Updated: Oct 28, 2021
China seems to be taking the nuclear arms race in a higher trajectory as numerous reports indicate that in July/August China carried out what is known as “fractional orbital bombardment system” [FOBS] to propel a nuclear-capable “hypersonic glide vehicle”
What Happened of Concern?
The first test was reportedly in August and the second on August 13 as per Demetri Sevastopulo of the Financial Times.
China seems to have revived the FOBS which is a nuclear-weapons delivery system developed in the 1960s by the Soviet Union. As per the Wikipedia, the FOBS was envisaged by the Soviet Union as launching “nuclear warheads into low Earth orbit before bringing them down on their targets”.
The Soviets gave up pursuing this option as the load deliverable was limited due to high fuel requirements of the rocket and inaccuracy.
China indeed if pursuing the FOBS path has overcome the accuracy challenge by using a hypersonic glide vehicle in tandem.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs when questioned by the Bloomberg in a routine media interaction has denied development of FOBS but instead has indicated that this was a test of a reusable space vehicle.
Zhao Lijian Spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in response to a question by Bloomberg that Financial Times has reported that China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile. Could the foreign ministry confirm if China has such a missile said, “ As we understand, this was a routine test of spacecraft to verify technology of spacecraft's reusability. It is of great significance to reducing the cost of using spacecraft and providing a convenient and cheap way for mankind's two-way transportation in the peaceful use of space. Several companies around the world have conducted similar tests”.
Zhao added, “After separating from the spacecraft before its return, the supporting devices will burn up when it's falling in the atmosphere and the debris will fall into the high seas. China will work with other countries in the world for the peaceful use of space for the benefit of mankind”.
Importantly Zhao Lijian reaffirmed that the test was that of a reusable vehicle and not a missile.
Responses of US Analysts
Indeed there continues to be a divided opinion on whether the tests in August were that of an FOBS or a reusable space vehicle, however opinion in the United States nuclear strategic community is united in looking at this capability as a strategic deterrent thereby creating a new equation conventional and nuclear between the two competing powers.
Analysts with the Carnegie as James M Acton argue in the essay, “China’s Tests Are No Sputnik Moment,” that deterrence may not be the whole objective as China already has such a capability. Acton states, “China has had the ability to attack the United States with nuclear warheads since the 1980s (and the U.S. territory of Guam was likely vulnerable even earlier)”.
Another analyst in Carnegie Tong Zhao tweeted that the FOBS option will provide China a higher degree of assurance in terms of retaliation and thus enhance deterrence both at the nuclear and the conventional level.
A highly assured Chinese nuclear retaliation capability eliminates the US capability to escalate a conventional conflict to the nuclear level. At the conventional level, China's growing conventional military superiority in the region further minimizes the risk of US intervention.
The revelation comes even as India is planning the test of a near ICBM missile the Agni V in October that is expected to provide a strategic deterrence vis a vis China. The FOBS however is mainly directed to achieve deterrence by China vis a vis the United States as the Chinese layers of missiles are adequate to do so vis a vis India.
More over India and China both have a No First Use nuclear doctrine and while there is a debate on New Delhi forsaking the same, sustained commitment has been expressed to NFU at various times. So is the approach by China.
The FOBS capability if developed by China on the other hand will create higher level of deterrence – nuclear and conventional vis a vis the United States. This is likely to bolster China’s potential for aggression against regional adversaries as India with which it has disputes impacting national sovereignty a core theme of President Xi Jinping
Thus with higher level of deterrence – nuclear and conventional vis a vis the United States, China can be expected to adopt a more aggressive posture against regional adversaries as India with which it has disputes impacting national sovereignty a core theme of President Xi Jinping as this will also increase the threshold for the United States actions if at all to support New Delhi.