Pentagon Highlights Concerns with China’s Game Changing Hypersonic Space Glider: Nuclear Deterrent Improves Rapidly

The U.S. Department of Defence has released more details regarding the capabilities of a Chinese intercontinental range hypersonic glide vehicle which was first tested in July 2021, and which has been a leading cause of concern for the Pentagon ever since due to its ability to revolutionise the East Asian state’s nuclear delivery capabilities. The U.S. Military and its allies are not expected to field a comparable weapon for the foreseeable future, with the vehicle having flown for 40,000 kilometres for over 100 minutes - several times the distance between China and the United States - making it sufficient to facilitate nuclear strikes on the U.S. mainland from any direction and with very little warning. Vice Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Hyten warned in November 2021 regarding the vehicle that not only was it highly accurate during testing, and an example of the "stunning” new capabilities China was fielding, but also that it could provide China with an unprecedented ability to launch surprise nuclear attacks. His warning came two months after Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall highlighted that China was developing the capability to conduct "global strikes.. from space,” and a “de facto first-strike capability.” Regarding the missile’s ability to descend from space from unexpected angles and directions, and how this could seriously complicate matters for enemy air defences, he added that “if you use that kind of an approach, you don’t have to use a traditional ICBM trajectory. It’s a way to avoid defences and missile warning systems.”

The most recent assessment of China’s new hypersonic glide vehicle came from the Defence Department’s annual Military and Security Developments Involving the People's Republic of China report. It assessed that Chinese investments in nuclear delivery capabilities were fuelled by “long term concerns about United States missile defence capabilities,” with the glide vehicle’s ability to hit targets very far off its orbital flight path leaving air defences largely redundant. While the ability of U.S. defences to intercept even relatively basic North Korean intercontinental range ballistic missile attacks remains very limited, China’s much larger arsenal of delivery vehicles which are decades ahead in sophistication is expected to continue to post a challenge on an entirely different level - one missile defences are unlikely to ever provide viable protection against. The U.S. Military has meanwhile struggled to finance rejuvenation of its half century old ICBM force, which is by far the oldest in the world, while its new ground based anti ICBM system the Next Generation Interceptor set to see just 21 missiles funded - meaning a capacity likely far too limited to intercept even a smaller North Korean strike. Development of hypersonic missiles and a new generation of bombers in the United States has also faced significant hurdles and delays allowing China to claim a lead.

Hypersonic glide vehicles may eventually be integrated onto submarine launched ballistic missiles, as China’s new generation of strategic nuclear submarines is expected to potentially leapfrog existing Western and Russian capabilities. The third arm of the country's nuclear triad the bomber fleet is also set to be revolutionised by the induction of the new H-20 stealth bomber around 2025, although its existing H-6 bombers are already capable of deploying hypersonic missiles and serving as carriers for hypersonic surveillance drones. Hypersonic glide vehicles with fractional orbital bombardment capabilities remains one of the most concerning strategic nuclear delivery assets for China’s Western adversaries, but are far from the only one as the country appears increasingly well positioned to field the world’s most modern and capable strategic nuclear deterrent by 2030.

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