National Security & Defense

China’s Nuclear Challenge

Military vehicles carrying DF-41 ICBMs during a military parade in Beijing, China, October 1, 2019. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Another week, another threatening move by China, this time a secret test of a new nuclear-capable hypersonic missile.

The Financial Times broke the story last weekend, citing five officials who revealed that Beijing’s August test of the new weapon system surprised U.S. intelligence. The concern is that by combining two technologies — a missile that briefly orbits the earth with a glide vehicle that extends its range — this weapon, unlike intercontinental ballistic missiles, can change its trajectory to avoid U.S. missile-defense systems.

In short, China has just tested a space missile that can potentially hit any target on earth.

Some arms-control experts have argued that this isn’t a significant development, since Chinese ICBMs can already hit the continental United States. But an ICBM can potentially be defeated by our defenses, whereas we don’t currently have the means to shoot down a hypersonic missile, which will require, at the very least, better sensors and perhaps the advent of a laser defense.

Then, there’s the broader context of Chinese nuclear advances. Admiral Charles Richard, who runs U.S. Strategic Command, pointed out that it “almost seems like we can’t go through a month without some new revelation coming about China.” He predicted that the coming months would bring similarly alarming reports. The news about the hypersonic test follows the July discovery of two nuclear-missile silo fields in Western China.

There’s no denying the gathering danger and the fact that Washington is currently ill-equipped to meet the Chinese nuclear challenge. At the moment, though, we don’t have the national resolve to match the talk of a “Sputnik moment” that the Chinese test has occasioned.

President Biden’s defense budget proposal this year would actually have cut defense spending if Congress hadn’t intervened. And the Biden administration’s response to this test was, to say the least, muted. “We welcome stiff competition, but we do not want that competition to veer into conflict,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Monday. Usually, sovereign countries don’t “welcome” other countries developing new ways potentially to obliterate their cities.

We need to do everything we can to enhance our missile defenses. With an eye to the China threat, we should push to base missile interceptors in Australia and sensors in India, and deploy more sensors in space. We need to work to develop a directed-energy or laser defense, a technology out of science fiction but one that is plausible and could more readily defeat hypersonic missiles.

We also need to modernize our nuclear infrastructure and realize that the China threat will require a new generation of artificial-intelligence, space, unmanned, and cyber capabilities that may not suit the defense establishment or pork-barreling congressmen but are absolutely essential if we aren’t going to be left behind by a determined foe.

A couple of months ago, the Senate passed a bill funding massive new spending on high-technology research areas central to the China challenge, but that proposal has been stalled as Democrats push their domestic agenda. And, as we’ve pointed out, the tens of billions of critical technology-research dollars provided to the National Science Foundation in the legislation would be vulnerable to intellectual-property theft. The funds are also not specifically earmarked for projects directly related to tackling the China threat.

It’d be better to direct even more of this funding to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Meanwhile, there’s ample reason to believe that the Chinese hypersonic weapon was developed with the help of U.S. know-how, arguing for a harder line against U.S. technology flows to Chinese tech firms with a relationship with the Chinese military.

Earlier this year, the Washington Post reported that China’s Phytium Technology makes chips for supercomputers that have run simulations for hypersonic weapons “using American software and built in the world’s most advanced chip factory in Taiwan, which hums with American precision machinery.”

Biden’s team placed Phytium on the U.S. export blacklist in April. But when the administration enhanced its ability to ban U.S. individuals from investing in Chinese military companies in June, it quietly removed Sugon, another Chinese supercomputing firm reported to have worked on hypersonic-weapons research (although a previous export-blacklist designation remains in place).

The New York Times ran a long feature the other day on how the Biden administration is struggling to come up with the right words to characterize our current posture toward China, but definitely doesn’t want to use the phrase “Cold War,” in part because they argue we are not primarily in a military competition with the Chinese. Do the Chinese know that, though? Everything indicates that an essential part of their strategy is threatening U.S. bases and our homeland, not least to deter us from intervening in the event of an invasion of Taiwan.

A persistent feature of the Cold War was the argument that we couldn’t see and raise Soviet capabilities, or we’d simply fuel the arms race. But then, as now, the race was on, whether we liked it or not. The Chinese are making their intentions completely clear. Shame on us if we refuse to understand that.

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