China flaunts its hypersonic prowess in the Dongfeng-17 hypersonic glider during a military parade in Beijing in a file photo. Photo: AFP

China tested a hypersonic glide vehicle in August launched from an orbiting spacecraft, qualifying the Chinese vehicle as a Fractional Orbit Bombardment (FOB) System.  

The launch was confirmed by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, who called it “very close to a Sputnik moment.” He also said the launch was “very concerning.”

FOBs are nothing new. But what makes the Chinese system different is that instead of launching a nuclear warhead mounted on a small rocket in space orbit against a ground target, China has shown it can launch a hypersonic glide vehicle with a nuclear warhead from space.

Russia already has an ICBM hypersonic glide vehicle called Avangard, which is now deployed. Unlike the Chinese FOB, Avangard sits atop a missile launched from an underground silo. When within range of its target, it releases the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle. 

It is not currently an orbital vehicle or technically a fractional orbital vehicle. It is said to carry a 2 megaton, relatively small, nuclear warhead.

Going back in time, Russia built at least three different FOB platforms starting in 1960. One of them, called the R-36O, was first flight-tested in 1965. After 20 tests and many problems, the first Russian FOBs were deployed in 1971 in Kazakhstan, then part of the USSR, but were not equipped with nuclear warheads until the following year.

The R-36O was a fractional orbit system and was not intended to circle the earth entirely. For example, it might be launched from Russia, head down over the South Pole, and then head north to the United States following a partial orbiting path. In range of its target, it would launch a small rocket from space with a nuclear warhead.

Initially, the reason for FOBs for Russia was to overcome US anti-ballistic missile systems (ABMs). At the time of development, the US had only one such system called Sentinel (later called Safeguard), a system that would come to have 480 Spartan and 192 Sprint missiles, but Russia’s reasoning is that a FOB could be launched either over the North or South poles.  

The world’s most powerful thermonuclear bomb, up to 100 megawatts, on display in the museum of nuclear weapons in the Russian Federal Nuclear Center in the Nizhny Novgorod Region. Much smaller warheads are needed for hypersonic missiles. Photo: Supplied

The US had an early warning system (BMEWS) in North America, Canada and in the UK covering launches over the North Pole. But a FOB, which could circle the earth many times in a low earth orbit, could equally be launched over the South Pole.  

The US had no south-facing radars like the BMEWS. But in 1972, the US and the USSR signed the ABM Treaty, limiting both sides to two ABM sites – one to protect its capital and the other to protect an ICBM launch site. In 1974, the ABM treaty was amended with a protocol limiting both countries to one ABM site.  

The US shut down the Sentinel system in 1976 and the US never built an ABM system to protect Washington, DC. The Russians deployed an ABM around Moscow, initially the A-35 (Galosh), in 1971, which later was replaced by the A-135.

In 2001, the US withdrew from the ABM treaty in order to build the Ground Based Interceptor – today limited to 44 launchers based in Alaska and California. Demolition of the old BMEWS system began in 2016.

By 1983, the Soviets decided to remove all its FOBs from service. By that time the US began deploying space-based radars, so a key advantage of the Russian FOBs to evade US ground radars was defeated by the radars and additional satellite-based sensors that were able to detect missile launches.

China, of course, was never a party to the ABM treaty, or any other bilateral or trilateral arms control agreement. However, China is a signatory to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.  

That treaty includes the following provision: “Parties to the Treaty undertake not to place in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction … ”  

The latest Chinese launch directly violates the terms of the Outer Space Treaty because the Chinese system orbited the earth. However, the UN, which is the treaty’s manager and repository, has said nothing about the Chinese launch.

China says it did not launch an FOB with a hypersonic vehicle, but instead was testing a reusable space vehicle. If that was the case, why was this particular launch kept secret by the Chinese?

However, the belated US confirmation of the launch indicates that the US successfully tracked China’s hypersonic glide vehicle FOB test.

One of the troubling questions on the US side is why the Chinese launch was not reported at the time, as nearly three months passed before the Financial Times reported the news, probably based on a government leak. 

China’s DF-41 nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles at a military parade on Tiananmen Square in Beijing on October 1, 2019. Photo: AFP / Greg Baker / Getty Images

Was the Pentagon covering up the Chinese launch in order to avoid difficulties with China?  

China’s vehicle clearly did not meet all expectations and will require more tests and a longer development cycle. One indication is that it appears the Chinese hypersonic glider missed its target by more than 20 miles, suggesting that accuracy and vehicle control remain major challenges. 

And, because hypersonic glide vehicles can carry only small nuclear warheads – just as the predecessor Russian FOBs carried warheads one third smaller than could be put on ICBMs – accuracy is all-important to have a credible weapon.

An open and unanswered question is whether the US will decide to develop strategic defenses against hypersonic threats, whether launched from space, from sea, or by aircraft.  Milley’s characterization of the Chinese hypersonic vehicle as “very close to a Sputnik moment” suggests that the Pentagon is deep in debate on how to respond to this new Chinese challenge. 

One approach is to kill any low earth orbiting system before it can release a hypersonic vehicle.  This probably would require a system that is space-based, has sophisticated sensors that can pick out a threatening hypersonic platform, and has the means to quickly destroy it. 

Such a system would be quite different from classical ground-based ABMs, which are incapable of intercepting hypersonic threats. The US and Israel are jointly working on a system that addresses hypersonic space-based threats under the aegis of a new system called Arrow 4

The US contractor is Lockheed and the Israeli prime is Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI).  Sponsorship is through the US Missile Defense Agency and the Israel Missile Defense Organization.  Whether Arrow 4 is intended as an intercept of a space launched glider or whether it is intended to attack the launching platform is not clear.

Meanwhile, there is little doubt that China’s secret platform launch is the start of a new competition and global nuclear missile threat. The US will have to come up with an answer to China’s new threat, either with an effective defense against hypersonic weapons or a means to knock out FOBs before they release their weapons, or possibly both.