China has reportedly tested a new strategic weapon: a fractional orbital bombardment system armed with a hypersonic glide vehicle. What exactly does this weapon do and what is the threat to the United States?
Peter Brookes, a senior research fellow focusing on weapons of mass destruction and counterproliferation at The Heritage Foundation, joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to shed some light on this startling development. (The Daily Signal is Heritage’s multimedia news organization.)
“This weapon—because of its unlimited range—could be flown over the South Pole towards the United States, which would give it certain capabilities that would be difficult to defend against,” Brookes explains. “For years and years, going back to the Cold War, we have developed our radar capabilities looking towards things coming over the North Pole or from east and west, and not from the south.”
Listen to the full interview below or read the lightly edited transcript.
Christian Mysliwiec: This is Christian Mysliwiec, and our guest today is Peter Brookes, The Heritage Foundation’s senior research fellow for weapons of mass destruction and counterproliferation. Peter, thanks so much for joining me today.
Peter Brookes: Good to be with you.
Mysliwiec: You recently published an article in The Daily Signal about how China tested a new hypersonic weapon over the summer. Now I’d like to talk more about what hypersonic weapons are and how they work. But before we get to that, what do these tests mean for the U.S.? What is the potential impact on America and other countries?
Brookes: Well, it’s not good news. This new weapon is troubling and it’s more than just a hypersonic weapon. It’s also what the Chinese call a fractional orbital bombardment system, but we can get more into that later on.
But yeah, this challenges our interests and it’s part of China’s recent increase in the capabilities of their strategic forces. This is a strategic weapon. The warhead that it carries could be conventional or strategic, a nuclear weapon.
And they’ve also—as I’ve written in The Daily Signal recently—talked about how they’re increasing their land-based nuclear capabilities as well, as well as that at sea. They also have an at sea deterrent.
So this is not good news considering the tensions between China and the United States right now. And it certainly gives China a leverage internationally with its agenda, which doesn’t necessarily comport with that of the United States or our friends and allies.
Mysliwiec: Right. Now, what is the potential range and how much damage can this weapon inflict?
Brookes: Well, as I mentioned, it has unlimited range because basically what the Chinese are doing with this weapon—once again, this long-term, this fractional-orbital bombardment system—is they’re launching a hypersonic glide vehicle on a space-launch vehicle.
So picture this in your mind. It’s going to piggyback on the space-launch vehicle into low-Earth orbit, and then it will circle the globe. And then the hypersonic-glide vehicle will detach from what some people call the mothership or the space-launch vehicle, and then find its way to its target.
So essentially because you’re putting it into orbit, it has unlimited range. And interestingly enough … in the Northern hemisphere, the most common approach for weapons delivery to the United States—towards the United States—would probably come over the North Pole, Russia, China. This weapon—because of its unlimited range—could be flown over the South Pole towards the United States, which would give it certain capabilities that would be difficult to defend against because we really, for years and years, going back to the Cold War, we have developed our radar capabilities looking towards things coming over the North Pole or from east and west and not from the south.
Mysliwiec: Right. So General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff … referred to this as very close to a Sputnik moment. So what do you think of that assessment?
Brookes: It’s very striking coming from the senior military advisor to the president of the United States. I wouldn’t have put it necessarily in that category, but it’s reasonable to say so.
This is a new type of weapon that the Chinese are developing to advance their agenda. And some of that, like I said, goes up against the desires of the United States. It’s extremely difficult to defend against. In fact, as a matter of fact, it’s extremely difficult to acquire with sensors and to track. And I’d love to hear what the chairman has to say as to why he said that. But it’s being said by a lot of our military and senior military members, talking about this as a strategic breakout.
Now, of course, China has tested this weapon, and supposedly tested it twice this summer. It’s possible that there are going to be more tests. It has not yet been deployed and we’ll have to see how many of them are deployed, if they’re deployed. And then how many to see what the real threat is.
Now going back to Sputnik in 1957, that was the beginning of the ICBM age, the intercontinental ballistic missile age. And because the Soviets were able to put Sputnik into orbit, send it around the earth, meant that they could reach any place on the Earth’s surface with a rocket. And they eventually developed that capability and so did the United States. And we were just slightly behind them, but they did develop that capability first.
So in this case, the United States does not have a similar weapon. And for many years, we were actually involved in the development of hypersonic weapons until sequestration in 2014, which cut the defense budgets and hypersonic weapon research and development was dropped.
So we’re a bit behind. It doesn’t mean that we can’t develop this capability if we decide we need it, but we’ll have to see if the Chinese do deploy it. If it’s successful. I mean, remember a lot of weapons systems are tested and never put into a deployment or into operational status. And then how many of them they will deploy.
So there are still a lot of questions, but it is very striking when the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the chairman, or the commander of strategic command and others, make these very, very strong comments because they have access to information that you and I don’t hopefully. Right.
So it’s important to understand that they have different assessments, different information, different intelligence at their fingertips, that they can make those judgements and those statements based upon.
So it is very striking and it is very concerning. And I look forward to hearing more about it and why he chose those words specifically.
Mysliwiec: Right. So you mentioned that two tests were conducted during the summer. Now Beijing has denied that it was testing a weapon, like you said, that it’s put into low orbit through another spacecraft and then it would detach from that craft to reach its target. So they said that they were just launching a reusable space vehicle, like those used by SpaceX. Is that right?
Brookes: Yeah, that’s what they’re saying, and there’s no surprise there. The Chinese are not known for their transparency, especially in nuclear issues. In fact, the United States has been trying to talk to China about nuclear issues for a long, long time, including back when I was in the Pentagon during the Bush administration. The Chinese didn’t really want to talk about it.
It’s still a problem. The difference now between now and 20 years ago is that the Chinese have made great strides in their nuclear capabilities. They’ve sent submarines to sea so that means they even have sea deterrent. It’s a small at sea deterrent, but still, it’s something that they’re, direction they’re moving in. They also have, they are developing nuclear bombers. That was not really something that they were really interested in. They’re using some older Badger bombers from the Soviet era.
And they’re also developing a new bomber as well, that will probably carry a nuclear weapon.
And then of course their land-based capability is growing significantly. In fact, our senior military leaders say that their land-based nuclear capability will increase by three to four times over the next decade.
So they’re putting a tremendous emphasis on their nuclear capability. In fact, just a few years ago, they elevated their strategic rocket forces, which is the force that deals with nuclear weapons to its own individual service.
As we recently did with space force, we made it its own individual service. The Chinese did this with their strategic rocket forces, which shows the priority and emphasis that they’re placing on strategic weapons.
So a lot of things to be concerned about. This one is very interesting obviously because of the new technologies we’re seeing. And the Chinese think they can get away with saying that this is just a reusable space vehicle, but the fact of the matter is, is that we know better.
And at some point this warhead or this glide vehicle—this hypersonic glide vehicle—could carry a conventional warhead, a nuclear warhead, or just use its tremendously high speed. I mean, anything to be considered hypersonic will travel more than five mock—five times the speed of sound—and we’re talking about five mock is about one mile per second, very, very high speed. But because of the kinetic energy behind something that travels that fast, it can actually just use its vehicle, the hypersonic glide vehicle as a weapon and attack a target just using that kinetic energy.
Mysliwiec: Right. Right. So we used the term hypersonic glide vehicle, like we saw vehicle, but the thing itself acts like a missile, right? It’s going on a one-way trip.
Brookes: I would say it acts more like a plane because it’s maneuverable.
Brookes: That’s another thing. Yeah. I mean, so what happens is, is once again, I mean, this is hard to do on a podcast without graphic. And I would recommend that people take a look on the internet to see what I’m talking about, but it would be launched on the space-launch vehicle. And then it will go into lower orbit.
And at some point, depending on the target, the hypersonic-glide vehicle will separate from the space-launch vehicle and go on its own way and it may travel further or shorter, and then it will deorbit. It will come out of low orbit at great speed and it can maneuver its way to a target, which makes it very difficult to defend against because it’s going so fast and it’s maneuverable.
If it were just coming out of space and just dropping out space and it had a predictable trajectory, it would be much easier to defend against. So the maneuverability is something, it’s almost like an airplane that would be carrying some sort of warhead towards its target and but it’s unmanned in this case.
Mysliwiec: The United States, what does it need to do to develop some sort of defense against this? Or any nation?
Brookes: Well, there’s a lot of, you’re right and it may not just be the United States, but I think the United States considering the competition, the great power competition going on between the United States and China and Russia, is the prime target here, of this.
I mean the Chinese and the United States have different interests on a number of important issues, including the issue of Taiwan. The Chinese feel that the United States currently outguns China in terms of nuclear weapons. So does Russia. And I think my sense is that China wants to reach parity or near parity with United States and Russia so it can sit at the table with the most powerful nuclear states in the world and have their say.
China is extremely assertive today, especially in its international relation. I mentioned Taiwan is also the issue of the South China Sea which is a million square miles of ocean that China considers to be basically a Chinese lake. They say this is indisputable Chinese sovereign territory.
And at some point as they develop their navy and their air force, which is happening—it is developing at a tremendous rate—they may try to exercise sovereignty control over that massive water, which carries trillions of dollars of commerce every year.
So the Chinese are involved in this program to increase their capabilities, certainly militarily, which provides leverage and backing to their diplomatic efforts. But in terms of responses, I mean, obviously we have to have strong diplomacy. We have to have a strong footing and working in the world and work with our ally. China, like I said, we’re probably the primary target, but Japan also has historic issues with China.
Russia and China are currently working together a lot, but I don’t see them as natural ally. And I think someday they may go in different direction and in the past they have. Remember during the Cold War, the Sino-Soviet split. In 1972, [former President Richard] Nixon went to Beijing to open relations and played the China card against the Soviet Union.
So at some point I think right now the Chinese and Russians are playing each other’s cards against the United States as they work together, but they’re not natural allies. And I think frictions will evolve over time.
But United States should be working with allies on these issues. And that includes not just in Asia, but also in Europe. There’s tremendous capabilities in Europe to try to find ways to deal with these new and evolving weapon.
Of course, as you know, we just published the index of military strength and increasing conventional deterrents is critically important, recapitalizing our military because if you can deter somebody conventionally and prevent yourself from getting to the level of nuclear gamesmanship, brinkmanship, you’re in a much better place. So conventional deterrents is critically important. That means our regular forces not our nuclear force.
But we also need to press ahead with our nuclear modernization. And our colleague Patty-Jane Geller has written extensively about that. We need to modernize these nuclear capabilities so we can once again, have that strategic deterrence against anything China might do at a conventional or nuclear level.
Missile defenses are still very important. Some people out there say, well, this is why China’s developing it because the missile defenses, but every country has a right to defend itself.
And the United States has made great strides in terms of missile defense and missile defense is not only for strategic weapons. It’s also for missiles of shorter range. So moving ahead with missile defense is critically important.
We also need to improve our ability to acquire and track these sort of targets, which probably means better space surveillance and tracking, critically important that we have that capability. And it’s something that we haven’t developed the means to yet to deal with these cutting edge sort of weapons.
And I think we also need to pressure China directly and indirectly through friends, allies, and partners to engage in arms control talks. The Trump administration brought this up. They were saying, in fact, in some of the treaties with Russia, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which we left under the Trump administration. One was because Russia was in material breach of that treaty. And the other is that China has more missiles than Russia, and China was not playing a role in arms control, especially on this issue.
So we need to get China involved in arms control. It’s critically important. At least have an understanding, a better understanding of when they would use weapons, their doctrine. And this can be gained during these sorts of conversations and meetings, but the Chinese don’t want talk about it.
And one of the other things that I’m really concerned about is that there is a change in Chinese doctrine. For a long, long time they had a minimal deterrent strategy. In other words, just enough weapons to be able to strike back if somebody were to strike them. They’re moving beyond that now. In fact, a U.S. Air Force think tank said that China may have as many missiles—land-based [intercontinental ballistic missiles]—as the United States in the years to come, as many land-based [intercontinental ballistic missiles] as we have minute-man missiles. And this is of concern.
So as you develop greater capabilities and as you develop new technologies, your doctrine might change. So we may have had an idea that China was just involved in a second-strike capability, but now are they thinking about a first-strike capability? In other words, trying to take out command-and-control complexes, nuclear weapons, conventional forces first before a war starts. I mean, this is of tremendous concern.
And China had always said they had a no first-use policy, which said, “We will never strike first. We only strike in response.” And people are wondering about that since they are developing these tremendous capabilities at sea, on the land. And obviously these new, exotic or novel weapons such as the hypersonic-glide vehicle on a fractional-bombardment system, orbital-bombardment system. So there’s a lot of things to be concerned about regarding the changes in China’s nuclear capabilities and potentially doctrine.
Mysliwiec: So you mentioned that one way to kind of curb the potentially use of these weapons is some sort of arms-control treaty. Why would they agree to enter into such a treaty? What bargaining chip does the United States have?
Brookes: Under the current Chinese leadership, I don’t see them having any desire to do that. That’s why there needs to be additional international pressure from beyond the United States. I think China is on—everybody agrees with me—but I think China’s on a path to achieving the near parity or parity with the United States and Russia on these weapons before they will come to the table to negotiate. Maybe they won’t even come to the table at that. Maybe they plan to supersede, supersede us.
For instance, Christian, they put in last week, interestingly, civilian researchers last summer, and I wrote about this several times, found through commercial satellite, found 250 new Chinese [intercontinental ballistic missile] silos. Now, China, prior to that only had 20.
Mysliwiec: Oh wow.
Brookes: And they had 100 mobile ICBMs. So they had 20 land based silos. And then researchers found around 250 new ones. OK. So China can put in a missile in those, or not put a missile in. Maybe they’re meant to fool us. Could be one of these sort of things, we don’t know how many missiles are in there. We don’t know if they’re all full, if they’re all empty, but they’re building 250 new silos.
So say for instance, they filled them all, 250 new missiles and they’re newest [intercontinental ballistic missile] is the DF-41. And that missile can potentially carry five to 10 MIRVs, which is a multiple-warhead package. In other words, in the warhead or the nose cone of the missile there would be a number of nuclear weapons, not just one. And they can all be independently targeted at different targets. So imagine that.
And the United States right now has 1,550 operational nuclear weapons. So if you put 250 in there and you put five to 10 in there, say if you put 10 in there, that’s 2,500 new operational [intercontinental ballistic missiles] on the Chinese side.
So this could be a reality. I mean, China is prioritizing its military buildup, including conventionally and strategically. So this is something to be concerned about. So say if China develops this capability, they exceed the U.S. capability that’s currently restricted by the New START Treaty with Russia. And all of a sudden they have more nuclear weapons than us. And what are we going to do if they say they’re going to change Taiwan’s future militarily, which the United States is firmly against? but there are real concerns there, as you can see.
Mysliwiec: Right. All right. I want to end just by going back to the hypersonic weapon. So after testing, what is the next step? Like when could they conceivably start to use these against adversaries?
Brookes: Well, this hypersonic vehicle supposedly missed its attended target by 25 miles. But if it were nuclear-capable, that doesn’t mean as much. Right.
Brookes: You don’t have to be exacting, if you were just using the vehicle itself and it’s kinetic energy, to do something, you’d probably have to hit it pretty close on. A conventional weapon would have a bigger area. It would cover high explosive and then a nuclear weapon. So 25 miles sounds like a lot, but it depends on what it’s targeting. Right. And what it’s warhead is. So that’s obviously a concern.
Now, each country does things a little bit differently. The United States tests things for a long time to make sure they’re going to work. And there’s a lot of good reasons for that, but it also takes us a long time to field capabilities. The Chinese may or not spend as much time doing that. And they may even field it while they’re still testing. You can also field something and then still continue to test it and refine it. But when they field it, then they had an impact because they will have created a deterrent effect, a perception of a capability that we would have to deal with.
So we’ll have to see exactly where they go with this and in what sort of numbers. Is this going to be a small number or is it going to be a large number that are going to be fielded or deployed? And will they field it early and or continue to work on testing? So those are into the to see category right now.
Mysliwiec: All right. Well, Peter Brookes, thank you so much for joining me.
Brookes: Thanks for having me.
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