China’s “Sputnik moment”

China is developing a hypersonic missile designed to evade American nuclear defenses. This summer, it conducted two tests of that missile.

The U.S. knew about the tests, but our military officials were silent on the subject until last week. After the Financial Times reported the Chinese tests, presumably based on a leak, our government finally discussed this development.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley called it “very close” to a “Sputnik moment” for the United States. For our younger readers, Sputnik was the artificial satellite launched by the Soviet Union in 1957. The successful launch signaled that the Soviets were ahead of the U.S. in penetrating outer space, and helped trigger the space race.

Milley said the Chinese tests of the hypersonic missile surprised our experts. He added that the tests were a “very significant technological event” and that the event “has our [full] attention.”

Fareed Zakaria argues that the Chinese tests are nothing like Sputnik, that the technology in question is nothing new, and that Milley is feeding cold war paranoia. However, this discussion by the New York Times indicates otherwise:

[T]he advances suggest that China might one day be able to arm a hypersonic vehicle with a nuclear warhead, launch it into a low orbit, and release it from anyplace — including, perhaps, an evasive flight path over Antarctica.

Existing defenses of the continental United States all point west and north over the Pacific, meaning they might fail in defeating an attack from the south. Even if there were antimissile bases pointed south, current antimissile technology is designed to intercept intercontinental ballistic warheads on predictable, parabolic paths in outer space — not hypersonic weapons that can zig and zag through the atmosphere.

“We just don’t know how we can defend against that technology, neither does China, neither does Russia,” said Ambassador Robert A. Wood, who is retiring in a few weeks as the U.S. representative at arms control sessions in Geneva.

The Asia Times discusses how what China is doing with hypersonic technology differs from what others, like the Soviet Union, have done. It also points out that because the Chinese missiles are launched from a spacecraft in orbit, China is violating the Outer Space Treaty of 1967.

If the hyepersonic technology is such a game-changer, you would think the U.S. is also working assiduously to develop it. However, it’s not clear that we are. Wood says that we have “held back” from pursuing its military uses to avoid stoking a new kind of arms race.

On the other hand, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby claims that the United States is competing with China on this technology. He stated that “our own pursuit of hypersonic capabilities is real, it’s tangible, and we are absolutely working towards being able to develop that capability.”

Maybe. But when Gen. Milley calls the Chinese tests a “Sputnik moment” it tells me that China is well ahead of us.

China has no desire to launch missiles at the U.S. Its plans for gaining world dominance don’t include starting a war with America.

But China desires to conquer Taiwan. Developing a missile that can penetrate our defenses would likely deter the U.S. from coming to Taiwan’s defense or at least reduce China’s fears that we will.

The signs of China’s intentions towards Taiwan are unmistakable. The Times points to the Pentagon’s concern that China is flying sorties inside Taiwan’s air identification zone, digging hundreds of new silos for long-range nuclear missiles, building an arsenal of antisatellite weapons, and routinely firing more rockets into space than any other country.

I agree with the Asia Times that “the U.S. will have to come up with an answer to China’s new [technological] threat.”

Notice: All comments are subject to moderation. Our comments are intended to be a forum for civil discourse bearing on the subject under discussion. Commenters who stray beyond the bounds of civility or employ what we deem gratuitous vulgarity in a comment — including, but not limited to, “s***,” “f***,” “a*******,” or one of their many variants — will be banned without further notice in the sole discretion of the site moderator.