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Why China's hypersonic missiles don't mean nuclear Armageddon

Though historically intertwined, space races are lots more fun than arms races.

Zoya Rusinova/TASS/Getty Images

Summer 2021 saw two events that, in the words of U.S. General Mark Miley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, might be the 21st century equivalent of the “Sputnik moment” that kicked off the space race and catalyzed the Cold War nuclear arms race.

But rather than a contest between the U.S. and former USSR, Miley was referring to recent reporting by the Financial Times that China launched two nuclear-capable hypersonic missile tests in July and August.

In the August test, a Long March rocket boosted an unknown vehicle into low-Earth orbit, which later re-entered and glided — at very high speed — toward a target, although it missed by more than 10 miles.

The tests surprised members of the U.S. Military and intelligence community and caused some U.S. officials and analysts to suspect China is developing offensive missile technology — a “fractional orbital bombardment system” — capable of threatening the U.S.

“The People’s Liberation Army now has an increasingly credible capability to undermine our missile defenses and threaten the American homeland with both conventional and nuclear strikes,” Republican Congressman Michael Gallagher, of Wisconsin told the Financial Times.

Should we be worried? Should we even care about this in-development technology?

The answer, as it often is, is shrouded in gray. Yes, hypersonic technology is the next big thing in aerospace and will likely have huge implications for both civilian aviation and military operations over the next century. No, the Chinese tests over the summer don’t mean we’re necessarily any closer to nuclear Armageddon — not unless we’re determined to make it so.

“I know the latest Chinese test has made a lot of people sit up and take notice,” U.S. Naval War College Professor of National Security Affairs and former nuclear Missile Squadron Commander Dana Struckman tells Inverse. “But in my opinion, it still doesn't change the nuclear deterrence calculus that much, if at all.”

What are hypersonic weapons?

Hypersonic flight generally means flying at Mach 5 — five times the speed of sound — or faster. It’s a speed at which the aerodynamics of flight change significantly.

For example, the U.S. Cold War-era SR-71 spy plane flew at a merely high supersonic Mach 3.2 and the plane’s windshield would heat to 600 degrees Fahrenheit due to friction. Airflows become even more forgiving at hypersonic speeds. Some of the most cutting-edge aerospace engineering in the U.S., Russia, and China involves figuring out how to make flight at hypersonic speeds sustainable.

At the same time, hypersonic flight isn’t entirely new.

In 2001, the first X-43A hypersonic research aircraft and its booster rocket are released from a NASA aircraft carrier, but the flight was not successful. Jim Ross/NASA via Getty Images

There were French and Russian scientists researching hypersonic propulsion technologies in the 1930s and 40s. The U.S. Air Force and NASA were already flying at hypersonic speeds in the 1950s with the X-15 rocket plane, Michael Heil, former commander of the U.S. Air Force Space and Directed Energy Laboratory tells Inverse.

Spacecraft must hit Mach 25 to reach orbit and later re-enter the atmosphere at a blistering Mach 20, as do the warheads of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, or ICBMs, the more traditional strategic nuclear missile.

If the U.S. And USSR had ever pushed the button, ICBMs would have launched from silos and submarines, delivering nuclear warheads on arching, ballistic trajectories through space and over the north pole to incinerate people and infrastructure on the other side of the world.

A Russian ICBM pokes its nose from a silo. Russian Defence Ministry/TASS/Getty Images

Contemporary hypersonic research is different than ICBMs or spacecraft in that it focuses on sustained, controlled flight at hypersonic speeds in the atmosphere.

This requires either using rockets to boost a vehicle or missile that then glides at hypersonic speeds to its target— a “boost-glide” system — or an “air-breathing” vehicle with specialized jet engines called supersonic combustion ramjet, or scramjet, engines (both approaches are difficult, but scramjets are a bit like trying to light a blue dart in a tornado).

The U.S. has developed both types of hypersonic technologies, successfully flying air-breathing hypersonic test vehicles — like the X-43 in 2004 and the X-51 from 2010 to 2013 — and boost-glide weapons such as the Intermediate-Range Conventional Prompt Strike /Dark Eagle missile, though the latter failed its most recent test flight in late October.

What kind of hypersonic vehicle did China test?

It’s not exactly clear what China flew over the summer. Officially, the Chinese Foreign Ministry says the launches were tests of reusable spacecraft.

Heil tells Inverse it was likely some sort of boost-glide vehicle —a maneuverable, hypersonic glider lofted to high altitude and then gliding down at hypersonic speeds to strike its target.

China has tested one such weapon system, the DF-ZF, nine times since 2014, according to a Congressional Research Service report.

But most boost-glide systems don’t place a glide vehicle in orbit. That’s much more like a fractional orbital bombardment system, or FOB, a system that was actually deployed by the USSR in the 1970s and 80s, according to a Twitter thread by Jeffery Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Project at Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

The idea is to place nuclear weapons in a partial orbit for a short time, from where they can be called down upon your enemies unpredictably.

“The Soviets had an operational FOBS capability for twelve years,” Lewis tweeted. “It was designed to defeat US missile defenses.”

China’s hypersonic vehicle and its capabilities

It’s the possibility of a Chinese FOB system evading missile defense systems that worries people like Congressman Gallagher. It’s not the speed of a hypersonic missile — a traditional ICBM flies faster — but its maneuverability and unpredictability.

“Ballistic systems are, by definition, predictable. Once you know a ballistic trajectory, you can predict about where it's gonna land,” Heil says. “With a hypersonic system, even if you can detect it coming in, it can maneuver. It can go off on a different azimuth and hit a different target than you think it was aiming for.”

That makes it hard to intercept a hypersonic missile with an anti-missile missile.

But China’s hypersonic launch probably doesn’t mean we’re heading toward nuclear war.

There’s a very important thing to consider when discussing missile defense systems and nuclear attacks: There is no missile defense system. Not against a large-scale nuclear attack anyway.

In this 2007 photo, visitors walk past China’s second nuclear missile on display at the Military Museum in Beijing. TEH ENG KOON/AFP via Getty Images

A national missile defense against a few missiles is “doable,” Heil says. But is there a missile defense system in place that could fend off a large-scale attack from China? No.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how you nuke an American city, it only matters that you nuked an American city. Whether a missile from space, a bomb dropped from a plane, or smuggled inside of a suitcase, if China nukes the U.S., the U.S. will nuke back.

Mutually assured destruction was the basis of the strategic stalemate between the Soviet Union and the U.S. during the Cold War — and we haven’t progressed past that policy.

It may be the case that China is developing a missile system that can evade missile defense systems, Struckman says, but assuming it wanted to start a full-scale nuclear war — a big if — a hypersonic missile, “does not alleviate the targeting conundrum any adversary would face in trying to strike 400 dispersed ICBMs, along with deployed submarines and bombers.”

One of the reasons the U.S. and USSR stockpiled thousands of nuclear weapons across multiple weapons platforms was to make it difficult for the other side to wipe out their ability to retaliate should they be victims of a surprise attack. Hypersonics are in many ways just better missiles — but they still can’t compete with the number of American nukes.

This Alaska-based station was set up as part of an early warning radar system for detecting nuclear missiles sent from the Soviet Union. George Steinmetz/Getty Images

What also gets lost in this conversation is the cost of hypersonic missiles, Struckman says.

“It seems to me that the price tag alone per unit cost on a hypersonic weapon would preclude mass production and thus strengthen the argument for using them against high-value targets,” he explains.

Chinese hypersonic missiles targeting U.S. Aircraft carriers with conventional warheads during a confrontation over Taiwan? Maybe! Nuclear first-strike weapon? Maybe not.

As Lewis noted in his Twitter thread, one way to interpret China’s interest in FOB technology is as an effort to ensure the country’s ability to retaliate after a U.S. first strike. While there is no effective U.S. nuclear missile defense system in place today, there have been moves in that direction, including the U.S. military testing the Israeli made Iron Dome missile defense system on the Island of Guam.

The Inverse analysis — Who is disrupting the balance of mutually assured nuclear death depends on your point of view and national origin.

None of this is to say that a new nuclear Cold War with China isn’t happening, but it’s worth keeping things in perspective. Recent revelations that China is building more than 100 new silos for traditional ICBMs should probably worry everyone more than a couple of tests of expensive and still inaccurate missile technology.

But General Miley might be correct in his assessment that the August launch represents something close to a Sputnik moment. China is a huge nation that places a big emphasis on STEM education, Heil says, and they have big plans in space that go beyond missile systems, including landing on the Moon.

“They're graduating something like 10 or more times the engineers that we are from our engineering schools every year,” Heil says. If the U.S. wants to keep up, it may be time for some serious investment.

And, though historically intertwined, space races are lots more fun than arms races.