WHATEVER IT WAS that China was test-launching from a space rocket this summer, it has ignited fears of both an expansion in China’s nuclear warfare capabilities and an arms race in space.
Earlier in the week, the Financial Times reported that in mid-August, China had tested a ‘nuclear-capable hypersonic missile’. This was launched in space from a Long March rocket and flew in a low orbit around the earth before gliding down on its target (which it missed by several miles). A follow-up report, quoting US intelligence sources, said that flight was, in fact, a second test, the earlier one having been made in late July.
The Chinese version of events is that it had not conducted a weapons test but only launched a spaceplane. Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said that a routine test had been carried out on July 16 to verify different types of reusable spacecraft technology to reduce the cost of spacecraft use.
The hypersonic orbiter was reportedly built by a subsidiary of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp., which is China’s main space manufacturer.
Beyond the discrepancies over the dates, the two sets of descriptions are not mutually incompatible.
What has concerned US defence analysts is that this novel propulsion technology, once perfected, could potentially circumvent American defence systems by sending a missile into low-orbit over the South Pole, thus evading US anti-missile systems that are directed towards the northern hemisphere.
This approach to nuclear attacks, known as a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System, was first developed by the Soviet Union in the 1960s. The Soviet Union had dropped the idea by the 1980s because of various shortcomings and improvements to intercontinental ballistic missiles, but not before it had acted as an accelerant to the Cold War arms race.
The latest Chinese tests will intensify US concerns about China’s rapidly modernising military and accelerate Washington’s upgrade of US weapons systems. At first, this may involve improving defensive capabilities such as missile detection but likely become offensive in terms of interceptors and potentially offensive anti-satellite weapons.
Beijing would likely respond in kind, although it has called for measures to restrict space weapons. However, dual-use space technologies offer the big powers useful ambiguity to develop systems with the potential to be space weapons even while claiming not to be ‘weaponising’ space.