent years, also carried out several tests with hypersonic missiles in recent months, though of a less advanced variety than what China accomplished.
General David Thompson, vice-chief of space operations for the U.S. Space Force, said that America’s capabilities were “not as advanced” as those developed by China or Russia.
“We have catching up to do very quickly. The Chinese have had an incredibly aggressive hypersonic program for several years,” he said at a forum on international security in Halifax.
‘You Don’t Know Where They’re Going to Go’
True to their name, the defining element of hypersonic missiles is their ability to travel faster than the speed of sound. To merit the classification, a device must exceed Mach 5, which is five times the speed of sound, or around 3,800 miles per hour. Many of the recently tested missiles go much faster than that.
“We’ve been shooting things into space at hypersonic speed for a long time,” said John Venable, senior research fellow for defense policy at the Heritage Foundation. “What’s new is the ability to use those speeds in our atmosphere to avoid batteries of missiles that are designed to catch them and take it out of harm’s way.”
In addition to their extreme speed, the new generation of hypersonic missiles tested by China are maneuverable, setting them apart from most standard Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICMBs) whose trajectory is largely predictable.
The latest Chinese missiles have a third advantage over existing missile technology in that they cruise above the lower part of the earth’s atmosphere, where airplanes fly, but below what is considered outer space — a region that weapons detection technology is not equipped to track.
“They’re over our atmosphere and are maneuverable, so you don’t know where it’s going to go,” said Dr. George Nacouzi, a senior engineer at the RAND Corporation’s National Security Research Division.
The new Chinese missiles include several that can be equipped with atomic warheads.
“The main reason China and Russia are developing them is to have something that could defeat our missile defense systems,” said Dr. Nacouzi. “The current systems are designed to intercept ballistic objects in middle trajectory. That would be very difficult with glide vehicles; you might have something like a minute or less than that to shoot it down before it hits its target, but you don’t want to rely on that.”
Falling Behind Faster Than The Speed of Sound
America was the first nation to break the sound barrier. Starting in 1948, an operation dubbed Project Bumper experimented with different rockets, eventually yielding successful launches by 1950, and the U.S. led the field in both research and development for well over a half century.
“The U.S. used to be in the lead in this field, but it is very expensive and, until recently, the government didn’t see the need for it,” said Dr. Nacouzi. “The Russians also stopped working on them for a long time. But in the early 2000s, the Chinese picked it up and focused on it in a way the U.S. has not. They have been very aggressive and put a lot of rapid investment into it, which, at this point, has put them ahead operationally.”
Dr. Nacouzi pointed out that China’s advancements on long and short range hypersonics should be evaluated separately.
“I’m not sure that their long-range ICBM types that could launch against the U.S. are really there yet, but what they have shown is that their mid-range that could go a few thousand kilometers are operational,” he said.
Part of what necessitates such tremendous financial and intellectual investment to produce hypersonic weapons are the challenges involved in testing them.
“It’s going really fast, which is difficult to recreate on the ground in a research facility,” said Iain Boyd, Director of the Center for National Security Initiatives at the University of Colorado. “If you want to test them, you need a wind tunnel, which costs a lot to create.”
Another challenge that costs billions to address is building a device that can withstand the extremely high temperatures produced by flying at hypersonic speeds.
“When you see the flames around a capsule coming back from space, that’s due to the speed at which it’s traveling,” said Professor Boyd. “You need to build a thermal protection system, which is not something needed by other vehicles.”
Yet, the decision by the Chinese to make the investments needed, Professor Boyd said, had put their researchers far ahead.
Mr. Venable felt that U.S. shortsightedness had cost the nation its hypersonic advantage.
“The U.S. has fallen behind and it was not the military’s fault. In 2012, the Obama administration generated a package that capped military spending. The money they got needed to be used to fight the war in Afghanistan and projects like hypersonics had to be given up,” he said.
Mr. Venable added that, over the last few years, the Chinese have taken full advantage of U.S. disinterest in working on the emerging missile technology.
“Without that cut we would have been well ahead,” he said. “But what happened was that the Chinese read all the research we’d published, did a lot of their own cyber-espionage to find out the rest, and pulled ahead.”
While it is clear that China outstripped American hypersonic capabilities, and Russia as well might be in a stronger position, most feel that U.S. scientists are not lacking the know-how to build competitive weapons systems if the government is willing to invest.
“It’s mostly a difference of investment and commitment of resources,” said Dr. Nacouzi. “In general, the U.S. has the knowledge to make these weapons, but the more [China] invests the more tests they do and the more knowledge they gain.”
Hiding and Seeking
There is a hopeful assumption that nations do not develop weapons of mass destruction with plans to use them, but rather to serve as a deterrent against attack or diplomatic moves that gravely injure that country’s interests. Having strike capabilities on par or better than the U.S. would automatically bolster a nation’s status and make America and any other nation think carefully before crossing its path.
Despite the huge expense and commitment of resources involved, this advantage is largely what China and Russia are looking for.
The missiles could also be used for conventional warfare and Dr. Nacouzi posited that keeping the U.S. at bay should China choose to move on Taiwan might play a role in their pursuit of hypersonic superiority.
“It’s a standoff weapon that could threaten a U.S. carrier,” he said. “The mid-range missiles they have are probably intended to keep us out of the region, which would make it harder to defend Taiwan.”
Dr. Nacouzi added that China initially explained its foray into hypersonic weapon technology with the claim that it felt threatened by American and Russian nuclear superiority.
“China said that the U.S. could strike first and take out all its nuclear weapons and they wouldn’t be able to retaliate, so they wanted a way to balance out the deterrence,” he said.
An interesting kink in China’s rattling the hypersonic sword is that it denies any of the recent tests carried out.
“It was not a missile, it was a space vehicle,” Chinese spokesman Zhao Lijian told a press briefing when asked about the reported test.
At the same time, the Chinese have been surprisingly open about their scientific research on the topic.
“If you look at the research on hypersonics, China is publishing four times as much as the U.S.,” said Professor Boyd. “It seems they’re trying to show us that they’re for real and that they’re not at the beginning anymore. It’s a point of national pride for them.”
That national pride is not limited to the academy and, in 2019, a hypersonic missile was on display as part of a military parade in Tiananmen Square showcasing the country’s new weaponry.
China’s behavior raises the question of why their officials continue to deny the tests picked up by U.S. intelligence.
“China and Russia both know the U.S. can detect the tests they are doing,” said Professor Boyd. “In some ways, they are testing what the U.S. can tell them about their own tests which helps them understand U.S. intelligence. It’s part of a chess match they are trying to play a little like in the Cold War days.”
Mr. Venable said that openness about hypersonic development and denial of specific tests could be part of a strategy focused chiefly on China’s own region.
“It creates an area of uncertainty which is very valuable, especially in the Indo-Pacific,” he said. “Especially at a time when more countries wonder about America’s trustability, by showing that they are a power on the rise and that they can put up a smoke screen against the West gets more countries over to their side of the ropes.”
Acknowledging the disadvantage at which China and Russia’s advancements have placed the U.S., the Department of Defense has already begun funneling billions into hypersonic development, and testing has increased.
In late October, the Pentagon announced that it had carried out three successful tests with hypersonic technology and said that it plans to test a missile in 2022.
In addition to developing their own hypersonic weapons, discussions are ongoing as to whether the U.S. should update its missile defense system to detect and respond to new technology the Chinese have developed.
“The U.S. has to seriously consider whether they want to defend against these systems. If so, they would need an approach. One way would be to develop space sensors, and to do that would cost billions,” said Professor Boyd.
Costs of engaging China and Russia in a modern-day arms race are astronomic financially and also would detract from other national security priorities.
Some held out hope that diplomacy like the SALT treaties signed between the U.S. and Soviet Union in the 1970s and ’80s could prevent such an arms race.
Yet, few believe this is an option the Chinese or Russian would consider given the advantage they presently hold over the U.S.
“You can only negotiate through strength,” said Mr. Venable. “They’re not going to agree to stop moving ahead while you catch up.”
The U.S. seems left with little choice but to pour billions into its own hypersonic weapon program.
“A certain amount of money will have to be spent to viably pursue diplomacy,” said Professor Boyd. “I hope the eventual approach will be diplomatic, but the U.S. is going to need some poker chips to get China and Russia to the table.”
While the U.S. has decided to move ahead with its own hypersonic program, Dr. Nacouzi said a circumspect approach would best serve national interests.
“We must be cautious about going all out before knowing what our mission is. Having a handful of armed hypersonic missiles could be valuable, but it’s not clear if you need thousands sitting around,” he said. “We shouldn’t break the bank to keep up, but we can’t afford to ignore it, either.”