The Temptation to Escalate: Responding to China’s Hypersonic Weapon Test

US-China tensions increased this fall with the announcement by US officials that China had tested a “hypersonic weapon” earlier in the year. The alleged test has produced alarmist warnings about a Chinese threat to the United States and spurred US efforts to respond in some way. However, these fears about hypersonic weapons are overblown and could all too easily lead to an unnecessary escalation in hostility between the United States and China—a far greater danger than any new weaponry.

Hypersonic technology refers to unmanned aerial vehicles, similar to missiles, that travel through low-orbit space, relatively close to the ground. They differ in this respect from ballistic missiles, which travel high into outer space before returning to earth. As their name suggests, hypersonic vehicles can travel extremely fast, at five times the speed of sound. Hypersonic vehicles are maneuverable, very difficult to track, and could be used to strike targets with nuclear weapons. If a nuclear-armed hypersonic weapon were launched against the United States, American decision-makers might have only about 5 minutes warning time before the weapon arrived.[1]   

The Financial Times reported in late October that during the summer China’s military launched a missile carrying a hypersonic glide vehicle. The hypersonic vehicle circled the planet before landing close to its intended target.[2] While China and other nations (including the United States) were already known to have such technology, such a public test was surprising.[3] Soon General Mark Milley, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff spoke publicly about the hypersonic test, calling it “a very significant event” and “very concerning.”[4] In November, the Joint Chiefs’ vice chair, General John Hyten, spoke about the Chinese test and warned that the United States was behind China in developing hypersonic weapons.[5]

In response to the reported test, some prominent American are setting off alarm bells. Hyten spoke ominously of China developing a “first-use” capability—that is, the ability to launch a surprise nuclear attack on the United States so devastating as to escape American retaliation.[6] General David Thompson, of the US Space Command, recently said “We have catching up to do very quickly, the Chinese have an incredible hypersonic program.”[7]

Congressman Mike Gallagher (R-WI), of the House Armed Services Committee, declared the test “a call to action” and warned the United States could “lose the new Cold War with Communist China within the decade” if it didn’t respond properly.[8] Rebeccah Heinrichs, a Hudson Institute fellow who advises the US military’s Strategic Air Command, has said, “This is clearly the Chinese government flexing its muscles” and that the Biden administration should “show we’re serious about deterring Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific.”[9]

Concerns about hypersonic weapons are likely to influence government spending. The US government already plans to spend $3.8 billion on American hypersonic missiles in Fiscal Year 2022.[10] Worries about Chinese hypersonic capabilities will create a spur to spend more. US Defense Department spokesman John Kirby has said “There’s a suite of issues with respect to China…They’re informing the budget. They’re informing the programs and the priorities of the department.”[11] Meanwhile, the Pentagon has awarded contracts to several military manufacturers to develop systems meant to defend against hypersonic weapons.[12]

To be fair, fears about Chinese hypersonic weapons are not absurd. Any technology that dramatically increases the speed and surprise of a nuclear attack is cause for concern, simply because such technology makes policymakers more paranoid, jumpy, and prone to making decisions too quickly. Further, if China is developing new nuclear weapons or conducting weapons tests as a form of saber-rattling, that points to a more hawkish Chinese stance that requires a careful, serious response.[13]

However, legitimate fears shouldn’t be overblown, for several reasons. First, the Chinese government notably has denied it tested a hypersonic weapon, describing the summer test as a “routine spacecraft experiment.”[14] While such denials shouldn’t be taken at face value, neither should US government claims of a weapons test. We shouldn’t draw conclusions when the facts are unclear.

Second, the likelihood that China would use hypersonic weapons to launch a surprise nuclear attack against the United States is very low. Given the massive US nuclear arsenal, some of which is deployed on mobile vehicles such as submarines, the notion that China could use nuclear weapons, however fast and undetectable, to destroy the United States’ ability to retaliate is so far-fetched it shouldn’t dictate policy.[15]

Third, investing heavily in US hypersonic weapons or missile defense systems (the latter of which are notoriously unreliable even against old-fashioned ballistic missiles) will waste money while further worsening American-Chinese relations through an arms race.[16]

US policymakers—and citizens—shouldn’t allow the recent alleged test to make international tensions worse. The goal must be to ease tensions and seek diplomacy that can limit and reduce hypersonic and other nuclear weapons.  

A version of this essay originally appeared on the Rehumanize International blog.

Notes

[1] “China Surprises U.S. with Nuclear-Capable Hypersonic Missile Test, FT Reports,” Reuters, October 17, 2021, https://cnb.cx/3xLxhEK; Tim Lister, “Sputnik Was a Wakeup Call for the US. China’s ‘Hypersonic Missile’ is a Trickier Challenge,” CNN, November 5, 2021, https://cnn.it/31kzScM; Ellen Nakashima, “China’s Test of Hypersonic Vehicle Is Part of a Program to Rapidly Expand Strategic and Nuclear Systems,” Washington Post, October 19, 2021, https://wapo.st/3dg1G4o.  

[2] “China Surprises U.S. with Nuclear-Capable Hypersonic Missile Test.”

[3] Brad Dress, “Space Force General: ‘We’re Not As Advanced As the Chinese or the Russians’ with Hypersonic Missiles,” The Hill, November 20, 2021, https://bit.ly/31kAIpW; Nakashima, “China’s Test of Hypersonic Vehicle.”

[4] Sara Sorcher and Karoun Demirjian, “Top U.S. General Calls China’s Hypersonic Weapon Test Very Close to a ‘Sputnik Moment,’” Washington Post, October 27, 2021, https://wapo.st/3Dd0Tf7.

[5] David Martin, “Exclusive: No. 2 in U.S. Military Reveals New Details about China’s Hypersonic Weapons Test,” CBS News, November 16, 2021, https://cbsn.ws/3Dha3HM.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Dress, “Space Force General.”

[8] “China Denies Testing a Nuclear-Capable Hypersonic Missile, Says It Was a Spacecraft,” CNN Wire, October 18, 2021, https://abc7.ws/3rtecGf.

[9] Nakashima, “China’s Test of Hypersonic Vehicle.”

[10] Dress, “Space Force General.”

[11] Sorcher and Demirjian, “Top U.S. General.”

[12] Mike Stone, “Pentagon Picks Northrop, Lockheed, Raytheon to Develop Hypersonic Defense,” Reuters, November 19, 2021, https://yhoo.it/3oeUuMn.

[13] See “Seek Arms Control, Not an Arms Race: Responding to China’s Possible Nuclear Build-Up.”

[14] “China Denies Testing a Nuclear-Capable Hypersonic Missile.”

[15] See, for example, William J. Perry and Tom Z. Collina, The Button: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump (Dallas: BenBella Books, 2020), 118-119.

[16] Perry and Collina, 162-164.

© 2021 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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