Studied for decades, hypersonic missiles have become the stars of the war of the future. Except in the United States, where the government of the most powerful nation on the planet still doesn’t know what direction to take its program with this type of weaponry.
With that, the leak to the British newspaper Financial Times that China managed to test in August a hypersonic glider capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, one of the most feared models of these weapons, gains special significance.
As the only way to know that something like this happened is through highly sophisticated monitoring, judging the report to be true, its origin is US intelligence. What is the motivation, besides calling China a potential aggressor?
The more direct answer leads to the desire of defense officials to push for more resources for the American hypersonic weapons program, which was already behind Russia and now apparently the Chinese as well.
And while Vladimir Putin’s country is seen as a powerful military rival, Xi Jinping’s is considered the central strategic challenger of the 21st century, in the ring of the ongoing Cold War 2.0.
But there are nuances. Last month, Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said he had doubts about the cost-effectiveness of US adoption of such missiles. He did it quite openly.
“I think that for me this is still a kind of question mark. I haven’t seen all the analyzes to justify the existing programs,” he said. So far, American results have been officially pale.
At the same time, Kendall gave a lengthy exposition about the risks perceived by the Air Force in the most sensitive possible area, the nuclear. For him, China is gearing up for an atomic confrontation with the US.
One possible reading is that he was just warming up the engines to make a case to Congress that yes, you need to invest in hypersonic weapons. But something doesn’t close in the equation, and the fact that he also announced the acceleration of a program of new bombers really leaves this idea in abeyance.
The big hypersonic advantage, whether it’s a glider launched by an intercontinental missile as in the case of the alleged China test or a cruise missile, is that it can be maneuverable and dodge defenses.
The US, in magnificent geographic isolation with two oceans around it, has fairly relative protection against ICBMs (the huge ballistic rockets that carry nuclear weapons). Several simulations show that a massive attack, Russian or Chinese, would be quite successful.
Still, several ICBMs could be intercepted. They are also hypersonic, but fly a predictable trajectory, unlike the new weapons.
The point is that neither China nor Russia have defenses against this type of missile in use today that are much more effective than the American ones. They are moving forward, especially the Kremlin, however.
This leads to Kendall’s question: is it worth spending billions of dollars on such programs? Or would America’s enormous nuclear capability, tied only by the Russians, be enough as a deterrent?
Here comes the discussion about the so-called first strike. More than Russia, China has a clear doctrine that it will not use nuclear weapons first. The US, as Kendall said at the same time, does not believe this.
As Hans Kristensen (Federation of American Scientists), one of the world’s most renowned nuclear experts, has written, there is no indication that Beijing has changed its mind to corroborate American suspicions.
For yes, for no, the only Chinese reaction to the FT article was an editorial this Sunday (17) in the warmongering Global Times, a newspaper associated with the Communist hardliners. In it, the test was not denied, but the text insisted: “We have no intention of launching a nuclear arms race with the US.”
Certainly not, given that, despite advances, China is far from America’s capabilities in the sector.
But the message is clear, at a time of extreme military pressure on Taiwan and against American activities in the Chinese strategic environment: Beijing will seek resources for distant coups, so make us comfortable in the neighborhood.