China and Russia’s hypersonic weaponry threatens US early warning system

The author is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. He has previously served as Secretary of State and Chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board

For those aware of China’s and Russia’s worrying advances in hypersonic weapons, the news that the Pentagon is pressuring U.S. defense companies to accelerate their own advances in hypersonic weapons is a welcome development. The race must now be underway to catch up, or risk giving the advantage to US opponents.

Both China and Russia conducted hypersonic missile tests in the summer of 2021. Russia’s test of its hypersonic Skyfall nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed cruise missile took place at its test site on the island of Novaya Zemlya in the Arctic Ocean. Since the missile is nuclear-powered, it has unlimited range.

China also conducted two flight tests of hypersonic ballistic missiles. One flew in an orbit around the earth on a maneuvering path to the target region of China. The other also flew on a maneuvering trajectory, releasing another hypersonic object – a “first” for any nation.

The significance of these tests was quickly tested by both the arms control community and the media. Russia was reduced to environmental ignorance (“a flying Chernobyl”), while China was dismissed as “nothing new” as Russian fractional orbital flights were made during the Cold War.

These reactions missed the importance of such capabilities in both China’s and Russia’s nuclear modernization efforts. Maneuvering hypersonic vehicles is not just another means of delivering a nuclear warhead to a target. Instead, they are an essential part of a “system of systems,” designed to defeat the United States’ early warning capabilities.

The US ballistic missile warning system is a set of satellites and radars integrated with their command, control and communications system to detect, locate and track resistance missile attacks. Together, these interdependent capabilities are crucial to maintaining effective nuclear deterrence. They were so fundamental to mutual deterrence during the Cold War that 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaties contained provisions aimed at protecting them from attack.

The growing importance of space has been obscured by the seamless way in which space capacities have been integrated into both everyday public life and national security. But operations that are crucial to nuclear deterrence.

Both China and Russia have well-developed advanced offensive capabilities in space. In late January, for example, China’s Shijian 21 (CJ-21) satellite disappeared from its normal position in geostationary orbit 22,000 miles above the ground. The CJ-21 maneuvered close to one of China’s defective satellites in its 35-satellite Beidou constellation. There it used a grab arm to move the defective satellite to a “cemetery orbit”.

The Space Priorities Framework released by the Biden administration in December recognizes space as “critical of modern warfare,” but continues to adhere to its position that the United States will not use space for offensive military applications. This leaves our deterrence vulnerable to nations that do not share this view.

The United States is developing a space-based system that uses advanced infrared sensors that can detect maneuvering hypersonic warheads. But current missile defense systems do not allow them to engage with rapidly maneuvering warheads. China and Russia have also developed counter systems that endanger US space surveillance and communications capabilities at low, medium and high altitudes.

By maneuvering their satellites for offensive space operations alongside US satellites, China and Russia were able to carry out a wide range of offensive operations. These include interference, spoofing or destruction of sensors, built-in computation, data links or electrical satellite systems and insertion of malicious code using cyber techniques.

All of this is reinforced by their ability to use both cyber and kinetic capabilities to attack critical U.S. infrastructure. This is the foundation on which military operations depend, as well as the electric power system, national telecommunications, and air and rail transportation systems that support U.S. economic and military power.

China and Russia’s maneuvering hypersonic missile capabilities enable these opposing powers to have an integrated capacity to defeat the US early warning system. Under these circumstances, the United States would be blind to an incoming foreign missile attack and its ability to respond significantly limited.

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