Zooming At Mach 5 Speed, China’s ‘Untraceable’ Orbiting Nuclear Missiles Present Grave Threat To Global Democracies?

In the post-Cold War era, China has emerged as a formidable power. Having a strong technology background and a rather efficient naval force, China has also been a purveyor in missile research and development.

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On October 18, the Chinese government denied having carried out a widely reported missile test last August.

The August test involved “a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile…that circled the globe before speeding towards its target [and] indicated China had made astounding progress on hypersonic weapons and its space capability had advanced far beyond US intelligence estimates, even though the glide vehicle missed its target by about two dozen miles or nearly 40km”.

This report, initially published by the Financial Times and backed by five anonymous government sources, also detailed that US intelligence assessments on China’s nuclear and missile capabilities were wrong.

China In Denial Mode

Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, officially acknowledged the launch during a press conference on October 18 but said the test was for a new space vehicle, declaring, “This test was a routine spacecraft experiment to verify the reusable technology of spacecraft, which is of great significance for reducing the cost of spacecraft use. It can provide a convenient and cheap way for humans to use space peacefully”.

He also stated that, while the spacecraft was returning to Earth, support equipment separated, burned, and disintegrated upon re-entry.

China’s propaganda apparatuses, mainly the state-owned Global Times, have published both news and opinion pieces supporting the official Chinese government view.

This denial is quite serious, however, as this test is another piece of evidence showing China’s increased development of ballistic missiles and their nuclear program as a whole.

Through 2021, independent researchers from the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) and the Arms Control Association, have found a missile training base in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region and vast missile silo fields in the northwestern Chinese provinces of Gansu and Xinjiang.

US Agencies Sound Alarm  

The Chinese government, according to intelligence collated and analyzed by the US Department of Defense (DoD), has also been desiring to expand its missile capabilities.

While the US has roughly 4,000 ballistic missiles and China has an estimated 200 warheads, Washington and other Western nations must take this threat from China seriously.

China's 'Lingyun' hypersonic missile
A mock-up of China’s ‘Lingyun’ hypersonic missile. (via Twitter)

Not only is the threat of Chinese missiles coming in the form of nuclear weaponry, but this type of weapon, a hypersonic missile, is an even more serious threat. Hypersonic missiles are essentially “missiles that fly more than five times the speed of sound”.

Having an enemy foreign power with the ability to rapidly deploy and launch a nuclear warhead poses clear significant threats to the ability with which China can wage war.

However, this war would most likely not be against the United States, Great Britain, or other European powers, but instead against either their longtime enemy, Taiwan, or other traditionally hostile nations such as the Philippines and Vietnam, or even India.

China’s DF-17 missile has a hypersonic glide vehicle that can deliver both nuclear and conventional payloads. (via Twitter)
Needless to say, Indian and Chinese soldiers have been locked in a border standoff for a year and a half.

The Taiwan Angle

Earlier this month, the Chinese government “flew an unprecedented 52 warplanes near Taiwanese airspace” in what seemed to be “in response to a US-led armada of allied ships that sailed through the contested Philippine Sea late last week”.

In early August of 2021, Chinese ships entered a hotly contested area of the South China Sea, igniting tensions between China and the Philippines. While tensions between China and Vietnam have cooled as well, they too have been plagued by territorial disputes.

An image of what is believed to be the launch of a Chinese hypersonic missile. Beijing denies media reports. (via DD News)

The advancement of China’s hypersonic, nuclear missile program most likely would pose a significant threat to Taiwan given the fact that there is no real deterrent to hypersonic missiles.

PartYard, a Portugual-based defense contractor, in an article on hypersonic missiles, stated, “…there is currently no operational or reliable method of intercepting [hypersonic missiles]”, a view which US defense giant Northrup Grumman has endorsed.

Both Robert Wood, the US Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament and US Special Representative for Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention Issues, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, GEN. Mark Milley, have said that there is, at this current time, no viable defense against hypersonic missiles due to the fast technological advances being made in the field.

Given the close, yet unofficial, relationship the US has to Taiwan, any military provocation or threat against Taiwan’s sovereignty by the Chinese would most likely result in US military action being taken to defend Taiwan.

Despite the seeming lack of defense against hypersonic missiles, PartYard has identified many ways in which countermeasures could be utilized against these missiles, such as electronic cyberattacks against essential intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and surveillance (ISTAR) networks or a “network of space-based satellites and sensors” which in theory could track these missiles in flight.

These countermeasures are viable options to deterring the launch or further development of hypersonic missiles in China and elsewhere. Yet additional research and development need to be performed on potential methods of dissuasion so that US and Western interests are preserved in the South China Sea.

Allowing China, North Korea, or Russia to gain the upper hand in this region would surely be a serious blow to the US and its allies and pose a great security risk to the West’s ability to trade, conduct military operations, and maintain their democratic relations.

  • (Alan C. Cunningham is pursuing MA in International Relations from Norwich University, USA. He has previously been published in the U.S. Army War College’s War Room and Small Wars Journal). VIEWS PERSONAL 
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