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If US sees China’s hypersonic missile test as Sputnik moment, it must help allies, friends

The general understanding is that hypersonic missiles will beat and undermine the ballistic missile defence systems, a serious international security concern.

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Recent reports in Financial Times claimed that China tested two hypersonic missiles in August 2021. They mentioned that the first flight missed its target by about two-dozen miles. However, the FT report acknowledged the flying of the vehicle through low-earth orbit. The Chinese government denied having tested any missile, but agreed to have test launched a spacecraft to verify its reusability.

The international community, which is already holding a series of open and closed-door sessions to analyse the implications of the induction of such weaponry, is jolted. The reaction, as usual, is wide-ranging — from scepticism to being alarmist. The most stunning reaction came from the American establishment.

Reuters report of 22 October said that “the Pentagon’s hypersonic weapon programs suffered a setback when a booster rocket carrying a hypersonic weapon failed”. But the US government bewildered the international community by stating that the failed mission was not of its hypersonic missile. A joint statement by the US navy and army underlined the success of hypersonic technology test conducted on 20 October 2021. The test was stated to be for “common hypersonic missile, consisting of a Common Hypersonic Glide Body (CHGB) and booster”.

The two developments tell us one story — the world has entered into the hypersonic missile age. And nothing explains this race better than the remark made by Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said, “What we saw (China’s test) was a very significant event of a test of a hypersonic weapon system. And it is very concerning…I don’t know if it’s quite a Sputnik moment, but I think it’s very close to that.”

True, the international community tried, and to an extent, is still trying to avoid the coming of age of this technology. Endeavours are on at the governmental and the non-governmental levels both but, seemingly, the efforts are not bearing any fruit. In fact, a classical action-reaction spectacle involving those with access to such technology is now appearing on the strategic horizon.

The hypersonic missile, as the very name suggests, is about higher speeds – moving at more than five times the speed of sound, which comes to about 6,115 kmph. When precision and a longer range are added to this high speed, it becomes difficult to defend against such missiles. The technology has moved beyond the drawing board, and seems to have entered into the testing phase. Since the information on it is trickling from the secretive military-scientific establishment, it is difficult to capture the complete picture now. Earlier, in 2018, Russia had even promised to deploy its battery of hypersonic missiles within months. The general understanding is that the hypersonic missile will beat and undermine the ballistic missile defence systems. And this has emerged as a serious international security concern. The FT report underscored that the flying over of the Chinese missile over the South Pole would adversely affect the US, which had directed its missile defence systems towards the ‘Northern Pole route’.


Also read: In this nuclear arms race, China’s hypersonic missile test is a ‘wake-up call’


Who heralded this age?

It is difficult to tell by who and when exactly the race was started. The October 2021 American test shows that the news of the Chinese tests was broken to justify Pentagon’s own technology development. In recent years, there have been claims, counterclaims, allegations and counter-allegations surrounding hypersonic technology. Russia has claimed to be working on this missile for several years now.

When Russia claimed to have the technology and a programme of hypersonic missiles in 2004, many in the Western world were dismissive. Similar has been the response to the August tests by China with many saying there is nothing new in it. The Soviet Union had possessed it in the 1960s.

In 2019, observers said that 16 DF-17s, exhibited during a parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in Beijing on 1 October 2019, were basically hypersonic missiles.

The DF-17 is estimated to have a range at 1,770 to 2,495 km. As the range of all the hypersonic gliders, which are in news, is much lower than the existing Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), it may use a hybrid method whereby a longer range missile may launch a high-speed hypersonic glider to hit the intended target. This will combine range with speed, manoeuvrability, and possibly precision, to make the missile a formidable weapon. Again, all the trickling information on US, China or Russia’s programmes indicate that that the weapon developed is going to be hypersonic cruise, not ballistic missiles.


Also read: India among few countries developing hypersonic missiles, US Congressional report says


How US is placed and options for India

The alarm bells are ringing all over the world. A strong section of the Western strategic community projects that in the realm of hypersonic missiles, the US is lagging behind Russia and China. However, inside the US, this claim is contested on different grounds. One of the arguments is that the existing ballistic missile defence, anyway, does not guarantee cent percent interception of current missiles in the stockpiles of Russia and China. So, the newer version that China has may not make much of a difference. Notwithstanding these arguments, a successful operation of such a weapon may place any adversary at disadvantage. No wonder the US and many other countries are taking serious note of the hypersonic capabilities of their real and perceived adversaries. The US realises that its advantage in air superiority will be seriously compromised. The huge aircraft carriers will be crippled with the application of these missiles. Changing military doctrines to adjust or meet the hypersonic missiles may further add security complications.

The US Department of Defence has been asking the Congress to increase the defence budget to develop hypersonic missiles. According to reports, the US government is synergising the works of all the departments and agencies towards developing the hypersonic system. The 20 October test, it seems, was conducted with this philosophy.

However, the US also needs to work with countries that are increasingly struggling with their security vis-à-vis China. Some are directly under the Chinese hypersonic missile threat. These countries are also developing appropriate weapons to counter the Chinese threat. A few of them have openly declared their programmes for development of similar missiles. This may have given a strategic message to China. The US should also dissuade Russia from joining hands with China. For this, it may have to pursue a pro-active diplomacy of confidence building measures.

Quite disturbingly, reports are coming that the lax American approach, initiated primarily by the Nixon-Kissinger initiative, is greatly benefitting China with advanced military technology. Even the hypersonic mission of China has taken advantage of Western technology. To develop its hypersonic weapon system, reportedly, China used advanced American software. A Chinese front company, Phytum Technology, used the software to develop tiny chips for the hypersonic missile design and development. China also involved a Taiwani chip factory, which uses American precision machinery.

India has to explore its options in the light of China’s increasing and aggressive military modernisation and behaviour. Hypersonic missiles are just one example. Fortunately, India is also working on this breed of missiles, and conducted the tests in September 2020. A couple of years ago, the Indian scientific establishment had enumerated some of the challenges in the development of hypersonic missiles. The US’ continued curb is forcing India to develop these strategic weapons and technologies indigenously.

The US needs to revisit its old non-proliferation export control policy, which helps a country like China and adversely affects the capability development of its allies and friends. China has been procuring advanced missile technology through clandestine means. Refreshingly, it has begun working with its friends and allies in recent years to overcome archaic laws and rules hurting security of its friends. Australia, the UK and the US joint nuclear submarine deal was a positive move towards that direction. The kindred spirit of the deal needs to be continued in other spheres.

Rajiv Nayan @rajivnayanidsa is Senior Research Associate, The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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