US politicians yesterday warned they are on course to lose a ‘new Cold War’ following reports China secretly flew a nuclear-capable missile around the world.
The Long March hypersonic rocket, which can travel at five times the speed of sound, is said to have touched down 24 miles from its target during a test flight in August. Beijing has played down the row, claiming the launch was just a ‘routine test’ of a new ‘space vehicle’.
Yet US disarmament ambassador Robert Wood yesterday said they were ‘very concerned’, adding: ‘We don’t know how we can defend against that type of technology.’
Congressman Mike Gallagher blasted the US government for ‘complacency’, saying: ‘This test should serve as a call to action. If we stick to our current course… we will lose the new Cold War.’
Until yesterday morning, few people outside of the military, intelligence and security services, and the defence industry had heard of hypersonic missiles or had a clue as to what they were or their significance.
What a difference 24 hours makes! The revelation that China has tested such a missile – and that it was nuclear-capable – has sent shock waves around the world. The fact that it missed its presumed target by up to 24 miles brings scant comfort.
While the US is developing its own hypersonic missiles, Russia has already tested them and even North Korea last month claimed to have test-fired one. China is not alone but it has shown it is far more advanced than the West suspected.
Now Washington and other world capitals are waking up to the implications of Beijing possessing a missile that can circle the globe at five times the speed of sound – and can sneak under the radar of US anti-missile defences.
The missile, carried on a ‘hypersonic glide vehicle’, was launched into space by rocket boosters (similar to those that launch spacecraft) in August. When they run out of fuel – typically within minutes – the boosters detach and fall away, and the glide vehicle continues to orbit the Earth at nearly 4,000mph, under its own momentum.
China’s thirst to rule the world has just gone hypersonic
Although slower than ballistic missiles, hypersonic missiles fly at much lower trajectories – more like cruise missiles – so are easier to manoeuvre and harder to track. Taylor Fravel, a US expert on Chinese nuclear weapons policy, said such a weapon could help ‘negate’ American defence systems. These are designed to destroy incoming ballistic missiles which soar high into space before descending on their target.
Certainly, China’s achievement is a game-changer in East/West relations. For a generation, the West has been used to China manufacturing more and more of what we buy as consumers. More than a quarter of manufactured goods bought in America are made in China, for example. But when it came to high tech items, not least in the defence sector, the assumption was that the US still held a distinct edge over China.
In the space of a week that complacency has been rocked to its core. Even before the news of the Chinese hypersonic test, Nicolas Chaillan, the Pentagon’s former chief software officer, warned that Beijing is heading for global dominance because of its advances in artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and cyber capabilities – and that gap was growing.
Chaillan said he resigned in protest earlier this month because of the slow pace of technological transformation in the US military, which he believed was putting the future of his children at risk.
Now, China’s new hypersonic missile launch puts the West on notice that its technological advantage over our rivals is an illusion.
China launched the dummy weapon into space on board a Long March 2C rocket (pictured) during a test in mid-August which it did not disclose at the time and was only revealed at the weekend by security analysts assigned to work out its purpose
What the advent of hypersonic weapons does is shatter faith in anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems as our guarantee against a surprise attack by a nuclear-armed rival.
ABM defensive systems, such as the American Patriot, point up at missiles incoming in a supersonic arc through outer space from launch pad to target. Targeting a low-flying hypersonic missile which harnesses AI to dodge defences is a vastly harder prospect.
Since the 1980s, America has invested billions in anti-missile defence. It was started by president Ronald Reagan who believed effective defence against ballistic missiles would reduce the risk of nuclear war – making disarmament and peace possible.
Sadly – as so often in history – scientists have found ways around apparently invulnerable defence systems. German tanks bypassed the incredibly sophisticated French fortifications that made up the Maginot Line in 1940 by diverting through Belgium. Now hypersonic missiles effectively undercut America’s anti-ballistic Maginot Line mentality.
So having (almost) nailed the technology, could an emerging superpower China be tempted to repeat the kind of surprise attack which Japan inflicted on the Americans at Pearl Harbor in 1941?
A U.S. hypersonic missile launches from Pacific Missile Range Facility, Kauai, Hawaii, on March 19, 2020
Back in the 1980s, the architect of China’s extraordinary economic upswing, leader Deng Xiaoping, advised future Chinese leaders to ensure their country rose ‘unobserved’. Deng recognised that China must bide its time until it reached full spectrum domination, from the military to the economic spheres, and that meant avoiding antagonising rivals and neighbours.
Today’s leader, president Xi Jinping, is more inclined to exploit China’s new heavyweight standing. From border disputes with India to bullying breakaway Taiwan, Xi has been flexing his muscles. Indeed, Taiwan is the most likely flash point between the superpowers. President Xi is bent on reunifying the Chinese-speaking island democracy, while, after his humiliating retreat from Afghanistan, President Biden is determined not to look weak over Taiwan.
What if Beijing thinks American public resolve is just bluff and makes a grab for the island? Miscalculation leads to world wars. In the 20th century, the democracies led by Britain and the US came out on top in two world wars. The Americans guided the West to a peaceful defeat of Soviet Communism in the Cold War.
But past glories do not guarantee future victories. Nor do decades of mutual nuclear deterrence between Washington and Moscow mean that the growing number of other nuclear-armed states will show the self-restraint of the Cold War era.
Any war between nuclear-armed states is too horrible to contemplate – or should be. But the development of hypersonic missiles and new AI weaponry raises the terrible spectre of Chinese Dr Strangeloves calculating the chances of emerging from their bunkers into a post-atomic desert as the world’s only superpower.
When Mao said that the Chinese would outnumber all the other survivors of any nuclear war 60 years ago, the then Soviet leaders thought he had gone mad and promptly cut nuclear cooperation with his regime.
Maybe today’s vastly more powerful and technologically sophisticated Communist China has escaped from Maoist thinking. But if it hasn’t, it is fast acquiring the futuristic weaponry to put its founder’s chilling words into practice.
Worst case scenarios are never certain. But planning for the best case is never wise. China’s military modernisation is going at hypersonic pace. The West must catch-up – and fast.
Mark Almond is director of the Crisis Research Institute, Oxford