China's Hypersonic Test: Time To Ditch Nuclear Arms Control | Opinion

China's unannounced test of a hypersonic glide vehicle in August signals that the Chinese regime is about to violate the Outer Space Treaty. The United States should now withdraw from that global agreement so that it can develop a similar weapon. Unfortunately, Washington is not even trying to catch up to its geopolitical arch-foe.

This month, the Financial Times revealed that China launched such a vehicle into "low-orbit space." The glide vehicle "circled the globe" and then cruised down toward a target, missing it by "about two-dozen miles."

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian on October 18 contradicted the FT report, saying the object launched into orbit was a reusable "spacecraft." Moreover, Zhao said what returned to earth was not a warhead; rather, it was, he told reporters, "the supporting devices" of the spacecraft. His contentions were not credible.

The first sentence of Article IV of the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies of 1967, better known as the "Outer Space Treaty," states that signatories to the pact "undertake not to place in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, install such weapons on celestial bodies or station such weapons in outer space in any other manner."

As Peter Huessy of the Air Force Association and GeoStrategic Analysis tells Newsweek, the treaty does not prohibit a nuclear device flying through space on a ballistic missile—such missiles travel in arcs that transit space for a few minutes—but the pact does proscribe a nuke that makes at least one full orbit around the earth.

China's hypersonic glide vehicle did not carry a live nuke, so it didn't run afoul of the treaty—but, as Richard Fisher of the Virginia-based International Assessment and Strategy Center told me, Beijing's intent to violate the pact is clear. Hypersonic glide vehicles are designed, after all, to deliver nuclear weapons.

In September, U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said China was developing the "potential for global strikes from space" and indicated the Chinese were working on something akin to the Soviet "Fractional Orbital Bombardment System," better known as "FOBS."

The Soviet Union deployed the FOBS system, testing it in 1968. "The [Lyndon B.] Johnson administration took the position that the testing and deployment of the Soviet FOBS did not violate the Outer Space Treaty," Michael Listner, founder and principal of Space Law and Policy Solutions, told Newsweek.

Why did President Johnson not complain about a clear violation of the Outer Space Treaty? Because his administration did not think FOBS was particularly useful.

The Soviets apparently agreed. They dismantled their system in the early 1980s.

Some analysts are not alarmed by China's August test. "From a pure security perspective, it's hard to say how much these developments matter," Joshua Pollack of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute stated in an October 17 tweet. "China could deliver nuclear weapons anywhere in the USA in July 2021 via ballistic missiles. Now the same weapons could arrive by a somewhat less efficient means, too!"

Chinese President Xi Jinping is seen on
Chinese President Xi Jinping is seen on a big screen showing the Chinese state television CCTV evening news as the city gets ready for the upcoming centenary of the Communist Party of China on June 30, 2021 in Beijing, China. Andrea Verdelli/Getty Images

Pollack's tweet does not note that, once China improves the accuracy of its hypersonic glide vehicles, it can destroy an American city with almost no warning.

The U.S. can maintain deterrence with its arsenal of aging ballistic missiles, but China's test requires the United States to match Chinese capabilities and develop a similar delivery vehicle. The U.S. should withdraw from the Outer Space Treaty to show that it will not allow China to maintain its technological advantage.

The Outer Space Treaty was always unenforceable because verification, as a practical matter, was and remains impossible. And now China is building a delivery vehicle that will violate that treaty. What more does Washington need to know to start a crash development program?

The concept of hypersonic flight and its initial technology were first developed by Germany in the 1940s, and America became the early leader in hypersonic flights with the X-15 reaching Mach 6.7—meaning 6.7 times the speed of sound—in 1967. Now, however, it would take America about a half-decade to catch up to China.

How could the U.S. have fallen so far behind?

"We had held back from pursuing military applications for this technology," Ambassador Robert Wood, U.S. representative to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, told Yahoo! Wood, in the words of that news site, "implied that U.S. officials had tried to avoid spurring a scramble for hypersonic missiles."

Now both China and Russia are ahead of the U.S. in hypersonic tech. American restraint did not entice either the Chinese or Russian military to forego developing these sophisticated delivery systems.

Today, America is developing theater—battlefield—hypersonic weapons, but there is no known American program to put a hypersonic glide vehicle on an intercontinental ballistic missile and launch it into orbit.

Falling behind has consequences. "The Chinese are building a highly coercive, advanced military capability to give them a very fast surprise-attack technology for the purpose of forcing the USA and its allies to stand down in a crisis or conflict and acquiesce to Chinese aggression, particularly an invasion of Taiwan," says Huessy.

While developing hypersonic capabilities, Beijing is also in the midst of a ballistic missile buildup, digging at least 250 and perhaps as many as 345 silos in three separate fields for its fearsome DF-41 missile. That missile can hit all of the U.S. from Chinese sites. The new silos, along with the hypersonic test, suggest Beijing no longer seeks merely a "minimal deterrent."

The Chinese military, from all indications, is now building a nuclear "war-fighting" capability, probably hoping to intimidate others into submission. China's propaganda machine issued nuclear threats against Japan in July and Australia in September, calling into question its official no-first-use policy.

Beijing has also done everything possible to increase American apprehension. Chinese generals and political leaders have periodically made unprovoked threats to nuke the American homeland.

There is no defense against hypersonic glide vehicles. Soon, China will be able to drop a nuke on America in the blink of an eye.

Americans think strategic nuclear weapons are unusable. Chinese strategists obviously do not agree.

Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China. Follow him on Twitter: @GordonGChang.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.