On October 4, 1957 the world changed. That was the day the Soviet Union successfully launched a basketball-sized satellite, Sputnik, into orbit. This single event changed America’s view of the competition with the Soviet Union. Moscow had achieved a major technological leap ahead of the West. Thus began a decades-long competition between East and West resulting, inter alia, in the race to land a man on the moon, the Internet and the Strategic Defense Initiative.
Sputnik also threatened to upend the military balance between the United States and the Soviet Union. The rocket that carried Sputnik into space was essentially an ICBM. By placing a satellite in orbit the Kremlin also was signaling that it could deliver a nuclear weapon to any spot on the globe. The U.S. advantage in strategic airpower was negated and all existing strategic defenses were rendered irrelevant. While it took the Soviet Union a decade or more to deploy a significant arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles, a 35-year-long arms race started that October day.
Since that time, we have become rather complacent about such transformational moments. I guess rocket science isn’t what it used to be. When Pakistan and India tested their first nuclear weapons in 1998, there was a moment of surprise and angst in Washington but not among the American people and then everything pretty much went back to the way it had been. There was even less reaction when North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon in 2006 (it has since conducted two more, the latest last year) or even when it performed its own Sputnik maneuver launching a satellite into space on December 12, 2012. No wonder the regime in Pyongyang behaves so badly; what does a totalitarian regime have to do these days to get some recognition and respect?
On January 9, 2013 the U.S. experienced a second Sputnik moment, this time caused by the People’s Republic of China. On that day China tested a hypersonic vehicle atop an ICBM. A hypersonic weapon travels at more than five times the speed of sound. Once launched to space, this vehicle separates from its booster and then maneuvers at the edge of the atmosphere at speeds up to a dozen times that of sound. If successful, this event could mark the date at which a new arms race began. Such a weapon could attack a target on the other side of the Earth in less than half an hour. No existing defensive system could touch it.
Hypersonic technology can be applied to air-to-air missiles as well as advanced air and sea-launched cruise missiles. Hypersonic weapons, like the first long-range ballistic missile, will totally transform conventional warfare making sitting ducks of aircraft and surface ships. The U.S. Navy is already having trouble defending against slower supersonic anti-ship missiles; it has no defense against a hypersonic weapon. Hypersonic aircraft would not need stealth to defeat air defenses; they would simply outrun them.
The U.S. has been working on hypersonic weapons for a long time. Last year the U.S. conducted an unsuccessful test of such a weapon aboard a ballistic missile as part of the Prompt Global Strike program. There are smaller R&D programs, most of them classified, to develop hypersonic weapons. U.S. hypersonic weapons are considered to be a potential means for defeating the air defense portion of anti-access/area denial threats. It is likely that U.S. programs to design a sixth-generation fighter will explore hypersonic power options.
This is not the first time that China has surprised the world with advances in military technology that they were thought to be a decade or more away from achieving. In 2011, the Peoples’ Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) unveiled the J-20, a fifth-generation air superiority fighter that is similar to the U.S. F-22. Their timing was ironic since less than two years earlier, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had terminated the F-22 program partly on the grounds that China and Russia were at least a decade away from even developing an equivalent fighter. The next year, the first prototype of the J-31, thought to be the PLAAFs version of the F-35 was spotted on a Chinese airfield. Last year, China deployed a long-range, maneuvering ship killing ballistic missile, a weapons system the U.S. military doesn’t have. 2013 was also the year China’s Space Forces conducted the first test of a new, advanced anti-satellite weapon. How many times does this have to happen before we conclude that there is an arms race underway and we are losing it?
The Chinese test comes at a time when the Congress is about to pass a defense bill that cuts both procurement and R&D. Given the diverging paths projected for both U.S. and Chinese defense spending over the next decade, we have to assume that there is a good chance that China will win this next arms race.
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