Moscow was very proud when the Soviet Union launched the first-ever satellite, Sputnik 1, in 1957. The news hit Washington hard: trumped by the communists!
To celebrate, Moscow had a Sputnik hanged in the entrance hall of the United Nations in New York two years later. This is how the concept of ‘Sputnik moment’ came into being, when a society suddenly realizes that it is lagging behind a formidable competitor technologically.
This fall, US top general Mark Milley was asked whether the recently publicized launch of a hypersonic weapon by China last summer was a Sputnik moment. Well, said Milley, “it came close.”
US politicians, military personnel and think tankers worry about China’s lead in hypersonic weapons. The Financial Times reported in October, based on anonymous sources, that China conducted a test with a hypersonic missile last summer. Last week the newspaper knew to add that China had even fired a projectile from that missile, in flight. The projectile – according to the FT a missile – has crashed into the South China Sea. How the Chinese engineers managed to launch an object from a rocket that travels so fast is still a mystery to the Pentagon’s research department. No other armed forces have yet achieved this.
The launch of a Chinese hypersonic missile came close to a ‘Sputnik moment’
The hypersonic missile would give China another advantage: With this missile, the People’s Liberation Army would be able to bypass US air defenses, which mainly target missiles entering over the North Pole, by approaching the American continent over the South Pole.
Hypersonic missiles are the new hype among the military superpowers. They come in two types. These are missiles that fly close to the Earth’s surface at at least five times the speed of sound, or they are vehicles that are launched into space by a ballistic missile and then quickly glide towards their target.
Those Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGV) are not only fast, but also very manoeuvrable. Ballistic missiles follow a fixed, predictable trajectory. HGVs can perform all sorts of antics before drilling into an enemy target. This makes the defense more difficult and the reaction time shorter.
China, Russia and the US have been working on hypersonic weapons for years. The Russian HGV Avangard has a nuclear warhead and is being carried on an SS-19 long-range ballistic missile. Russia already tested that system in 2019. The Chinese missile could also be equipped with a warhead.
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No operational test is yet public from the US. Whether that means that the US is lagging behind, and how far, is not clear. Almost all US armed forces have a development program in this area, but according to US researchers, the US does not develop HGVs for the transport of nuclear payloads.
From VS want Spending $3.8 billion on technology next year, 600 million more than this year. Originally, the Americans were supposed to have developed HGVs for long range, but now they are also working on variants for short and medium range.
Reports of a Chinese hypersonic leap forward coincided with the publication of the annual report of the Pentagon on the Chinese armed forces, which has been regarded as the best possible public overview of China’s weapons arsenal. In it, the US concludes that China is growing into a multifaceted nuclear power faster than expected. It now has 350 nuclear warheads and could have 1,000 in 2030 compared to 400 in 2030. For comparison: the US has 3,750 warheads, 1,389 of which are mounted on carriers. Russia has nearly 4,500 nuclear warheads, of which 1,458 are operational. Another observation from the report: since China launched a bomber last year that can fire a nuclear missile, it has – like the US and Russia – a nuclear ‘triad’: the ability to deploy nuclear weapons from land, sea and from the sky.
Also read: With these weapons, China is making its military catch up
That is why the US has been pushing for arms talks for some time now. China has politely declined to do so until now. Beijing stated that it has only a modest arsenal of nuclear weapons, for purely defensive reasons.
However, in their recent virtual summit, Presidents Xi and Biden agreed to open talks on strategic security anyway, Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said afterwards. Why China would suddenly want to talk remained vague: what would the country have to gain as an emerging power?
It seems more logical that China first takes the time to level up with the US and Russia. It has a carefully mapped out plan for that. 2017 presented President Xi Jinping outlined a timeline with two “main ambitions”: by 2035 the People’s Liberation Army should be “completely modernized” and by the middle of the century – the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic in 2049 – it should have grown into “a world-class military force”. The revelation about the hypersonic missile and the expansion of its nuclear arsenal confirm that China takes those ambitions seriously.
That gives the Chinese government confidence. State mouthpiece Global Times pointed out in a lead editorial that the official conversation reports made no mention of arms talks and suggested that Sullivan was just making things up. Certainly consultation at a high official level seemed premature to the newspaper.
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China must be given the opportunity to build a “fully effective nuclear deterrent” so that it is no longer susceptible to “nuclear blackmail” by the US, the paper wrote. Military specialists suspect that China is thinking of a possible battle for Taiwan: it would raise the threshold for the US to try to stop a Chinese capture of the island with the threat of nuclear weapons.
Further explanation about the nuclear weapons program is not forthcoming from Beijing. The country also refuses to answer questions about the hypersonic missile. China continues to build on missiles, warheads, aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, underwater drones, an impressive space program and much more. And it surprises the world again and again.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of December 6, 2021