Has China launched a hypersonic arms race?

·Senior Editor
·5-min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

China recently conducted a “very concerning” test of a new hypersonic missile system capable of delivering a nuclear weapon to the United States, the top officer in the U.S. military said Wednesday.

Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the test was very close to a “Sputnik moment,” a reference to the Soviet Union satellite that caused a wave of fear in the U.S. when it was launched into orbit in 1957. Milley is the first government official to confirm the hypersonic test, which was originally reported by the Financial Times earlier this month.

Hypersonic weapons are far more maneuverable than traditional ballistic missiles, which travel in a predictable path. Their high rate of speed and ability to travel in unpredictable ways mean a hypersonic missile could theoretically be impossible for current U.S. defense systems to detect a nuclear weapon, let alone shoot it down, before it reached American soil.

The Chinese, who officially deny reports of the test, aren't alone in working on hypersonic weapons technology. The United States is also aggressively pursuing the technology, but its latest test held just last week failed. Russia and North Korea have both claimed to have their own hypersonic missiles, but weapons experts see reason to question how advanced those systems may be.

Why there’s debate

In the eyes of some national security experts, China's hypersonic weapons represent a radical shift in the balance of power between the world’s two most powerful nations. Historically, the U.S. has had a substantially larger nuclear capacity than China. When it comes to the number of warheads, that’s still true. But some argue that the ability to deliver a missile undetected makes China the new dominant nuclear power.

That, of course, has implications in the event of an actual nuclear war, but it may also give Chinese President Xi Jinping more leverage to pursue his ambitious goals for expanding his country's global influence — like his long-standing desire to bring Taiwan under control of the mainland government.

Some prominent nuclear weapons experts have argued that the test doesn’t really change much. They say the reality is that China’s rapidly expanding stockpile of traditional ballistic missiles was already capable of overcoming U.S. defenses, so the advent of hypersonic technology is essentially irrelevant. Nuclear nonproliferation advocates worry that the test will set off a new arms race that ultimately increases the risk of nuclear war in the future.

What’s next

During the presidential campaign, Joe Biden pledged to “[reduce] our reliance and excessive expenditure on nuclear weapons.” His administration is currently in the midst of a comprehensive review of U.S. nuclear policy. It’s unclear whether China’s successful hypersonic test will influence the president’s desire to draw down some of America's nuclear capacity.


China’s advances make it harder to make the case for nuclear disarmament

“It empowers those who are looking for continuity and/or expansion of missile defence or nuclear forces. It’s hard to make the argument, when Russia and China are expanding, that the US should roll anything back.” — Vipin Narang, nuclear proliferation expert, to Guardian

China will have more leverage to spread its global influence

“This hypersonic weapon adds to the growing inventory of Chinese nuclear-strike capabilities. That, by itself, isn’t necessarily a game-changer, but … it suggests China is trying to raise the risk and cost of a potential conflict so high that the U.S. starts to rethink some of its regional security commitments.” — Timothy Heath, defense researcher, to Time

The U.S. is essentially defenseless against a Chinese nuclear attack

“The next major war won’t look anything like the last one. The U.S. homeland was spared from most of World War II’s destruction. But the next conflict will feature cyber attacks, hypersonic missiles, and unmanned vehicles using artificial intelligence that put the U.S. at risk of attack from afar. Hiding behind fortress America won’t be possible, if it ever was.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal

The U.S. has no choice but to escalate its nuclear ambitions to counter China’s rise

“The response to the new circumstances should reflect a Cold War-era urgency. … If we aren’t going to call it a new cold war, we must — or risk falling further behind — treat it as one.” — Rich Lowry, National Review

Overreacting to China’s nuclear development would be incredibly dangerous

“China is flexing its muscles more than preparing for war. … We do need to stay vigilant, remember the art of war even in this age of (relative) peace, and expand our economic as well as military toolkit for crisis management. We need not and must not panic, however, because doing so could turn manageable crises into truly scary ones.” — Michael O’Hanlon, USA Today

Hypersonic missiles don’t change the realities of mutually assured destruction

“If you’re worried about nuclear war, this shouldn’t change how you feel because it doesn’t change the fact that, if they really wanted to, China can vaporize American cities,” — Bleddyn E. Bowen, advanced warfare researcher, to Vice

Hypersonic weapons make the need to reduce nuclear stockpiles even more urgent

“China’s pursuit of hypersonics is just one more reason the United States ought to continue trying to bring China to the arms control table and keep Russia engaged there. … The climate is not very promising for negotiations, but the alternative is an arms race, or more than one.” — Editorial, Washington Post

A hypersonic arms race would prevent cooperation on critical global issues

“Governments that plunge into a Cold War mind-set can exaggerate every conflict, convinced that they are part of a larger struggle. They can miss opportunities for cooperation, as the United States and China did in battling Covid-19, and may yet on the climate.” — David E. Sanger, New York Times

China’s nuclear development is about self defense above all

“China feels it needs a greater overall military power, including a stronger nuclear power, to basically ensure that the U.S. wouldn't be able to interfere with Chinese internal matters.” — Tong Zhao, nuclear policy analyst, to NPR

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images (7)

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