A New Arms Race? Successful Hypersonic Missile Test By China Heralds A New Era

On Saturday, October 16th, the Financial Times reported a successful test of a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile. The test, carried out by China in August, allegedly took American intelligence by surprise.

Five people familiar with the test told the Financial Times that the Chinese military launched a rocket carrying a hypersonic glide vehicle. The missile missed its target by more than 20 miles, but two sources said that the “test showed that China had made astounding progress on hypersonic weapons and was far more advanced than U.S. officials realized.” A fourth individual told the Financial Times, “We have no idea how they did this.” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said he would not comment on the specifics of the report, but added, “We have made clear our concerns about the military capabilities China continues to pursue, capabilities that only increase tensions in the region and beyond. That is one reason why we hold China as our number one pacing challenge.”

Hypersonic weapons differ from traditional ballistic weapons in several crucial ways. A traditional ballistic missile would reach outer space before returning at high speed towards its target on a steep trajectory – during this time, it could be intercepted by defences like ABMs (anti-ballistic missiles), which would destroy the missile before it could reach its target. In contrast, a hypersonic missile flies towards its target at a lower altitude, but at a much higher speed – reaching more than five times the speed of sound or about 6,200km per hour. The hypersonic glide vehicle tested by China has another advantage: it is more manoeuvrable than a typical ballistic missile, allowing in-flight control to change target or evade defences.

China is not the only nation pursuing hypersonic weapons technology. The United States and Russia are both reportedly developing missiles of this sort. North Korean leadership also claimed last month to have tested its hypersonic missile. China’s relatively successful test indicates that Beijing has rapidly developed its tech in this field, and the implications of this should cause global concern. The successful test of new nuclear-capable technology risks reigniting the arms races of the 20th century, which at their height saw 70,000 nuclear warheads spread throughout major stockpiles. The previous arms race was mitigated through a series of arms reductions treaties between the United States and the Soviet Union (and subsequently the Russian Federation), but this took decades of fear and agitation from governments, activists, and politicians to achieve. A new arms race, in the increasingly polarized 21st century, may not see the same moderating influences.

Despite the Cold War’s ostensible conclusion 30 years ago, one of the conflict’s biggest threats continues to haunt the world. Current nuclear stockpiles retain the power to inflict unparalleled global damage. According to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), the United States alone possesses 5,600 nuclear warheads (although 1,900 of these are retired and awaiting dismantlement). The Russian Federation, meanwhile, possesses over 6,000 warheads with 1,760 retired. Compared to these two nations, China possesses relatively few weapons – FAS estimates a current Chinese stockpile of 350 warheads. However, the groups also warn that this number is predicted to double by the end of the decade as Beijing continues to modernize and diversify its nuclear arsenal. Combined with the development of hypersonic missiles which obsolete many missile defence systems, the risk of a new arms race is all too high. The nuclear powers should come to the table together and negotiate new, binding disarmament agreements to minimize the danger.