In August or July, China tested a missile (or rocket) system that may be a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS) or maybe something else. I’m not a missile expert, so I have no opinions on what it is, but I know some missile experts whom I will quote.
The exact nature of what was tested is unclear – the term “hypersonic” is being tossed around, but that has been unclear for some time. ICBMs are hypersonic (traveling faster than sound) when they re-enter the atmosphere. The newer vehicles that are given that name are different in being maneuverable. The confusion suggests that we need to clarify what the threat is and use names related to that. But multisyllabic words that are almost understandable are a staple for convincing Congress to spend more on weapons.
Although a number of journalists trotted out the “Sputnik moment” cliché, it is nothing of the sort. Our missile defense was never able to stop the missiles China had, so this additional capability changes nothing relative to our vulnerability.
China and Russia have both expressed concern, multiple times, about the US abandonment of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty. They believe that it opens the way for a US first nuclear strike. We can say what we want, but they have to look at the worst case for their defense. So they are developing sometimes baroque new weapons. As it happens, the Soviet Union had a version of FOBS in the 1970s and they gave it up. The 1970s were big for baroque weapons too.
As a bonus, the “missile shield” that Edward Teller sold Ronald Reagan has spent something like $30 billion dollars since then to become useless against China’s and Russia’s missiles and maybe – maybe! – useful against a missile launch of one or two from North Korea or an accidental launch from somewhere else.
Photo: China’s hypersonic missile, known as the DF-17, is seen during a 2019 militay parade in Beijing. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)