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China FOBS off US as it intensifies nuclear race

27th October 2021 - 03:14 GMT | by Gordon Arthur in Christchurch


China unveiled its DF-17 missile with hypersonic glide vehicle in 2019. (Gordon Arthur)

China astounded many with its recent FOBS test, but such developments are clearly part of China's efforts to enhance its nuclear retaliatory capability as it competes strategically with the US.

An advanced Chinese missile test occurred on 27 August, where a space rocket boosted a hypersonic glide vehicle into low orbit before it impacted back on Earth, according to a 17 October report in the Financial Times.

China failed to divulge this 78th launch of a Long March 2C rocket, which occurred sometime between other launches on 19 July and 24 August, but this test bears all the hallmarks of a fractional orbital bombardment system (FOBS).

This project is led by the China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics, a subdivision of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC). 

When asked about this mysterious test, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian denied it was a FOBS

‘As we understand, this was a routine test of a space vehicle to verify technology of a spacecraft’s reusability … As I just said, it’s not a missile but a space vehicle,’ Zhao said.

However, Zhao was talking at cross-purposes, either deliberately or in error, as he was referring to a different test of a suborbital vehicle that occurred on 16 July.

The USSR was the first country to field a FOBS; its R-36-0 orbital bombardment missile appeared in 1968 before being withdrawn in 1983. 

A FOBS has the same purpose as an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) – to deliver a nuclear warhead to the other side of the world.

What defines each of them is the vehicle on top of the rocket/missile and the trajectory they fly. While an ICBM follows a high parabolic curve with its apogee in space, an HGV glides in the atmosphere at a flatter trajectory and with more manoeuvrability.

A FOBS, meanwhile, flies between these two trajectories by entering a low Earth orbit. When the payload approaches its target, an onboard retro rocket detaches it and causes it to return to Earth.

Normally, a FOBS would carry a nuclear-armed re-entry vehicle, but China went one step further by instead using an HGV. This hybrid combination allows a long, manoeuvring, high-speed flight as it closes on a target. 

FOBS is less accurate and has a lower payload/yield than ICBMs, so it might be better suited to pre-emptive strikes against time-sensitive soft targets.

In fact, an ICBM is the most efficient way to deliver nuclear warheads. They can carry multiple warheads and reach their targets very quickly. 

Therefore, FOBS and HGVs can be considered as relatively exotic, a way of evading missile defences. Interestingly, the US can fly its X-37 B’ spaceplane’ in a similar fashion.

China seems to emphasise the ability of HGVs to perform skip glide manoeuvres, whereby a vehicle skips along the earth’s atmosphere multiple times before its final descent. This confuses missile defences, making it difficult to anticipate what the target is till the final moment.

China publicly unveiled its DF-41 ICBM in a 2019 military parade. (Xinhua)

It must be remembered that this was a Chinese test, rather than deployment of a fully developed FOBS. The fact that China used a space rocket rather than an ICBM shows it does not yet have a militarised launch-and-delivery package.

Nonetheless, some have called the test China’s ‘Sputnik moment’ against the US military, a game-changer that could negate US missile defences. Indeed, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen Mark Milley said, 'I don’t know if it’s quite a Sputnik moment, but I think it’s very close to that. It has all of our attention.'

For some time, the US has been dropping hints. For example, Frank Kendall, the USAF Secretary, said last month that China was making huge advances, including the ‘potential for global strikes…from space’. 

He said about FOBS: ‘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.’

Indeed, a FOBS-type missile and HGV would bypass existing American ballistic missile defences (BMD), whose early-warning radars are located in Alaska, California, Greenland, Massachusetts and the UK. Most interceptor missiles are in Alaska, ready for an attack via the North Pole.

The problem for American BMD is that Chinese FOBS can perform strikes from unexpected directions and vectors – via the South Pole, for example. Furthermore, HGVs would be highly challenging for US midcourse interceptors to counter.

There is alarm over China’s stiffening nuclear posture. For example, three massive fields of siloes for ICBMs are under construction deep in China’s interior, and more might yet be uncovered. These three fields could hold more than 250 ICBMs if each silo were filled, perhaps some with such FOBS.

Joshua Pollack, Editor of the Nonproliferation Review, and Senior Research Associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, pondered China’s combination of a FOBS and HGV.

‘Here’s a hypothesis. The weapon reportedly tested by China in August may be multifunctional, like Russia’s Sarmat, capable of delivering weapons via different trajectories.’

That would mean it could carry various warheads, including HGVs, and attack targets via either the North or South Poles. 

‘That seems like an over-engineered weapon: why not just have one glider-type missile and one FOBS-type missile, rather than a “Swiss Army knife” missile?’ Pollack noted, however.

China increases the risk of miscalculation by fielding dual-capable missiles like the DF-26 that can carry either a conventional or nuclear warhead. (Gordon Arthur)

‘Perhaps the idea is to have the flexibility to evade defences in an unpredictable manner. After all, the US has begun testing its sea-based Aegis defence system against ICBM-class threats. Boats move around, and the US is always upgrading the interceptors. An overdesigned missile with both glider and FOBS capabilities could be the PLA’s way of staying ahead of diversifying, improving defence systems.’

Pollack also pointed out: ‘None of the weapons are good for surprise attacks against the US, which has exceptional detection capabilities. It’s much easier to predict the target of an ICBM in flight, but… all three types will be detected at launch and tracked in flight.’

He said people are freaked out by the seeming novelty of the Chinese FOBS-HGV combination, but ‘they’re mostly novel because they’re inefficient! ICBMs are preferred. That’s probably why, despite serious interest in HGVs in the US, we have never considered them for delivering nuclear weapons.’

It should not be surprising that Beijing is seeking to circumvent American BMD, even though it is designed more to counter rogue nations like Iran and North Korea rather than a mass attack by Beijing or Moscow. 

Nonetheless, it can be seen that the more missile defences the US devises, the more creative hostile nations are to circumvent them.

But why has there been a spike in nuclear weapons and delivery methods in China?

One reason is that China’s second-strike capability is somewhat shaky. Its six Type 094 ballistic-missile submarines (SSBN), for example, would have to pass through a few well-known chokepoints in order to fire their JL-2 missiles at the US. Furthermore, its DF-5A/B ICBMS are in fixed silos and so are vulnerable to precision-guided munitions, although road-mobile DF-31 and DF-41 families offer greater survivability.

Beijing seems anxious that advancements in US conventional prompt strike and nuclear strike capabilities, plus its missile defences, are undercutting its deterrence. 

A study published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) last year estimated that China had only a 10% chance of effective retaliation against at least three American cities if caught by a surprise attack.

China is therefore investing heavily in its nuclear arsenal – including additional ICBMs, silo fields, hypersonic vehicles, Type 096 SSBNs and FOBS – which will diversify its nuclear arsenal and restore its capability of assured retaliation against the US.

The DF-41 is the PLA’s most capable intercontinental ballistic missile to date. (Xinhua)

However, there is perhaps a connected reason, a chilling one that fits other patterns of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) build-up.

Vipin Narang, the Frank Stanton Professor of Nuclear Security and Political Science at MIT, explained: ‘At some point in the past several years, China woke up and decided it needed to compete with the US on nuclear weapons in ways it hadn’t for decades previously. It is investing in a lot more survivability and a lot more penetrability.’

Narang surmised: ‘I doubt it is because China seeks to conduct a bolt-out-of-the-blue first strike against the US.’ 

He said that would amount to suicide because of the USN’s fleet of SSBNs. 

‘Instead I lean toward another hypothesis: China estimates that the risk of a conventional war with the US is higher now than ever, and it needs to stalemate the US at the nuclear level – escape US nuclear coercion – in order to open space for more aggressive conventional options.’

He added, ‘So the take-home risk with all these developments isn’t the risk of nuclear war with China – though that obviously goes up – but the risk of a really nasty conventional war where China unloads its massive arsenal of conventional missiles in theatre without fear of US nuclear escalation. This isn’t a new logic. This is, in fact, exactly the stability-instability paradox. China is seeking to shore up its side of strategic stability in order to potentially open up greater offensive options at the conventional level, in a war it starts or one that comes to it.’

These missile advancements thus act as a backstop for conventional military action by the PLA, and the greatest risk of conventional war between China and the US centres on Taiwan.

Under deep nuclear stalemate, the conventional balance of power, and balance of resolve, are what will determine outcomes. At the moment, these probably favour China in a future conflict scenario revolving around Taiwan.

Chinese missiles are not the only concern for the US. North Korea recently fired short-range ballistic missiles from a train. (KCNA)

Drew Thompson, a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, warned, ‘The US and China are not talking about their respective perceptions, concepts and investment at official, authoritative senior levels, despite considerable strategic nuclear developments on both sides.’

In fact, their last military-to-military strategic nuclear dialogue was in 2008, while the most recent State Department/Foreign Ministry talks were ten years ago.

‘The two governments are not talking today, and do not understand one another. The risk of misperception is high, particularly in the midst of a security dilemma. Beijing feels that diverging interests in other sectors – political, economic, technological, as well as diverging interests in Taiwan – preclude strategic talks, which require a better political environment,' Thompson lamented.

The American academic added, ‘There is no trust in the bilateral relationship, and I see no pathway to building trust … The senior-most officers in the US military have little to no experience engaging Chinese counterparts, and virtually no understanding of Chinese strategic thought or nuclear concepts. China’s strategic posture is changing, its concepts are changing, and I don’t think US leaders understand what is happening, or how US actions affect China’s calculations.’

Indeed, China’s adherence to its ‘No First Use’ nuclear-weapon doctrine appears to be shifting. This policy increasingly has caveats, and Chinese interlocutors sometimes assert that No First Use is conditional, not absolute. 

‘A conventional fight (such as over Taiwan) might cross a strategic threshold in Beijing’s thinking. That would be the mother of all miscalculations,' Thompson warned.

In the past two years, China has launched more than 400 ballistic missiles. This is more than the rest of the world combined.

Andrew Erickson, a Professor of Strategy at the US Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute, told Shephard last month, before the FOBS test came to light: ‘Truly dramatic revelations of world-class PLA progress and selective superiority over the next few years will shock and awe citizens and influencers in Taiwan, America’s allies and America itself. Recent public revelations about a paradigm-shifting build-up of nuclear weapons and associated hardening and delivery systems – in extreme contrast to prior Chinese history, doctrine and messaging – are but one manifestation of this sudden, sweeping and startling build-up.’

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