As one might expect, some commentators have seized upon the test to call U.S. security into doubt. And why not? The glider’s physical capabilities are truly impressive. Its high lift-to-drag ratio, for instance, means that it can descend on its target unpowered and can fly much farther than the reentry vehicles of normal ICBM warheads. Hypersonic gliders zip along at lower altitudes and can maneuver, enabling them to hide from radar and missile defense systems. Not least, there is the weapon’s ludicrous speed: Hypersonic weapons travel at speeds that literally change the surrounding molecules, either by breaking them apart (dissociation) or picking up electrical charge (ionization). That’s fast.
The Chinese test has disentombed long-buried fears of orbital bombardment that hark back to the Cold War. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Soviet Union developed and tested a terrifying weapon that preoccupied U.S. leaders for more than two decades: the “fractional orbital bombardment system” (FOBS). Like the purported Chinese glider, FOBS permitted the Soviets, in theory, to orbit a nuclear warhead and deaccelerate it out of orbit onto earthly targets. Though the Kremlin abandoned the program in 1983, having never orbited a single warhead, FOBS’s political and military significance continued to resonate long after the Cold War ended. Indeed, the history of the FOBS scare tells us much about how space weapons have figured in the American imagination and offers us a window into why the Chinese test isn’t a cause for panic.
By the time the American public first learned of FOBS in 1967 — the CIA had speculated about development of the system five years earlier, shortly after design work began — Cold War paranoia and an exploding science fiction literature had been priming readers for the news for more than 20 years. As early as July 1945, U.S. Army intelligence was regaling journalists with details of a massive Sonnengewehr, or “Sun Gun,” that Nazi scientists had modeled for use in combat. Their blueprints called for a gigantic mirror that would harness solar rays and redirect them onto enemy cities and armies. Months later, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, physicist Louis Ridenour immediately connected the devastating power of the atomic bomb to satellite technology in a short story for Fortune magazine. “Pilot Lights of the Apocalypse” ends when an underground command center outside San Francisco confuses an earthquake with an all-out nuclear strike from space, precipitating a cataclysmic world war. After the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in October 1957, dozens of novels and short stories — Jeff Sutton’s “Bombs in Orbit” (1959) and Robert Heinlein’s “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” (1966), for example — employed space-based bombardment as a dramatic device.
These imaginative works reflected a threat that many serious observers felt was imminent. In the United States, the Air Force Ballistic Missile Division and the Rand Corporation conducted numerous studies that weighed the military benefits of orbital weapons. High-ranking generals hailed satellite bombardment as the “next logical step” of deterrence. Books by defense analysts and military thinkers included orbital bombardment in their projections for the future of war.
The Soviet Union, for its part, leaped in headfirst. The Kremlin initiated the first of three separate FOBS programs in March 1961. Within a few years, the other two prototypes were on display in Red Square parades. Radio Moscow bragged that “the main property of missiles of this class is their ability to hit enemy objectives literally from any direction, which makes them virtually invulnerable to antimissile defense means.”
Bluster and bluff perhaps, but it contained an element of truth.
Unlike ICBMs, which traveled roughly 600 to 1,200 miles above the planet, FOBS missiles could dip as low as 125 miles. This lower flight path would dramatically reduce the 15 minutes of warning time U.S. ground stations could typically count on for missiles launched from Soviet territory. Because they used Earth’s naturally occurring orbits, moreover, FOBS missiles could enjoy an unlimited flight range — a space bomber that need not refuel midflight. Most bone-chilling, FOBS weapons could deorbit along a polar axis, from south to north, thus bypassing the comprehensive system of radars the United States had established along stations in Alaska, Greenland and England, the vaunted Ballistic Missile Early Warning System. “We can launch missiles not only over the North Pole, but in the opposite direction, too,” Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev boasted in March 1962. “As the people say, you expect it to come by the front door, and it gets in the window.”
It was easy, at the time, to believe that the superpowers were on the brink of a strategic revolution based on space weapons. Lawmakers, pundits and military leaders aggressively petitioned for a more aggressive posture against the Soviet Union in space, including crash programs for orbital bombardment, antisatellite weapons, even a lunar base. Barry Goldwater made it a pillar of his 1964 campaign for president. That same year, Phyllis Schlafly, who later gained notoriety for her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, established herself as a defense intellectual with “Strike from Space,” in which she argued that the Kremlin had deliberately lured the United States to Vietnam as a distraction from FOBS. The only solution was to build an even stronger fleet of space weapons to maintain the U.S. nuclear deterrent.
For policy entrepreneurs, fear itself had become a useful weapon.
But what happened next contradicted the logic of the arms race and the Cold War more broadly. Scientists, and even some members of the military community, questioned the technical foundations of orbital bombardment and argued that FOBS was an inefficient delivery system compared to land- and submarine-launched ICBMs. Propelling a FOBS missile into orbit meant compromising on warhead mass, for example. Orbits made their paths predictable, and thus, possible to intercept.
The Pentagon meanwhile abandoned its early studies on orbital bombardment in favor of a more tempered regime of reconnaissance and military support satellites. Official thought in the Kennedy and Johnson years held that if the United States refrained from weaponizing space, the Soviets might stay their hand as well. Over the course of 1966, U.S. and Soviet negotiators collaborated on an international agreement to govern the use of space “exclusively for peaceful purposes.” The resulting Outer Space Treaty, which entered force the following year, banned the stationing of nuclear weapons in orbit, on celestial bodies or “in outer space in any other manner.” Within a few years, dozens of countries had ratified the accord.
Though FOBS tests continued for several years, the Soviet Union never orbited a bomb and instead phased out the program piece by piece. Fractional orbital bombardment never became the monster its phobics predicted it would be.
The moral? Don’t overreact.
Though China’s hypersonic glider appears to be just the kind of radical technology that could ignite a frantic new arms race, the history of FOBS demonstrates that the development of a weapons system, whether in the imagination, on a blueprint or on a factory floor, does not ensure its power to change the game.
Context will always be queen. Rather than drive the strategic debate, FOBS unfolded amid the scare of the Cuban missile crisis, a robust nuclear arms control agenda and a U.S.-Soviet rivalry over which government could project the more peaceful and beneficent space program. The challenges faced by today’s decision-makers are different, but certainly no less profound. New space weapons, though, will require the same things as the old: poise, patience and more than a dash of diplomacy. Here’s hoping the recipe is around here somewhere.