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What did China test in space, exactly, and why?

These components would probably boost China’s nuclear deterrence

Military vehicles carrying new DF-17 hypersonic ballistic nuclear missiles form part of an Oct. 1, 2019, military parade in Beijing to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. (Ng Han Guan/AP)

The latest reports indicate China may have conducted two tests involving a new type of nuclear-capable strategic missile this summer. The system reportedly completed an orbit of the globe before its hypersonic glider payload descended to Earth.

China has denied the story and security analysts remain unclear about the exact nature of the system Beijing reportedly tested. Here’s what we know so far.

What is China supposed to have tested?

If the news reporting is accurate, China tested two distinct capabilities in one weapon: an orbital bombardment system and a hypersonic glide vehicle.

The launch vehicle China used was allegedly an orbital bombardment system (OBS). Unlike an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which follows a predictable ballistic trajectory in the shape of a parabola (picture an upside-down “U”), an OBS places its payload into orbit around the Earth. This gives the system a theoretically unlimited range and allows it to approach a target from different directions and at lower altitudes than an ICBM.

The missile’s payload was allegedly a hypersonic glide vehicle, or HGV. As its name suggests, the HGV travels fast — at more than five times the speed of sound. Its most unique feature, however, is the ability to maneuver in flight, meaning that an HGV can take a more unpredictable path to its target than a standard ICBM warhead.

This system wouldn’t give China a new strategic capability

Taken separately, testing these types of components isn’t unprecedented.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union developed a “Fractional Orbital Bombardment System” that could place warheads in orbit — while still remaining in compliance with its arms control commitments. The United States and China are developing HGVs, and Russia has already deployed its Avangard system.

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However, assuming the report is correct, this would mark the first time that any country has tested an orbital bombardment system armed with an HGV.

Yet China’s tests do not change the basic situation: Beijing already has strategic offensive forces sufficient to overwhelm the existing U.S. missile defense system and strike the U.S. homeland with nuclear weapons.

The Defense Department’s 2019 U.S. Missile Defense Review implicitly recognizes this reality, clarifying that “the United States relies on nuclear deterrence to address the large and more sophisticated Russian and Chinese intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities.” China’s deployment of an HGV-armed OBS would not change this fundamental equation.

Why would China test such a system?

For starters, the characteristics of an HGV-armed OBS would significantly complicate any future U.S. missile defense system’s task. And these components would also make China’s nuclear deterrent more credible.

China may be concerned that improved U.S. missile defense capabilities, combined with highly accurate offensive forces, could render its nuclear arsenal ineffective. The 2019 Missile Defense Review hinted that the United States has greater long-term ambitions for missile defense against strikes from China or Russia. In the worst case, China may fear that during a severe crisis or conflict, Washington would conduct a first strike on China’s offensive forces and then rely on its defensive system to protect itself from a limited retaliation from surviving Chinese missiles.

An HGV-armed OBS would help guarantee the credibility of China’s deterrent by ensuring that Chinese missiles of this type that survived a U.S. first strike would still be able to penetrate future U.S. defenses.

By launching into orbit rather than following a standard ballistic trajectory, an OBS would allow the system to approach the United States from unconventional directions — for example, the south, where U.S. radar coverage is less comprehensive. The low altitude of its orbit would mean that ground-based radars would only be able to detect its approach later in flight, reducing warning times — and the window for defensive countermeasures. And a maneuverable HGV payload could take an unpredictable final approach to its target, complicating attempts to estimate the weapon’s path and launch interceptors to neutralize the threat.

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China would not be the first to brandish such possibilities. In 2018, Vladimir Putin bragged about Russia’s new and exotic weapons. A Chinese test of an HGV-armed OBS could be designed to display Beijing’s commitment to overwhelm any defensive system the United States may be able to field in the near future.

As such, a test of this nature could serve broader goals as part of the modernization of China’s conventional and nuclear forces.

What does this mean for nuclear stability?

The reported tests come in the middle of the Biden administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, which is due to be published in early 2022.

U.S. officials haven’t confirmed or denied the Chinese weapons testing, but their statements suggest that any new Chinese capabilities would lead the United States to compete more intensely with Beijing in strategic arms. “If you can conceive of it, if it makes operational sense, if it’s within the realms of current technology, then you’ve got to be worried that [China is] going to do something like that,” stated Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall III. “We welcome stiff competition with China,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki commented, while underlining that the Biden administration did not “want that competition to veer into conflict.”

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There appear to be few viable ways at the moment to defuse the growing U.S.-China strategic standoff. Beijing has refused past U.S. attempts to engage in arms control discussions and this stance would appear unlikely to change as China modernizes and expands its nuclear forces.

The implications are not entirely negative, however. The United States has an interest in stable nuclear deterrence with all its nuclear-armed adversaries, which would ensure that neither side has an incentive to use nuclear weapons first. Nuclear forces that are “survivable,” that is, weapons that can survive a first strike and form part of a retaliatory attack, should make a first strike less likely, and therefore contribute to strategic stability.

What’s not clear, at this point, is whether the United States and China have a shared understanding of the forces that each side needs to ensure stability. Without further discussions on nuclear stability, the two powers will find it hard to reach any common ground. Building more and new weapons without a way to defuse the associated tensions isn’t likely to lead to a more stable U.S.-China relationship in the years ahead.

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James J. Cameron is a postdoctoral fellow at the Oslo Nuclear Project in the University of Oslo’s Department of Political Science. He is the author of The Double Game: The Demise of America’s First Missile Defense System and the Rise of Strategic Arms Limitation (Oxford University Press, 2017).