After China’s ‘Hypersonic’ Test, US Alarm and Many Unanswered Questions
WASHINGTON: In the wake of a hair-raising report of a secret Chinese hypersonic space weapons test, a denial by the Chinese government, and doubly vague public remarks from the US Air Force chief, security observers have been left this week with more questions than answers about what exactly may have circled the planet just weeks ago and how big of a threat it could be to US security.
It also has prompted larger questions about the state of strategic nuclear stability, but that complex issue warrants a story on its own.
For now, perhaps of greatest concern in the long run for US-China relations, a number of analysts said, is that the dearth of factual information about the test seems to be fueling the growing trend within US national security circles of seeing Beijing’s actions through a worst-case lens.
“I think that the context that this reveals is actually very useful. We’re at a point in our competition with China that folks have become incredibly suspicious and alert,” Todd Harrison, head of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Aerospace Security Project, told Breaking Defense. In part, he said, this is due to China’s own actions, such as its recent incursions into Taiwan’s airspace and its military construction in the South China Seas.
“It has gotten everyone to the point where they’re super suspicious of anything China does,” he stressed. “And so, when a sliver of intel comes out like this people are prone to view it in the worst possible way because of the way China has been acting.”
A Report, A Denial And Few Clues
On Saturday the UK-based Financial Times reported, citing five anonymous sources, that in August the Chinese had tested a “nuclear-capable hypersonic missile that circled the globe before speeding towards its target, demonstrating an advanced space capability that caught US intelligence by surprise.”
The report came on the heels of a startling claim in a speech by Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall that same month that China had developed the capacity for “potential global strikes, strikes from space.” He suggested to reporters later that the Chinese system was based on the old Soviet-era Fractional Orbit Bombardment System, or FOBS, which put a re-entry vehicle carrying a nuclear warhead into orbit, then de-orbited it before completely circumnavigating the globe. (At the time of the speech, one source with knowledge of the issue told Breaking Defense, “I’m surprised he got clearance to mention it, frankly.”)
On Monday, the Chinese government pushed back on the FT report, with Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian calling it “inaccurate.” He claimed Beijing had instead performed a “routine test” of a new, reusable “suborbital space vehicle,” believed to be a US X-37B doppelganger. Later, however, the foreign ministry told the BBC that test happened in July, not in August.
And even though the Pentagon source told Breaking Defense that the weapon referenced in the FT report is the one mentioned by Kendall in his August speech, SecAF intimated in a speech on Monday that his comments weren’t about anything specific.
“Sometimes you get lucky. People have been interpreting my remarks as telegraphing something,” he told the annual National Defense Transportation Association meeting. “The point I was trying to make, I think, was there are a lot of things that are in the realms of feasibility and […] we need to worry about that.” he said.
Kendall’s vagueness has been accompanied by official US silence on the issue. “We will not comment about the specifics of these reports,” John Kirby, Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement. Likewise, NRO would not comment in response to a request from Breaking Defense.
Absent concrete answers about what happened, or didn’t happen, above the Earth in August, a closer reading of Kendall’s remarks Monday might be the most remarkable takeaway from all this in the short term. Specifically his imperative that the US worry — and by implication work to counter — about all the things China might do with hypersonic weapons or even nuclear weapons.
“If you can conceive of it, if it makes operational sense, if it’s within the realms of current technology, then you’ve got to be worried that they’re going to do something like that,” he said.
Coincidentally, Brig. Gen. Christopher Niemi, a top Pacific Air Forces officer, expounded on a similar idea the same day Kendall spoke, pushing what he considered a shift in the way the US military should think about China altogether.
“In the past we’ve put a lot of confidence in our assessment of what an adversary like China will do in the future, and we use that to inform how we want to make our investments. And one of the lessons that I’ve taken from my own experience is perhaps we should look at what is possible from a physics perspective, as opposed to what we think they’re going to do,” Niemi, PACAF’s director of strategy, plans, programs, and requirements, said in a Monday talk hosted by the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance. “Because China, again and again, has proven that if it is possible within physics, and it will surface another hole in our swings, that they will do it.”
Dean Cheng, a Breaking Defense contributor and an expert on the Chinese military, said assuming the launch was a test of a hypersonic weapons system based in space, the “scary part” is what that might mean for how the Chinese are planning to use space — and potentially exponentially complicating the US ability to defend itself.
“ICBM warheads do not normally go into orbit,” he said in an email. “How would we know if a satellite carried a nuclear weapon aboard? We’d have to assume that ALL satellites launched by China are now potential nuclear weapons carriers.”
Similarly, former DoD head of space policy Doug Loverro said in an email that a FOBS hybrid carrying a nuclear armed hypersonic glide vehicle through orbit would be “quite concerning” because it would be “hard to distinguish such a weapon from a typical space launch if an adversary wanted to disguise the true intent.”
Some Problems With The Space-Based Hypersonic Weapons Theory
Those assumption are in part fueled by the lack of information, especially in the unclassified space. But by looking at what’s available, some experts said they’re skeptical.
Harrison suggested it’s possible the test was of a FOBS system, but not one using a hypersonic glide vehicle. Instead, he said, there likely was miscommunication involved.
The US military “obviously tracked the trajectory of this mission that China was launching, and it was something that they weren’t expecting,” Harrison said. “Then after the fact, they were trying to make sense of it, and somewhere along the way, I will bet — either intel analysts who aren’t familiar with orbital dynamics, or policy-makers who were being briefed by the intel analysts — someone made this leap in logic that: ‘Oh, this must be a hypersonic weapon,’ and then it must have just taken off from there.”
Indeed, a number of non-DoD experts, including physicists and astrodynamicists, have taken to Twitter to explain that it makes little sense from a technical or operational perspective for anyone to put a hypersonic missile in orbit, then de-orbit it to a target. There are similar questions about any kind of FOBS — after all the Soviet’s abandoned their system — but there even more about why Beijing would marry the two. Thus, the test was more likely of one or the other, these experts suggest.
First, hypersonic missiles use their super-high speed and maneuvering abilities to make them hard to both track and intercept — flying low, so as to avoid current US missile defense radar. This is the very reason why DoD’s Space Development Agency and the Missile Defense Agency are pursuing a new “Tracking Layer” of missile warning satellites. So why, several physicists asked, would China want to take on the extra costs of putting them in space where they could more easily be seen by radar and telescopes, including those used by the US military’s Space Surveillance Network?
James Acton, a physicist at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in a Twitter thread that a hypersonic glide vehicle launched from the ground “on the southern route” over the South Pole to the US Pacific Coast “would be every bit as effective” as one based on orbit “at evading missile defenses. Perhaps marginally more so.”
On the other hand, he said, maybe China doesn’t have the technical ability to build a ground-launched boost-glide hypersonic missile that can reach the United States, due to the enormous heat build up such a missile body would have to take even flying through the thin air of the upper atmosphere on the border of space.
Hypersonic missiles are also designed to strike far-away targets quickly, but it takes 90 minutes to make one orbit around the Earth, Harrison pointed out.
“When you put a hypersonic missile into orbit it defeats the point,” Harrison said.
Less Scary Spaceplanes?
By contrast, objects in orbit — including highly maneuverable spaceplanes — are by and large much more easily detected and tracked.
It is true that the US has issues with keeping tabs on space objects that can maneuver, especially if they do so while in orbit over the Southern Hemisphere where sensor coverage is light. But orbits are orbits, under the laws of physics, and ultimately things in space can usually be found.
If a country wanted to use a spaceplane as a weapon, Harrison explained, it actually would make a better co-orbital weapon to attack other satellites rather than a space-to-ground platform.
“I would see it as something that either carries something non-kinetic effects, like an electromagnetic pulse weapon, a laser jammer, something like that. Or, it could have a physical weapon that’s like an obscurant that you could spray on lenses,” he said.
Of course, that is exactly what the Chinese and Russians have accused the US of doing with the X-37B, which the US argues isn’t a weapon at all but a test platform.
As far as China’s claim to have launched a spaceplane in July, astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell wrote on his blog that the US military did not report a new, unidentified spacecraft in orbit from mid-July to mid-August in their public catalog of space objects. And while one might think that US missile warning satellites, such as DoD’s Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) would have picked up any Chinese launch during that time frame, McDowell noted on Twitter that SBIRS is not optimized for watching trajectories over the Pacific.
McDowell, who works at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told Breaking Defense that it would’ve been possible for independent space watchers to catch a glimpse of the spaceplane if it stayed in orbit, but not if it was suborbital. Or perhaps if it took only one turn or almost turn around the Earth they just missed it.
But, a number of other analysts have pointed out, if the test was of a “suborbital space vehicle” as described by the Foreign Ministry, it wouldn’t really be a spaceplane. Hypersonic weapons, of course, normally fly at suborbital altitudes.
‘Don’t Jump To Conclusions’
Until more information is available, the most important lesson so far from all the hullabaloo may be “don’t jump to conclusions,” Harrison said.
“I think we’ve got to do a better job, as policy community of maintaining our rationality. Despite what China may be doing that’s provocative and other areas, we’ve got to be rational and the level headed, and look at things for what they really are,” he said.
“In short, public hysteria can lead to overreaction by political leaders,” tweeted Aaron Bateman, a space policy expert at John Hopkins University.
Jeffrey Lewis, an expert on China’s nuclear and space policies at Monterrey Institute’s James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), does not doubt the FT report that the PLA tested a FOBS, but also said in a Twitter feed the US must check its reaction.
“I keep seeing people describe China’s FOBS test as a ‘Sputnik moment.’ I think this is a lot more like 9/11 where we collectively panic and do a bunch dumb, self-destructive shit that exceeds even the hopes of our worst enemies,” he wrote.
Valerie Insinna, Colin Clark and Lee Ferran contributed to this story.