How can the United States and its allies shore up defence systems in the face of new missile technology developed by the CCP?
Earlier this month, reports suggested China had fired a hypersonic weapon in August, which missed its target by approximately 40 kilometres after travelling through low-orbit space and circling the globe.
The report, which first appeared in the Financial Times, cited five unnamed sources claiming China had made "astounding progress" on hypersonic weapons and was "far more advanced than US officials realised".
But China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian denied the reports, claiming it was a “routine test”, which formed part of a civilian space project.
"It was not a missile, it was a space vehicle," he said.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin refused to address the specific report, but stressed that China’s weapons programs are being closely monitored.
“We watch closely China’s development of armament and advanced capabilities and systems that will only increase tensions in the region,” he said.
According to Malcolm Davis, senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), the evidence suggests China may have deployed a new hypersonic glide vehicle with a fractional orbital bombardment system (FOBS).
This FOBS capability, he writes, originated in the Cold War era, during which the Soviet Union explored the possibility of firing ballistic missiles over Antarctica to attack the US from the south rather than from the north over the Arctic.
“An early system was deployed but soon withdrawn from service when Soviet efforts turned to modernising their intercontinental ballistic missile force and introducing independently manoeuvring multiple warheads, or MIRVs, to complicate US defensive measures,” Davis writes in ASPI's The Strategist.
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“The US considered the idea, but never deployed a FOBS capability, and has always favoured traditional ICBMs that fly over the Arctic.
“But FOBS might be back.”
The ASPI analysts believes China may be looking to develop a FOBS system to replace traditional MIRVs with hypersonic glide vehicles.
“It’s the FOBS–HGV combination that’s new and has led to a lot of guessing by China watchers and arms-control advocates about what the test entailed and what China’s intent is in pursuing such a capability,” he continues.
Davis warns that when combined with a highly manoeuvrable hypersonic glide vehicle, FOBS could enable the Chinese to circumvent existing and likely planned US missile-defence and early warning systems.
“They would go through the back door, rather than try to bash down the defended and watched front door,” he writes.
“Understanding the architecture of US early warning and defence systems helps illuminate why China would test a FOBS–HGV capability now.”
The ASPI analyst explains that the US’ missile early warning system starts with a network of infrared satellites, built to detect and monitor the launch of an ICBM.
Upgraded early warning radars in the UK and Greenland, and phased-array radars in the US also give can cue missile interceptors for a mid-course intercept.
“The US national missile defence system currently consists of 40 ground-based interceptors at Fort Greely in Alaska and four at Vandenburg Air Force Base in California, with 20 more to be deployed by 2023,” Davis adds.
“The system is designed to defeat a limited raid from North Korean ICBMs, not a large-scale Chinese or Russian nuclear attack. However, Beijing is clearly anxious about US defensive measures.”
Davis notes that US missile defence capability could improve over time, particularly if an expanded ground-based interceptor force was combined with ship-based SM-3 interceptors but warns that China’s construction of missile silos in Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia suggests it is moving away from a ‘minimum deterrent’ posture, which could match the US’ firepower.
“Greater numbers of both silo-based and road-mobile ICBMs, if combined with a niche FOBS-HGV component that can strike the US from the south, would certainly overwhelm any likely US missile defence architecture,” he writes.
“That would strengthen Chinese deterrence against US non-nuclear strikes against China’s nuclear forces, demonstrating that even an expanded US capability to counter any residual Chinese nuclear retaliation wouldn’t prevent a Chinese retaliation from inflicting massive damage.”
To counter this, Davis argues the US should consider options for expanding its missile early warning and missile tracking coverage to deal with hypersonic glide vehicles and threats, including that posed by FOBS.
“Continued development of infrared surveillance satellites will be important, including the ‘next-generation overhead persistent infrared’ (Next Gen OPIR) constellation that will eventually complement the current space-based infrared system,” he states.
“Ground-based sensors such as the upgraded early warning radar network could also be expanded to cover southern launch trajectories from China and Russia.”
The FOBS–HGV challenge, Davis adds, also presents an opportunity for the newly established AUKUS alliance, given the projected orbital path from China to the US is within close proximity to the west coast of Australia.
“One step that Canberra could take would be to offer to host a US enhanced early warning radar in Western Australia as a joint facility to allow Australia to play an even greater role in supporting US deterrence,” he writes.
“Such a facility could complement the Jindalee over-the-horizon radar network and be a key sensor in the Defence Department’s integrated air and missile defence project (AIR 6500 Phase 2).
“But the challenge would be for Australia to act quickly to establish such a facility, rather than make it a decades-long process that renders such a move irrelevant.”
Further, Davis suggests Australia could work with the US on Next Gen OPIR capabilities, including through sovereign satellite manufacture and launch to “augment and reconstitute lost capability in a crisis”.
He concludes: “Such steps would be early and highly visible achievements for AUKUS, reinforcing the relevance of the new agreement, which is currently struggling with the question of how to facilitate Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines.”
Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch with [email protected], [email protected], or at [email protected]
News Editor – Defence and Security, Momentum Media
Prior to joining the defence and aerospace team in 2020, Charbel was news editor of The Adviser and Mortgage Business, where he covered developments in the banking and financial services sector for three years. Charbel has a keen interest in geopolitics and international relations, graduating from the University of Notre Dame with a double major in politics and journalism. Charbel has also completed internships with The Australian Department of Communications and the Arts and public relations agency Fifty Acres.