Learn the Right Lessons from the Chinese Hypersonic Missile Test

Senior Fellow and Director, Keystone Defense Initiative
Military vehicles carrying DF-100 ground-based land-attack missiles participate in a military parade at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on October 1, 2019. (GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images)
Military vehicles carrying DF-100 ground-based land-attack missiles participate in a military parade at Tiananmen Square in Beijing on October 1, 2019. (GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images)

The Financial Times reported earlier this month that China launched two hypersonic missiles last summer. The launch—using what's called a fractional orbital bombardment system"—sent nuclear-capable missiles into "orbit before they landed mere miles away from their intended targets. Such a weapon could avoid early warning systems, leaving the United States in the dark and unable to determine whether the weapon is nuclear.

Although the tests raised eyebrows over the challenges they pose to the United States, it should come as no surprise that China has this technology. Defense officials have been warning us for years. In 2018 then-Pentagon undersecretary for research and engineering Mike Griffin said China had conducted "in round numbers...20 times as many hypersonic weapons tests as has the United States over the last decade."

More recently, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, Admiral Charles Richard, called what is underway in China a strategic breakout." In August he "said "China's explosive growth and modernization of its nuclear and conventional forces can only be [described] as breathtaking."

It is important to take away the right lessons from the tests.

First, although China is seeking to undermine the United States in many areas, the military dimension is the one on which everything else depends. The Biden White House might welcome "stiff competition" in commerce and climate, but China is not compartmentalizing those areas away from the military domain. And it isn't just conventional weapons that we must contend with. Deterring Chinese military aggression will require us to ask how our adversaries think about nuclear weapons in their military strategies.

Back in May of 2019, I hosted at Hudson Institute the Defense Intelligence Agency director, Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, who broke news about both Russia and China's nuclear programs. He said, "nuclear weapons remain central to Russia's and China's military plans." Central.

The second lesson, which flows from the first, is that the United States must seek to convince China that acting aggressively against our allies and vital interests will not be worth the cost. This includes strengthening our nuclear deterrent.

Every time there is a public revelation about China's military advancements, the public response seems to be renewed surprise and a bit of bewilderment. This is at least partly because the Biden administration sends mixed messages about whether it considers China a military competitor at all. It seems unable to move on from the very economic policies that led to China's rise and funded the advanced military that now threatens the United States and our vital interests.

The Biden administration's agenda appears to be at cross purposes with what is necessary to successfully deter China. The administration is in the middle of a Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) that will outline the nuclear policy of the United States. This is no time to be experimenting with new declaratory policies that might limit U.S. options or cause adversaries to conclude the U.S. is unwilling to employ nuclear weapons in defense of its vital interests. The Biden NPR should at least carry through the previous NPR's plans for nuclear modernization (a project President Barack Obama supported), and prepare a substantial hedge, since the threat continues to change and worsen.

President Biden's White House Interim National Security Guidance said the administration will "take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy." But idealist aspirations have a way of becoming more realistic when leaders have to make decisions about how best to protect the American people. Limiting U.S. options in declaratory statements, slowing down nuclear modernization plans or precluding possible adaptations in the future are exactly the wrong things to do at this time.

The third lesson is the United States should hit the gas on developing and deploying improvements to our homeland missile defense. The Chinese hypersonic test undermines the claim that U.S. homeland defense causes peer adversaries to make investments in nuclear weaponry. Our existing homeland defenses are designed to protect Americans from the missile threat posed by rogue state actors like North Korea, not peer actors like China or Russia. Indeed, despite official Russian objections to U.S. missile defense, officials often boast about Russia's ability to outmaneuver American defenses.

North Korea's long-range missile capability is inferior to China's, and the United States can and should continue its policy of not becoming vulnerable to North Korean missiles. To slow down the improvement of existing systems because of a Chinese hypersonic test would do nothing to convince China to slow down its offensive investments. It would only lend adversaries like the North Korea coercive leverage, and weaken the confidence our allies under the nuclear umbrella have in U.S. nuclear assurances.

Rather than intentionally keeping the American people vulnerable to Chinese and Russian ICBMs or new long-range nuclear systems, we should invest in defensive capabilities to protect against the most likely peer-threat homeland defense attacks.

Doing so could strengthen deterrence by further complicating our adversaries' considerations. The Cold War paradigm of mutual vulnerability is untenable when the U.S. faces two threats instead of just one, so we should not rely on nuclear deterrence alone to protect U.S. vital interests. Moreover, our vulnerability to peer nations has not convinced anyone to set aside offensive investments. The United States should strengthen deterrence by prioritizing missile defense and significantly increasing funding for the Missile Defense Agency, which has the same topline budget it did back in 2008.

The recent tests fit with the overall pattern of Chinese nuclear weapons expansion. Rather than waiting for new revelations and then reacting, it would be wise for the United States to make significant improvements to our own strategic posture to further complicate the Chinese' calculations. We can persuade them through our actions that the United States is committed to defending our interests.

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