Hyperventilating Over Hypersonics

Last summer, China tested a hypersonic missile that traveled through orbit. The test shocked many observers and led to widespread concern about the potential for nuclear-armed missiles that can evade detection and defense systems. The technology is not as new as it might seem, but this latest test highlights an underlying threat that the world has been living with for decades.

November 12, 2021 — 27:19 min
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Host

Gabrielle Sierra

Podcast Host and Producer Full Bio

Episode Guests

Adam Mount

Senior Fellow and Director, Federation of American Scientists

Laura Grego

Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Show Notes

Last summer, U.S. intelligence services reported that China tested a new hypersonic missile. These missiles are maneuverable, nuclear-capable, and use what is known as a fractional orbital bombardment system (FOBS). U.S. officials are increasingly wary of an emerging arms race as Russia and China expand their missile and nuclear capabilities. These advancements complicate deterrence logic and could sway military policy. With a hefty price to compete in this arena, experts debate the merits of the United States emulating its adversaries.

 

From CFR 

 

Michael C. Horowitz and Lauren A. Kahn, “DoD’s 2021 China Military Power Report: How Advances in AI and Emerging Technologies Will Shape China’s Military

 

From Laura Grego 

 

Rush Hour In Orbit: The Science (and Politics) of Keeping Satellites Safe,” Got Science?, Union of Concerned Scientists

 

Some pretty good work by Congress on missile defense this year,” All Things Nuclear, Union of Concerned Scientists

 

A nuclear arms race is unavoidable without serious intervention,” Financial Times

 

From Adam Mount

 

What Is the Sole Purpose of U.S. Nuclear Weapons?, Federation of American Scientists 

 

Adam Mount and Pranay Vaddi, An Integrated Approach to Deterrence Posture [PDF],  Federation of American Scientists

 

Read More

 

De-hyping China’s Missile Test,” All Things Nuclear, Union of Concerned Scientists

 

China tests new space capability with hypersonic missile,” Financial Times

 

China’s Orbital Bombardment System Is Big, Bad News—but Not a Breakthrough,” Foreign Policy

 

Russia Goes Hypersonic,” Situation Report, Foreign Policy

 

Hypersonic Missiles Are Unstoppable. And They’re Starting a New Global Arms Race.,” New York Times 

 

Behind murky claim of a new hypersonic missile test, there lies a very real arms race,” NPR

 

Visual explainer: How China’s hypersonic missile compares to conventional ballistic weapons,” USA Today

 

Watch and Listen

 

Hypersonic Missiles Arms Race: What You Need to Know,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

 

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Transcript

Hey everyone, so just a quick heads up that this is our last episode of season 4. We will be taking a break for the holidays to produce an amazing line up for season 5, so stay tuned for updates, and have a fabulous end of your year.

https://youtu.be/gMeFdMAR0dw 

DW News: Growing American concerns about the threats posed by China.

https://youtu.be/U_vTVPvlpmY?t=8 

Today: It's a new breed of super fast missiles. 

https://youtu.be/wOubUr5NqGc?t=3 

CBN News: It’s a hypersonic missile.

https://youtu.be/kSolxkzwB68?t=108 

Forbes Breaking News: Hypersonic missile. 

https://youtu.be/5qxqX1LrBcA?t=5 

Fox News: Hypersonic weapon system.

https://youtu.be/QWQ3SMkJIp8?t=25 

ABC News: Beijing test launched the weapon this summer, sending it into space and around the planet. 

https://youtu.be/98xhFtaRSFo?t=12 

CNBC Television: We are behind the Chinese, we are behind the Russians, there’s a lot more work to do on hypersonics.

https://youtu.be/QWQ3SMkJIp8?t=8
ABC News: How would you track it if it were carrying a nuclear weapon?

Last month, United States General Mark Milley, the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, held a press conference and confirmed suspicions that China had tested a hypersonic missile over the summer. 

A lot of the coverage that followed was breathless.  In the confusion, it was easy to imagine futuristic, superfast missiles that could evade our defenses and strike without warning. Some compared the test to a “sputnik moment,” invoking the Cold War and its perilous arms races. 

The truth is a lot more complex, and many of these fears may be exaggerated. Still, it was an exceptional moment, if only because it gave a new generation a taste of a nuclear danger, and reminded the world about the fragile system of mutually assured destruction that has prevented nuclear war for decades. 

I’m Gabrielle Sierra and this is Why It Matters. Today, the truth about hypersonic missiles.  


Gabrielle SIERRA: Alright so nuclear weapons are scary to begin with, and hypersonic missiles with nuclear warheads sounds even scarier. So on a scale of one to ten, how scared should I be? 

Laura GREGO: So I am not going to tell you how scared to be. I think a lot of people imagine we left this nuclear competition behind at the end of the Cold War. I run into people who think that all the time. 

This is Laura Grego. She is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Laboratory for Nuclear Security and Policy at MIT.

GREGO: I'm gen X, I grew up in the 80s and that was front and center. That was our common culture was like the Soviets and the US, all of this stuff. And things have changed significantly. And we've gotten rid of so many nuclear weapons, but we are entering a dangerous phase again. And this is not just bilateral, it's trilateral. There's the US, Russia and China are all modernizing their nuclear arsenals and nuclear delivery systems, recapitalizing, rebuilding, building new, different ways to deliver nuclear weapons.  

As of 2021, there are roughly 13,150 nuclear warheads on Earth, about 90 percent of which are owned by Russia and the United States. That sounds like a lot, and it is, but thanks to disarmament agreements, the number is way down from a peak of more than 60,000 in 1986. As Laura noted, the threat has not disappeared, and Russia, the United States, and other nuclear players like China are investing heavily in modernizing their nuclear arsenals.  

SIERRA: Ok let’s get more specific. Tell me about hypersonic weapons. 

GREGO: I think the name hypersonic just sounds really awesome like this is something new, and the technology isn't new, the dynamics aren't even all that new. So the name hypersonic missiles, is a little bit of a red herring because "hypersonic" describes the speed of something. So hypersonic is five times the speed of sound. It goes fast, but that's not special about these missiles. Intercontinental ballistic missiles go faster than that. For 50 years we've had hypersonic-speed missiles, so that's not new. When people talk about hypersonic missiles, really what they're talking about is missiles that are maneuverable. 

To understand why this maneuverability matters, you have to know how the old technology works. Meet the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, or ICBM, which has dominated nuclear strategy for decades. 

GREGO: So ballistic missiles go up into the vacuum of space and come down, just like you throw a rock, you throw a baseball. If you have a ball that you're throwing and you want it to go as far as possible, your brain is going to do this calculation for you and pick the angle. It's sort of a 45 degree angle and that's how you're going to get the furthest. 

In general, ICBMs follow this same trajectory. They are launched into the atmosphere with the same type of rockets we use to launch satellites. 

GREGO: It's just this big powerful rocket engine, you know, you know, gets things going up to a high speed. And normally an intercontinental ballistic missile will launch, it will burn for three to five minutes to get going up to high speeds, like seven or eight kilometers per second. And it will send its payload, which is for intercontinental ballistic missiles, it's invariably a nuclear weapon. It'll send it high up arcing through space. As soon as a missile burns out, it's not in powered flight anymore. So it goes up, it'll arch high up into space, sort of a thousand kilometers altitude or so, and then come back down on the other of the earth. So an ICBM's reason for being is to deliver something from here to there in 30 to 40 minutes. Once you launch it, it goes. And you don't recall it. You don't retarget it. It just ends up where you've targeted it, 30 minutes later.

Some modern ICBMs do have the ability to alter course a bit on their way back down to earth, but in general, they always go where you point them, and you can’t change your mind after launch. They are fast and powerful, but they are also predictable, and the world’s advanced militaries have gotten really good at detecting and tracking them.  

This is where hypersonic missiles come in. 

Adam MOUNT: What most people talk about when they talk about a hypersonic missile is a hypersonic glide vehicle. This is a system that is attached to a normal ballistic missile booster, then thrown into the atmosphere, it detaches, and then it glides through the atmosphere maneuvering in flight at very high speeds. 

This is Adam Mount. He is a Senior Fellow at the Federation of American Scientists with a focus on U.S. nuclear weapons policy. 

So that the difference between a hypersonic glide vehicle and a normal ballistic missile is that a normal ballistic missile is flung towards its target on a predictable trajectory. A hypersonic glide vehicle by contrast is slower because it's having to go through the atmosphere, but it can also maneuver in the atmosphere. And so you're not totally sure when it's fired where it's going to end up.

Countries around the world have been developing this technology for decades in different ways. And while the biggest concerns are related to nuclear security, countries are also developing non-nuclear hypersonic missiles for use in battle. The basic appeal is simple: they’re hard to detect, and very hard to shoot down. 

GREGO: The United States missile defenses and radar systems have been set up to detect and defend against ballistic missiles, which are arcing high up and coming back down. So the radars are sort of curated to look for things that are coming from that direction. And so these gliders that are skimming through the atmosphere literally fly under the radar. The radars are looking at high altitudes, and these will come underneath them. So those radars, yes, they cannot see these because they're not really designed to.

However, hypersonic missiles aren’t actually “invisible” some experts think that they could be spotted with current technology, for example infrared sensors. 

But they are a whole lot sneakier than ICBMs. And that is enough to put militaries on edge.

SIERRA: So can you tell me about the basics of the recent Chinese weapons tests that prompted all this worry?

MOUNT: We're still not sure, given unclassified information, exactly what China tested or what they intended to test. It's easy to get alarmed about headlines about hypersonic missiles specifically because it means that we are vulnerable to our adversaries. It is never comfortable to be reminded by that. The public reports suggest that China tested a missile system that was capable of injecting a hypersonic glide vehicle into low earth orbit. So it can orbit the earth more or less indefinitely and then exit that orbit at a time and place of its choosing. This grants it the capability, for example, to inject itself into an orbit that goes over the South Pole and then strikes at the Continental United States from an unexpected direction,
 

This particular type of technology, which puts a hypersonic weapon into orbit, is called a FOBS, or fractional orbital bombardment system, but more on that later. 

GREGO: Ballistic missiles between countries in the Northern Hemisphere, tend to come up over the North Pole towards each other, from China to the US, US to China, between all three of these countries, they'll come up northerly. But if you want to get around missile defenses, you want to confuse them. One way you can do it is come from an unexpected direction. So hypersonic missiles come from unexpected directions, on sort of a small scale, making maneuvers of thousands of kilometers out of the direction you expect. But if you put something in orbit and then deorbit it, you can come around from a completely different direction, like from the south, you can come up from the South Pole. So, that strategy of putting something into orbit and then bringing it back down when it's over its target is called orbital bombardment, or if it doesn't complete one entire orbit, it'll be a fractional orbital bombardment system. So what it looked like China did was put something into orbit and then deorbit it, and what that something was, was a hypersonic glide vehicle.

We should note that China’s missile test landed 24 miles off target. And when asked about the test, Chinese officials stated it was a routine test of a space vehicle. 

Still, the test seemed to combine two advanced missile technologies 1) a hypersonic glide vehicle and 2) a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System, or FOBS. This allows you to put a hypersonic glide vehicle into a potentially indefinite orbit around the earth. FOBS have a lot of ins and outs.  But the basic fear surrounding them is simple. If your adversary has a hypersonic missile in orbit, circling the earth, you have no way of knowing when or where it’s going to come down.

GREGO: So that's orbital bombardment, but why fractional? So fractional means you haven't quite completed one go round to the Earth. So each go round of the Earth takes about 90 minutes at these altitudes. And why do you have to get out before you complete an orbit? That is to make sure that you remain in compliance with the Outer Space Treaty. One of the core things in the Outer Space Treaty is that you are not allowed to place nuclear weapons into orbit, or station them in space in any way. So it doesn't mean you can't pop up and come down as an ICBM, that's not being stationed, according to the Outer Space Treaty. But putting them in orbit would be contravening it. So there's a legal analysis which suggests that as long as you don't complete one entire orbit, you haven't contravened your obligations of the Outer Space Treaty. So it's fractional. So even if you dive down at, whatever, 89 out of 90 minutes, that legal analysis says that you still have respected the Outer Space Treaty.

SIERRA: Wow. That is such a way to skirt around.

GREGO: Yeah. And I think a big thing about the "no nukes and space" is that it truly is meant so that we're not storing nuclear weapons in space and just having another vector of "when might nuclear weapons rain down on me?"

SIERRA: Right.

GREGO: So part of this of arming intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear weapons is that you can see them coming. And that is stabilizing. You can not only see them coming, but you can see them not coming. Every minute we know that we're not being attacked with nuclear weapons because we're looking for them. But if you have nuclear weapons stationed in space and they don't have the same signature associated with nuclear weapons, that provides another other thing we have to worry about and be concerned about. So I think that that provision of the Outer Space Treaty, whether or not a FOBS contravenes it, it provides a lot of useful stability, I think even in this loophole. 

SIERRA: Why do countries like Russia or China want hypersonic missiles?

MOUNT: US adversaries have been pursuing an across the board effort to defeat US missile defenses. While the United States has its missile defenses are aimed mostly at North Korea. It used to also be against Iran. Russia and China have been extremely alarmed, very public and vocal about the risk that US missile defenses could sometime someday in the future, hold their arsenals at risk. The worry is that the United States with its very capable nuclear and conventional strike capabilities, could conduct a first strike against, Chinese or Russian capabilities and then use missile defenses to mop up a retaliatory strike. 

When talking about missile defense, it’s very important to distinguish between the ability to detect incoming missiles, and the ability to shoot them down. The U.S. is very good at the detection part. Sensors on land, sea and in space are constantly monitoring for an attack. If a missile aimed at the U.S. is detected, the U.S. military would launch an interceptor to shoot the missile down. This is where things get murky. 

GREGO: So the United States fields currently one system to defend the continental United States from ICBMs, nuclear-armed ICBMs, it's called the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system. It's mostly interceptors based in Alaska with a few in Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, but they're meant to detect an incoming intercontinental ballistic missile from North Korea and destroy it before it can get to the US. It does not work very well. I mean, it's been decades of effort and tens of billions of dollars, and it still has not yet demonstrated capability even against sort of the less sophisticated North Korean missiles.

But these limitations haven’t stopped countries like China and Russia from worrying about U.S. missile defense. 

GREGO: China and Russia are sort of looking decades ahead, and if the United States manages to make some kind of technological breakthrough, or it decides to just invest in lots of different systems for missile defense, they want to be able to guarantee that their ability to deliver nuclear weapons to the United States is secure so that the deterrence relationship, mutual assured destruction continues to be the fact of the day. 

It’s worth pausing here, because mutually assured destruction is a very important concept when it comes to nuclear security. It’s part of a broader concept called deterrence. 

SIERRA: So can you give us a quick refresher on what nuclear deterrence means?

MOUNT: For any nuclear state, the basic requirement of nuclear deterrence is that if your adversary tries to wipe out your nuclear arsenal, you still have the capability to inflict unacceptable damage on them. The terms that we use to describe this is that if, for example, the United States with its extremely capable, conventional and nuclear strike capabilities attempted to carry out a first strike against Russia, China, or North Korea, they want the ability to still be able to retaliate, to still be able to inflict unacceptable damage on the United States and its allies. 

The idea here is to make it so dangerous to launch a nuclear weapon that nobody chooses to do so. And while it might sound strange, missile defense systems can make things more dangerous. 

MOUNT: If the United States missile defense system could knock down or defend against that smaller retaliatory strike package, then it would undermine this basic requirement of deterrence. It would mean that the United States could wipe out an adversary's nuclear arsenal and face no damage or no consequences in return. For many years, the US missile defense system has been relatively small and aimed primarily at North Korea and also Iran. Yet there has always been this wish in US strategic circles to provide for perfect security, to eliminate the vulnerability that the United States has against its adversaries. So that we're relying, not on deterrence, but on defense. This was Ronald Reagan's wish. And it is a wish that remains politically and emotionally appealing today. It's what explains the continued US bipartisan investments in missile defenses, even though they have had a very mottled track record. So while US missile defenses almost certainly do not have the capability to defend against Russian, China, North Korean second strike options, those adversaries worry that it does. And there are many in the US Congress and in the United States that hope one day that it could, this is what's driving this new arms race among US adversaries to defeat, pierce or overwhelm US missile defenses.

Many experts believe that deterrence works best when everyone presents an equal threat. But if one country pulls ahead, either in offense or defense, the others must decide how to keep up, and this can lead to an arms race.

The Chinese test seemed to advance China’s side of the equation, and it came as a surprise for people who assumed the United States would always remain comfortably ahead of the game in terms of missile technology. 

SIERRA: So I heard this referred to as a Sputnik moment. So what does that mean? And do you actually agree with that analogy?

MOUNT: It's difficult to overstate the effect that seeing Sputnik in the sky had on the American psyche. It was a moment during the Cold War where the United States realized that it wasn't infallible.

For those who don’t know, Sputnik was the world’s first satellite, and its successful launch by the USSR in 1957 shocked the United States, and spurred an intense technological competition. 

MOUNT: After World War 2, everyday people realized that the Soviet Union was making advances that could match or even exceed the United States. It's difficult to see the same level of impact from these Chinese test. One reason is we don't in public know exactly what was tested or its capabilities, but for another it's surprising because China already has the capability to hold the United States at risk. It has very capable, Intercontinental ballistic missiles at very long ranges. It's building more of them. The United States has been vulnerable to Chinese missiles for decades now. So it's difficult to see why a new ability to do that represents such a major tectonic change in our strategic environment, but it's also not uncommon for US defense officials to think this way.

GREGO: China's nuclear arsenal is so much smaller than the United States and Russia. And I know you'll have heard that they're certainly growing it and making it more sophisticated, but at present it's much smaller than the US and Russia's. So China's problem with the offense, defense is more acute because then they can imagine there might be more reality of the United States striking them first and not being vulnerable. I think that's one driver of all of these exquisite systems.

China has roughly 350 nuclear warheads, and is in the process of building new weapons and missile silos. Of course that’s just a fraction of the 5,500 fielded by the United States, but it’s still a sufficient number to present a credible threat to the US or any other country.  

MOUNT: The United States has been vulnerable to its adversaries for decades and hypersonic missiles don't change that. So this is less of a story about new capabilities, and it's more of a story about our discomfort with the logic of deterrence. It is more of a story about how the United States has never been comfortable being vulnerable to its adversaries. It's never been comfortable with the basic bargain that it could deter an attack on the United States. And, so throughout history, the United States has looked for ways to overcome that vulnerability.

SIERRA: Is the United States developing its own hypersonic weapons? 

MOUNT: Over the last decade especially, interest in hypersonics has reached a fever pitch. We are deeply concerned about the hypersonic programs of adversaries, and we're engaged in a crash program to develop our own. In this enormous fervor around hypersonic glide vehicles, nobody has stopped to ask the simple question, what does the United States need them for? US adversaries don't have ballistic missile defense capabilities or cruise missile defense capabilities that are as capable as ours. And so the case for US hypersonic glide vehicles is actually much weaker than that for our adversaries. Yet the amount of money, the amount of interest, the amount of bureaucratic politics that is dedicated at fielding, these systems as fast as possible has been overwhelming. It's been irresistible, but without an arms control arrangement for hypersonic missiles, without any sense that there would be reciprocal restraint on the part of our adversaries. There's currently not a major reason for the United States to avoid developing these systems. And so they're pursuing these capabilities full tilt.

GREGO: I'm concerned about overreaction. That means we got to build more defenses, we got to keep up with the Jones's, we have to build our own of whatever they've got and it incentivizes this cycle, this arms race cycle, if you're not careful. So if the United States thinks missile defense is important and there's a certain segment that thinks it's important and might eventually work, you can't imagine that it doesn't have any other effect in any other country. And to be surprised when they seek ways to come around it. Surprised when they seek ways to counter it. I wouldn't overreact, but I would look at it holistically and say, this is a dynamic we need to really address. It's very hard to admit that you are vulnerable to anybody else. And there's a strong incentive to make sure you can't be. And we're all on the boat together. That's the way I see it. I see it as a very, our security, of course, can't come at the total expense of others and they will work to address any way that that happens. We would be making the same mistakes we made a generation ago. And I'm actually pretty concerned. We’re handing the keys to this complex, excessively dangerous contraption to a next generation. It feels very unfair to me, lots of echoes of the climate crisis, the same thing, like, boy, we've really messed this up and here you go, good luck kind of thing.

And this is probably the most important message to take from the fervor around hypersonics. Yes, it is concerning that China appears to have had a successful test. Yes, hypersonic glide vehicles do add another layer of risk to nuclear security. But the real danger has been there all along. Nuclear weapons themselves. In the end, hypersonics are just a reminder to the world about the fragile system of mutually assured destruction that has saved us from nuclear catastrophe. 

GREGO: I don't think writ large human beings can coexist with nuclear weapons indefinitely. We cannot. They will be the end of us. So we need to always be thinking of ways to make them less important and less important. And rather than more important, develop more complicated delivery mechanisms to make things more challenging for each other and to create this big complex system, which is prone to mistakes and misunderstandings. I think that's the wrong direction entirely. So that's where I would create my concern. It isn't hypersonic missiles are going to change my everyday existence or I'm ready for them to rain down on me. It's a symptom rather than the disease. It's a symptom of this commitment to nuclear weapons being important and recapitalizing. So I would notice the symptom and pay attention to the disease.

This is the last episode for our wonderful intern Natalia Lopez. For resources used in this episode and more information, visit CFR.org/whyitmatters and take a look at the show notes. 

Have a question or some feedback? Just feel like saying hi? Send us an email at [email protected]

Subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your audio. And if you are a fan, we’d love it if you could leave us a review. Ideally a good one, the more stars the better. It really does help us get noticed.

Why It Matters is a production of the Council on Foreign Relations. The show is created and produced by Asher Ross, Jeremy Sherlick, and Gabrielle Sierra. Our sound designer is Markus Zakaria. Rafaela Siewert is our associate podcast producer. And I am Natalia Lopez, this semester’s podcast intern.

Robert McMahon is our Managing Editor, and Doug Halsey is our Chief Digital Officer. Extra help for this episode was provided by Claire Felter. Special thanks to CFR's visiting military and intelligence fellows for providing important background for this episode.

Original music is composed by Ceiri Torjussen. Additional thanks to Richard Haass and Jeff Reinke. 

For Why It Matters, this is Natalia Lopez signing off. See you all soon!


 

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