Financial Times, citing anonymous U.S. intelligence sources, has reported that China tested a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead in August that left the Pentagon stunned. Nuclear wonks and policy experts are already calling the test a “Sputnik Moment,” referring to the point at which the Soviet Union demonstrated its ability to launch a satellite (and theoretically a weapon) into space, and intimating that the new kind of nuke delivery system could lead to a global arms race the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Cold War. China denied it even conducted a missile test saying, instead, that it was testing a space plane.
According to Financial Times and The Drive, the missile was part of a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS), meaning it enters orbit around the Earth before re-entering the atmosphere on a hypersonic glide vehicle and striking its target. Financial Times reported that the test flight missed its target by 12 miles..
But 12 miles doesn’t make a lot of difference when you’re talking about an all out nuclear exchange. “If you’re worried about nuclear war, this shouldn’t change how you feel because it doesn’t change the fact that, if they really wanted to, China can vaporize American cities,” Bleddyn E. Bowen, a lecturer at the University of Leicester and the author of War in Space, told Motherboard.
“Remember, China already has ballistic missiles so it’s been able to threaten us for decades,” Stephen Schwartz, a nonresident senior fellow at Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, told Motherboard. “What most people don’t understand is that A—China’s arsenal is really, really, really small and B—their weapons are not on constant alert, like ours are. Although they are moving in that direction under the sort of inexorable force of threats that they perceive coming from us.”
The Pentagon has recently been concerned about the threat of new nuclear weapons in China. Over the Summer, satellites revealed the construction of hundreds of new missile silos in northwestern China. According to Schwartz, the military buildup in China is—in part—a reaction to the perceived threat of America’s military.
Jeffrey Lewis, Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Project at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, is more worried about America’s reaction to the test than he is the test itself.
“I think this is much more like the weeks and months after 9/11, where we were afraid and we were vulnerable,” he said. “And we decided we had to do something and what we chose to do was invade Iraq which was certainly something. We did a bunch of self defeating things that made the situation worse because we didn't know what to do. One of the things we did was withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty which is how we got to this with the FOBS.”
China’s hypothetical FOBS are meant to circumvent America's ballistic missile defense system, strategically placed missile batteries that can supposedly shoot nukes out of the air before they hit their target. The ABM Treaty was a 1972 deal with the Soviet Union that limited the number of such systems both countries could develop and deploy. Colin Powell and George W. Bush dismantled that treaty in the wake of 9/11. “If we hadn’t walked out of the ABM treaty in 2001, if George W Bush hadn’t unilaterally abandoned it, I think we probably wouldn’t be talking about this today,” Schwartz said.
The horrifying logic of nuclear weapons as a global peacekeeper means that everyone stays in line only if there’s a credible threat of nuclear annihilation. Missile defense systems mitigate that possibility and so rival countries work to develop weapons that get around them. That leads to an arms race like we had during the Cold War.
Bowen, Lewis, and Schwartz all noted that it’s ridiculous to get excited about a new Chinese nuke that can bypass U.S. missile defense systems. “America’s missile defense systems have never been able to stop a major nuclear attack,” Bowen said.
“They have a very poor test record,” Lewis said. “It’s around 50 percent and only in very scripted scenarios. They don’t test in adverse weather. They’ll cancel missile defense tests on account of rain.”
According to Schwartz, the defense systems China wants to circumvent have never actually destroyed a single nuclear weapon.
“We have not destroyed, ever, a nuclear warhead with a ballistic missile defense system,” Schwartz said. “Where we’ve destroyed, collectively around the world, over 51,000 nuclear warheads through unilateral, bilateral, and multilateral arms control initiatives over many decades. And those weapons are gone forever. And all that cost us was some time to talk and work out an agreement and create systems to verify.”
Schwartz said that what we should focus on instead is reducing and eliminating nuclear arsenals with arms control and arms reduction agreements. “We’ve been trying to use technology to solve this political problem for a very long time. And it hasn’t worked,” he said.
As relations between China and the U.S. continue to cool and America’s intelligence agencies continue to pivot towards the East, that’s getting harder to do. “I’m under no illusions that China is gonna come to the table soon but we are actively driving them in this direction, whether we acknowledge it or not,” Schwartz said. “And if we overreact to this, and decide to do something they perceive to be even more threatening, it’s going to rebound on us.”