Updated: Oct 25, 2021
Recent reports have pointed out that China might have tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile in Aug of 2021. This news has taken the pentagon by surprise. But why is it so alarming? Let's have a deeper look into the matter.
Financial Times first reported on Oct 17 that China had tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile in Aug. A hypersonic missile is a missile that flies at a speed more than Mach 5 or 5 times the speed of sound. Hypersonic missiles have existed for a long time, and it is well known that hypersonic missiles are tougher to track and intercept. Most of the ICBMs present today can attain speeds more than Mach 5. So these have existed for many years, and it would feel like there is nothing new. But this is no ordinary missile. The missile was fired from a Long March Rocket, which was then separated from the rocket, orbited the earth in low altitudes, locked onto its predetermined target, and then struck it. According to the report, the missile missed its target by around 30 km, but this inaccuracy would be insignificant if it carried a formidable nuclear weapon. The trajectory of these hypersonic missiles is different from the ICBMs(intercontinental ballistic missiles); take a look at the image below.
Source: CRS (Congressional research service) report based on“Gliding missiles that fly faster than Mach 5 are coming,” The Economist, April 6, 2019, https://www.economist.com/science-and-technology/2019/04/06/gliding-missiles-that-flyfaster-than-mach-5-are-coming.
After America decided to withdraw from the Anti Ballistic Missiles treaty in 2002, the US extensively invested in developing Anti-ballistic missile defense systems (ABMs). Today the US has state of the art Anti Ballistic missile defense systems like no other. Hypersonic missiles fly at a lower altitude. Radars usually look for radar signatures in the sky and are very successful in detecting a traditional ICBM that flies high and then strikes the target. But hypersonic glide missiles fly at lower altitudes and try to evade radar detection. Since the cold war, the imminent threat to the united states was from Russia, so most of the radars set up by the US today scour for missiles in the sky coming from the north, east, and west. Except for the Cuban Missile Crisis, the US never had any country in the south that could challenge their nuclear power. So billions were spent on building pyramid-like radars only in the North but not in the South. One such radar was built in North Dakota. These were made not only on the US mainland but outside too.
Ballistic missile detection radars built at a cost of six billion dollars in Nekoma, North Dakota
The recent hypersonic missile reportedly tested by China can orbit the earth over the south pole and then strike the US mainland from the south catching ABM systems off guard. This recent test is not only a threat to the US but to the entire world. And again, as hypersonic missiles fly at lower altitudes than ICBMs, it takes more time to detect them, giving a shorter time window to react. The idea of low flying missiles has existed for a long time. Even the USSR planned to develop a similar Fractional Orbital Bombardement System or FOBS in the 1960s but failed.
Adding to this, hypersonic glide missiles have a very long range and are largely maneuverable compared to ICBMs. Hypersonic missiles can change their target mid-flight. This capability of hypersonic missiles makes it even more difficult to calculate and intercept hypersonic missiles. However, China claims that it hasn't tested any missiles in Aug.
China releases the dates of rocket launches it does every year, and according to it, China did the 77th rocket launch on July 19, and the next they announced was the 79th rocket launch, which was on Aug 24. If China had nothing to hide, why did it hide the 78th rocket launch? It pretty much seems that the report by Financial Times is accurate. This test will surely upset the strategic stability which existed since the end of the cold war and may lead to an arms race in the coming years. Does this mean an imminent threat to the US? The answer is YES and NO. Since the post-WWII era, every country has followed the Nuclear deterrence Theory. China wouldn't dare attack the US, but a threat is always a threat. Rishi D V