A new focus on hypersonic glider weapons, after a reportedly successful Chinese trial, is helping fuel an arms race that is eclipsing hopes of a return to disarmament by the world’s major powers.
The Chinese test of July 27, first reported by the Financial times, It involved putting a nuclear-capable glider into orbit, traveling at five times the speed of sound, which then reentered the atmosphere and made a few turns on its way to a target.
The test suggested that China was further ahead with the technology than previously known, and despite Chinese denials of testing such a weapon, the Biden administration has said it is concerned about development.
Russia, which has already deployed its version of a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle, the Avantgard, announced that it had exercises performed in recent days to defend against hypersonic weapons.
America has increased spending on its own hypersonic program which, unlike its Chinese and Russian counterparts, is designed for conventional warheads only and is still in its testing phase. the Pentagon announced Thursday that the last test was canceled after the failure of the booster rocket used to accelerate the weapon to hypersonic speeds.
The hypersonic glider news set has added to the impression that the world is faced with an entirely new type of weapon with new capabilities. But all ICBMs travel at multiples of the speed of sound, so the capability is almost as old as nuclear weapons themselves.
What distinguishes hypersonic glide vehicles is that they are more maneuverable than the warheads of an ICBM and therefore more likely to defeat ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems. Some ballistic missile warheads have fins and can maneuver to some degree, but a glider can make steeper turns, leaning against the atmosphere. Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies in Monterey, compares the gliders to an unmanned space shuttle with a nuclear bomb on board and no landing gear.
Lewis noted that making such turns also slows down the glider, making it considerably slower as it approaches its target than an ICBM.
“[The US] we looked at the sliding reentry vehicles for our nuclear weapons and decided it wasn’t worth it because they slow down and we thought they would be easier to shoot down, ”he said.
The most remarkable thing about the reported Chinese test was that it put a glider into orbit before taking it into the atmosphere. In theory, such a weapon could be used to attack the US from an unexpected and unpredictable direction – from the South Pole, for example, evading north-facing US BMD interceptors.
It is believed that China is likely working on this technology to ensure that the US military never comes to think that it could launch a nuclear strike against China and then destroy all the missiles that China fired in response before they landed.
“In the past two years, China woke up to the realization that the risk of a conventional war with the US was greater than it probably has been since the 1950s or 1960s, and the US had one. huge nuclear advantage that it can use to prevent China from conventionally escalating a conflict, “said Vipin Narang, professor of political science and proliferation expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“China realized that it needed to compete with the United States to stagnate us at the strategic nuclear level, to have a capability that could make the United States stop before the United States used nuclear weapons for the first time in a conventional conflict.”
China has also built many more ICBM silos with the same goal in mind. While hypersonic gliders are receiving a lot of attention recently, due to their relative novelty, many nuclear weapons experts argue that ICBMs equipped with multiple warheads on their own reentry vehicles are a more effective way to counter missile defense.
“People tend to get scared by these weapons, but in a way these types of gliders are not necessarily much more difficult to intercept than normal ballistic missile warheads,” said Pavel Podvig, principal investigator at the Institute for Disarmament Research of the United States. United Nations.
“If your goal is to defeat the missile defense, then building these types of gliders is not necessarily the way to do it. You could be better, or at least not worse, just putting more warheads and decoys on your missile. “
Proliferation experts say there is pressure from the military establishment of all major powers to exaggerate the threat from adversaries and spend more on all the new weapons systems available. The leaked US reports on the Chinese test have come as the Biden administration prepares its nuclear posture review and the Pentagon is pushing to maintain the ambitious modernization programs started by the Obama and Trump administrations.
“It empowers those who seek continuity and / or expansion of missile defense or nuclear forces,” Narang said. “It is difficult to argue, when Russia and China are expanding, that the United States should reverse something.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism