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December 14, 2021

Chinese Hypersonic Missiles Pose a Huge Threat

It’s difficult to overstate what a game-changer this new capability will be for our national security.

The U.S. military prides itself with being the most advanced fighting force in the world. Is it?

The Chinese could offer a compelling case otherwise, at least when it comes to hypersonic missile technology. For example, China has already conducted two tests of its new, nuclear-capable hypersonic glide missile, a weapon for which the U.S. has no parallel — let alone a defense. General John Hyten, retiring vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, explained that the test missile “went around the world, dropped off a hypersonic glide vehicle that glided all the way back to China,” impacting its test target. Hyten went on to say, “They look like a first-use weapon; that’s what those weapons look like to me.” We’ll add the punchline that the general has used his wise discretion not to deliver: That’s because they are.

These weapons have no defensive use. They are purely offensive weapons, designed for first-strike surprise. Additionally, unlike conventional ballistic missiles, which follow trajectories dictated solely by gravity, hypersonic glide weapons are designed to take advantage of plasma physics and aerodynamics to “bounce” off the earth’s atmosphere to maneuver while en route to a target, all at speeds exceeding one mile per second. Experts also believe China’s nuclear arsenal will exceed 1,000 warheads by the end of this decade. If these warheads are deliverable by hypersonic missiles — delivery capabilities Russia likewise has recently touted — then this newly acquired capability by China poses an unprecedented threat to U.S. national security.

The U.S. pioneered hypersonic technology, beginning with the X-15 in the late 1960s. But its commitment to advancing this technology has flagged for well over a decade, even as adversaries like Russia and China have maintained Manhattan Project-like zeal to develop hypersonic capabilities to destroy their enemies (read: us). As Hyten noted, the evidence of these differing commitment levels can be observed by the fact that China has conducted hundreds of tests of hypersonic weapons over the past five years, while the U.S. has conducted only nine.

For its part, the Biden administration has all but discontinued the U.S. hypersonic program, apparently to show Chinese President Xi Jinping we can beat China with one arm tied behind our back. Or something. Setting aside the grim humor, the seriousness of China’s efforts to produce a fielded array of nuclear-tipped hypersonic missiles capable of reaching any target on the planet within 45 minutes or less cannot be overstated. But it gets worse.

The immediate threat isn’t so much that China would use its hypersonic, nuclear-tipped technologies on the U.S. homeland, but rather that it would use its hypersonic weapons conventionally, in the South and East China Seas, to destroy U.S. carrier fleets deployed to defend Taiwan. Recently speaking at the Halifax International Security Forum, U.S. Space Force Vice Chief of Space Operations General David Thompson highlighted the revolutionary nature of this new threat, likening it to a “magical snowball.” He explained: “If I’m throwing a snowball at you, the instant that snowball leaves my hand you have a sense of whether or not it’s going to hit you. But a hypersonic missile changes that game entirely.”

Not only are these weapons maneuverable, but because they can travel sub-orbitally, their paths are even more unpredictable, as Thompson further elaborated: “I’m going to throw the snowball, it’s going to go around the world and it’s going to come in and hit you in the back of the head. … And so every launch — regardless of where it’s headed — now has the potential that it could be a threat.”

Imagine, for example, China’s initially launching a hypersonic glide weapon ostensibly in a direction completely away from a U.S. carrier, only to destroy that carrier from an entirely different direction less than an hour later. Worse, because of the maneuverability of such a glide weapon, its intended target could not be definitively determined until only moments before impact. And at the speeds these weapons would impact, warheads wouldn’t even be needed for conventional strikes, removing complex warhead fusing issues from the equation. For example, the energy transfer alone would be enough to take out an entire carrier.

The bottom line is that merely to declare that the U.S. must develop defenses to counter this new technology is to grossly understate the urgency of addressing the threat. As of this year, China has the largest navy in the world, solely based on numbers of ships. By itself, this massive naval buildup has been cause enough for concern, as China — which has made no secret of its plans for regional (first) and global (at some point) hegemony — looks to expand its global power projection capability. But coupled with hypersonic weapons, China’s open aggression on the world stage is unlikely to abate, but rather to accelerate.

Simply put, the urgency of matching and blunting the asymmetric impact of this game-changing weaponry China and Russia are feverishly working to field is impossible to exaggerate.

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