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China Allegedly Tested a Nuclear-Capable Hypersonic Weapon. Now What?

Revelations over a secret Chinese weapon test have stoked fresh fears in Washington that the two nations are approaching a strategic crossroads amid a sweeping build-up of Beijing’s nuclear arsenal.

In the middle of an extensive modernization process of its strategic forces and military, the Chinese are expected to increase its arsenal of nuclear weapons by at least doubling its numbers over the next ten years. In secret, hundreds of new silos have been built that are capable of firing long-range nuclear missiles. Now, U.S. officials say, China is fine-tuning the design of a new lightning-quick weapon system engineered to evade America’s multi-billion-dollar early warning and defense systems.

Financial TimesAccording to Saturday’s report, the Chinese rocket launched in August carrying a small spacecraft into orbit. The craft separated and circumnavigated Earth, before re-entering the atmosphere at high speeds. The glider missed its target by 25 miles. However, the mistake would have been negligible if it had carried a thermonuclear warhead that was targeting an American city.
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The report sent tremors through U.S. national security circles because such a weapon, known as a “hypersonic glide vehicle,” came years before analysts believed China would be able to develop it. The term “supersonic” means that an object is traveling faster than the speed of sound, or Mach 1. The term “hypersonic” means a vehicle is going five times that speed or more. The U.S. has no current way of stopping such weapons.

What the test demonstrates is that China, like Russia before it, is intent on designing nuclear weapons that aim to nullify America’s globe-spanning missile defenses. Today’s systems are designed to blast apart nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that fly high into space releasing warheads which fall in a predictable, parabolic arc toward a target. The U.S. cannot shoot down maneuverable weapons that are hurtling towards a target at hypersonic speeds.

The adversaries’ cat-and-mouse weapons developments, reminiscent of the Cold War, comes as China and the U.S. face off in hot spots like Taiwan, where the risk of miscalculation could catastrophically result in direct conflict. Unlike during the Cold War, the U.S. and China have failed to establish a robust series of treaties—which the U.S. and Soviet Union had in place—to keep communication channels open and growing weapons arsenals in check.

China’s new demonstrated capability does not yet fundamentally change the balance of military power, U.S. officials and analysts say, but it does underscore Beijing’s rapid expansion and diversification of its nuclear arsenal and should motivate the Biden Administration to meaningfully engage Beijing in non-proliferation talks. What’s needed is military transparency and diplomatic verification before these new weapon systems are fielded and become more challenging to control.

“We absolutely should find ways to engage China on nuclear arms control,” says Andrew Weber, who spent 30 years on nuclear-weapons issues in the State and Defense departments before retiring in 2015. “I am especially concerned that China might deploy so-called ‘nuclear war fighting systems,’ like nuclear-armed cruise missiles. We have a window of opportunity to prevent that through negotiations.”

China will need to be limited in its abilities. It won’t be an easy task. It will be difficult to persuade China to limit its nuclear capabilities, even if Beijing doubles the stockpile in the next decade as U.S. intelligence estimates it to have done. This would only represent a small fraction of the ones belonging to Washington or Moscow. Under a New START bilateral treaty, Russia and America are limited to 1,550 nuclear warheads. China isn’t part of this agreement, and has a stockpile of less than 200 warheads. China became a nuclear weapons power in 1964, but has restrained its strategic expansion—until recently. This nation will not want to reduce its capabilities to strike from sea, land and air. The U.S. and Russia have built these over the decades.

These developments raise concerns about China’s nuclear intentions and signal the pursuit of significant expansion of the diversity and size of China’s nuclear arsenal,” Shannon Bugos is a researcher at the Arms Control Association. “The (hypersonic) test highlights the importance of opening a dialogue with Beijing on matters related to strategic stability that is aimed at reducing the risk of conflict and escalation, increasing transparency, and tackling concerns that inspire the development of such systems in the first place.”

The Biden Administration has refused to comment directly about China’s alleged test. In fact, officials have said little overall about China’s increased nuclear weapons capacity and strategy. The White House might be looking forward to the Nuclear Posture Review results, an official document that any new administration creates for its nuclear arsenal. It follows a top-to bottom evaluation.

But the review underway hasn’t stopped Republicans from weighing in. “China’s test of a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle is one more milestone in China’s military modernization—designed to intimidate and bully the West,” Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on Facebook on Oct. 18, two days after the TimesReport. “This is just the latest in a string of high-profile revelations about China’s rapidly growing nuclear arsenal.”

Gene Blevins—AFP/Getty ImagesOn May 30, 2017, an interceptor ground-based from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California was used to intercept an intercontinental missile target.

For decades, the strategy of Republican and Democratic Commanders in Chief alike to prevent nuclear war and the spread of weapons to non-nuclear states has been to reduce nations’ nuclear arsenals and forge new arms-control agreements. President Joe Biden told world leaders at the United Nations last month the U.S. was “not seeking a new Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocs,” echoing what happened with the Soviet Union.

But by any measure, Washington’s relations with Beijing have been getting worse, not better. CIA Director William Burns this month called China the “most important geopolitical threat we face.” His agency announced the creation of a top-level working group on China as part of a sweeping effort to challenge Beijing, echoing previous responses to the threats from al-Qaeda and the Soviet Union. The Defense Department often refers to Beijing as “America’s pacing threat,” around the Pentagon. “It means that China is the only country that can pose a systemic challenge to the United States in the sense of challenging us, economically, technologically, politically and militarily,” Colin Kahl, the undersecretary of defense for policy, said in June.

The largest potential flashpoint is currently in Taiwan, which politically split from the mainland in 1949 following China’s civil war. Earlier this month, Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed to pursue a peaceful reunification with the island, and Beijing has sent nearly 150 warplane sorties into Taiwan’s Air Defense Zone in recent weeks.

The U.S. has consistently hinted it would defend Taiwan from Chinese attack but hasn’t publicly committed to intervene—the idea being that Beijing, amid the ambiguity, will not invade for fear of wider war with the United States. However, earlier this month the Wall Street JournalReports indicate that over two dozen U.S. Special Operations troops and Marines are training Taiwanese forces since the Trump Administration first dispatched them.

According to Timothy Heath (a senior international defense researcher from the RAND Corporation), China is looking for ways to change the U.S. strategy in the Asia-Pacific. The nation’s military expansion, he said, demonstrates it can it hurt the U.S. at home or abroad. “This hypersonic weapon adds to the growing inventory of Chinese nuclear-strike capabilities,” Heath said. “That, by itself, isn’t necessarily a game-changer, but what it suggests China is trying to raise the risk and cost of a potential conflict so high that the U.S. starts to rethink some of its regional security commitments.”

Beijing, for its part, insists the alleged hypersonic weapon test wasn’t ill-intentioned. Zhao Lijian, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman, called it “a spacecraft, not a missile” at a Monday press conference. “This test was a routine spacecraft experiment to verify the reusable technology of spacecraft, which is of great significance for reducing the cost of spacecraft use,” he said. “It can provide a convenient and cheap way for humans to use space peacefully.”

China’s hypersonic weapon systems are not new or futuristic. The Soviet Union deployed a similar system, called a “fractional orbital bombardment system,” in the 1960s. With mixed results, the U.S. and Russia have developed hypersonic weapon programs. Biden administration requested $3.8 million for the Fiscal Year 2022.

It is expected that the White House will continue to invest heavily in defenses. According to the Government Accountability Office, Missile Defense Agency has received approximately $162.5 billion between 2002 and 2019. In the four-year period, the agency received approximately $45 billion. The U.S.’s ground-based missile defence system was designed to intercept one or more ballistic missiles heading for the United States. The interceptors can only be found in Alaska and California, where there are 44. The idea is if a rogue nation, such as North Korea—which is known to have limited numbers of ICBMs—launched a missile toward an American target, it could be destroyed before striking down.

China’s estimated arsenal of over 100 ICBMs could inflict far greater damage. Beijing could destroy the U.S. systems with its arsenal of more than 100 ICBMs. The expectation that it would have to face the consequences if it launched a nuclear attack, they argue, is what keeps them under control. This theory is known as mutually assured destruction, or MAD. It has been the foundation of military planning since the beginning of the nuclear age.

“Do we accept mutual deterrence with China? If we do, then (the hypersonic weapon) doesn’t matter,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear weapons analyst with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif. “But a lot of people in the Pentagon don’t accept mutual deterrence. They do think our missile defenses can help take China’s deterrent away. This is an important issue for those individuals. And for the rest of us, we’re hostage to the arms race.”

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