With militaries around the world continuously adding latest weapons and associated systems to their arsenals, hypersonic missiles have become an important deterrent and weapons of choice for many countries. In this regard, many countries including the United States (U.S.), Russia, China and other have remained pursuant to outclass each other in the said arms race. China allegedly tested a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV)in August. First reported in mid-October by the Financial Times, the missile circumnavigated the Earth at over five times the speed of sound and fired a separate missile mid-fly over the South China Sea that missed its target for about 30km. The feat has since been categorized as a sputnik moment, mainly because China is the first nation that achieves firing a separate missile mid-fly at that speed. Similar to what happened in 1957 when the Sputnik a1 satellite was launched into space, the Pentagon was caught off-guard. The U.S.is still some steps behind but it is intent on catching up with China’s pace. This time, however, the race is not a matter of two. While Russia and the U.S. are following closely, there are at least seven other countries who are also working on the technology, four of them located in the Indo-Pacific region.
HGVs might not reach the speed of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM); however, what HGVs lose in speed they make up in maneuverability. HGVs are harder to detect by radars because they can change trajectory during flight to evade targets. Moreover, the missile uses Cold War-era Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS) to fly at a lower trajectory so as to prolong the time it takes for radars to detect them. Having both systems, the kind of missile China launched could approach the Western hemisphere through the Southern Pole. This fact would put the U.S. at a disadvantage given most American missile defence systems are focused on the North Pole, another token from the Cold War era. To top it off, the missile can be armed with a nuclear warhead and it has the capacity to “negate” US missile defence systems which are designed to destroy incoming ballistic missiles.
In a bid to downplay the launching’s relevance, a China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson stated that it was not a missile but a spacecraft. Moreover, the Ministry dismissed the accusations as the U.S. will to hype the “China threat theory” so as to rally its international allies and force Congress to allocate more funds to the military. Notwithstanding China’s claims, the launching is a wakeup call for the countries investing in the technology and could potentially trigger an arms race, a hypothesis that some analysts fear is already underway.
The stir caused by the missile marks the latest event in China’s bid to become militarily more assertive and claim a more predominant role in the international hierarchy. News have arisen that Beijing is planning on quadrupling its nuclear warhead total to around 1,000 by the end of the decade. Not only that, Beijing is increasing its pressure towards Taiwan, hinting at a possible future invasion of the island and is adamantine asserting its territorial claims in the South China Sea. The tug-of-war between China and its coastal neighbor’s on the ownership of the many reefs and shoals is recurrent, particularly with the Philippines. Beijing currently boasts the largest navy with up to 350 ships and submarines to defend its sovereignty, but it is already looking ahead to 2049. By then, China is intent on having a world-class military.
Although China is in the lead having conducted more test flights annually than the US did in a decade, it is not alone on the hypersonic race. Several countries have been developing their own hypersonic weapons in the past decade. Russia has already two hypersonic missiles in its army and it carried out a successful launch test of its Zircon hypersonic cruise missile, which is intended to enter service with the military in 2022. India and Russia are developing the BrahMos II, a hypersonic cruise missile similar to its Russian counterpart. North Korea has also been working on upgrade its hypersonic capabilities since denuclearization talks stalled in 2019 and has successfully fired a hypersonic missile off its eastern coast in late September. For its part, the US has already tested HGV missiles and has conducted several hypersonic weapons tests in the past year to mixedresults.
Negotiations with other hypersonic missile-capable nations, but particularly with China are of the utmost importance to set ground rules and work towards an agreement of non-proliferation. History shows us that it is possible. The Non-Proliferation Agreement of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) signed at the height of the Cold War is far from perfect but has been key in restraining the nuclear threat and reducing the worldwide arsenal to about one-fifth the size of what it was a half-century ago.
In the latest summit between Biden and Xi in November, both leaders managed to give high priority to the topic of arms control and non-proliferation for the first time. Despite Washington’s push on the idea of entering into arms control talks with Beijing, China is still showing reluctance and negotiations could take years to consolidate. More efforts need to be allocated in negotiations and diplomatic efforts at the high levels to prevent any further scalation or an accidental conflict now that the clock is ticking closer to midnight.