The Temptation to Escalate: Responding to China’s Hypersonic Weapon Test

by John Whitehead



U.S.-China tensions increased this fall with U.S. officials’ announcement that China had tested a “hypersonic weapon” earlier in the year. The alleged test has produced alarmism about a Chinese threat to the United States. However, these fears about hypersonic weapons are overblown and could easily lead to an unnecessary escalation in hostility between the United States and China — a far greater danger than any new weaponry.


Hypersonic technology refers to unmanned aerial vehicles, similar to missiles, that travel through low-orbit space, relatively close to the ground. They differ from ballistic missiles, which travel high into outer space before returning to earth. Hypersonic vehicles can travel extremely fast, at five times the speed of sound. They are maneuverable, difficult to track, and could be used to strike targets with nuclear weapons. If a nuclear-armed hypersonic weapon were launched against the United States, American decision-makers might have only about five minutes warning time before the weapon arrived.


The Financial Times reported in late October that during the summer China’s military launched a missile carrying a hypersonic glide vehicle. The hypersonic vehicle circled the globe before landing close to its intended target. While China and other nations (including the United States) were already known to have such technology, such a public test was surprising. General Mark Milley, the chairman of the U.S. Joints Chiefs of Staff, called the hypersonic test “a very significant event” and “very concerning.” In November, the Joint Chiefs’ vice chair, General John Hyten warned the United States was behind China in developing hypersonic weapons.


Some prominent Americans have set off alarm bells. Hyten spoke ominously of China developing a “first-use” capability: the ability to launch a surprise nuclear attack on the United States so devastating as to escape American retaliation. General David Thompson, of the U.S. Space Command, recently said, “We have catching up to do very quickly, the Chinese have an incredible hypersonic program.” Congressman Mike Gallagher (R-WI), of the House Armed Services Committee, declared the test “a call to action" and warned the United States could “lose the new Cold War with Communist China within the decade” if it didn’t respond properly.


Concerns about hypersonic weapons will likely influence government spending. The U.S. government already plans to spend $3.8 billion on American hypersonic missiles in Fiscal Year 2022. Worries about China could spur more spending: the Pentagon has awarded contracts to military manufacturers to develop systems to defend against hypersonic weapons.


Fears about Chinese hypersonic weapons are not completely absurd. Any technology that dramatically increases the speed and surprise of a nuclear attack is cause for concern, simply because such technology makes policymakers more paranoid, jumpy, and prone to making decisions too quickly. Further, if China is developing new nuclear weapons or conducting saber-rattling weapons tests, that points to a hawkish Chinese stance that requires a careful, serious response.


However, legitimate fears shouldn’t be overblown. The Chinese government notably has denied it tested a hypersonic weapon, describing the summer test as a “routine spacecraft experiment.” While such denials shouldn’t necessarily be taken at face value, neither should U.S. claims of a weapons test.


Further, China is extremely unlikely to use hypersonic weapons to launch a surprise nuclear attack against the United States. Given the massive US nuclear arsenal, some of which is deployed on mobile vehicles such as submarines, the notion that China could use nuclear weapons, however fast and undetectable, to destroy the United States’ ability to retaliate is too far-fetched to dictate policy.


Investing heavily in U.S. hypersonic weapons or missile defense systems (the latter of which are notoriously unreliable even against old-fashioned ballistic missiles) will waste money while promoting an unnecessary and destructive American-Chinese arms race.


U.S. policymakers — and citizens — shouldn’t allow the recent alleged test to make international tensions worse. The goal must be to ease tensions and seek diplomacy that can limit and reduce hypersonic and other nuclear weapons.


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