China’s FOBS test was not a ‘Sputnik moment’

However, the current trends still indicate a dangerous trajectory towards a new arms race between the US and China.

Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley described the test as 'very close' to a Sputnik moment (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The news of China launching a rocket using a “Fractional Orbital Bombardment System” (FOBS) to propel a nuclear-capable “hypersonic glide vehicle” around the world has initiated an animated debate in US strategic circles.

After the Financial Times newspaper (FT) published its October 16 report on the launch, based on information acquired from US officials, many rushed to emphasise the supposed significance of the test.

China hawks called it a “very serious development” and warned of a new arms race. Top US general, Mark Milley, meanwhile, described the test as “very close” to a Sputnik moment, referring to the Soviet Union’s launch of a satellite in 1957 that signified their substantial lead in the so-called “space race” with the US that defined that era.

While the launch was undoubtedly a concerning development from the American point of view, these alarmist statements were clearly off the mark for several reasons.

First of all, FOBS is not a new technology. The former Soviet Union deployed a fractional orbital nuclear system in the 1970s with the aim of attacking the US from the back door, ie, the South Pole. They had developed this programme in response to America’s Safeguard Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) system that aimed to intercept incoming Soviet missiles.

At the peak of the Cold War, the installation of an ABM system by the US nullified mutual vulnerability that had formed the basis of deterrence between the two countries.

Ironically, at that time, the US claimed that the Safeguard ABM system was not against the Soviet Union but against China, which was not even on the threat horizon at the time. Nonetheless, the Soviets maintained their FOBS programme for almost 12 years and shelved it when the US Safeguard ABM system, the raison d’etre of Soviet FOBS, was rolled back by Congress. Afterwards, the Soviet Union fully focused on the development of its Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) force that was considered more reliable.

The Chinese government has officially refuted the news story and stated that they were only carrying out routine test flights in a bid to recycle spacecraft to reduce exploration costs. However, even before the FT broke the story, there was speculation about the possibility of China going down this path. So, if the reports are credible and China indeed tested a FOBS combined with a hypersonic glide vehicle, this is at best an attempt to catch up with the US and Russia in the race of advanced weapon and missile defence systems and, by no means, demonstrates a technological gap that would be difficult for the US to fill. After all, the US Air Force tested and possessed similar systems in the past, such as X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle.

The unsettling part for the US, however, could be the Chinese demonstration of combining these two technologies that were previously developed separately. But this does not mean that it would render all US defence systems obsolete, as some analysts have argued.

Technically speaking, FOBS can circumvent the fixed ABM systems that are deployed in Alaska and California, which are primarily aimed at intercepting incoming North Korean missiles from the north. But these are not the only systems the US have in place against incoming missile threats. Other than these fixed ABM systems, the US missile early warning comprises of Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) that detect incoming missiles with the help of their heat signatures, as well as other seaborne radars that provide a global detection system. Besides that, there are many other defence systems that the US has deployed in China’s immediate neighbourhood, such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system in South Korea.

This matter has brought into discussion the intensifying arms race and growing risks of escalation between the US and China. Earlier reports of China’s investment in a nuclear triad such as constructing large fields of missile silos in Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, along with this latest FOBS test, has raised concerns in US policy circles despite the fact that China’s nuclear arsenal is much smaller and reportedly stands at 320 nuclear warheads as compared with the US and Russia which possess 5800 and 6375 nuclear warheads, respectively. In spite of this difference, there is concern that China is moving away from its longstanding “minimum deterrent” posture. This concern is further exacerbated by a lack of information and secrecy over such developments and the transparency issue of China’s military posture.

On the other hand, Tong Zhao, a senior fellow at Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program argues that China’s aggressive posture is not aimed at competing with the US on the global stage. Rather, it has a limited objective of protecting its core interests  – such as political security and national security – in view of growing American criticism of its alleged human rights violations, lack of democracy, and actions in Hong Kong and the South China Sea.

This situation demands strategic empathy from both the US and China. While China needs to address US concerns over the lack of information on its strategic posture, the US must take into consideration Beijing’s anxiety over its missile defence systems and its regional policies. In this regard, it would be interesting to see how the Biden administration responds to the perceived Chinese threats in its upcoming Nuclear Posture Review. Previously, President Joe Biden has supported the idea of a No-First-Use posture for nuclear weapons, but perhaps that would be too much to ask in the current environment. Still, a logical response should be the initiation of a mutually agreeable arms control negotiation. However, the current trends do not offer much hope for a reconciliatory path and indicate a dangerous trajectory towards a new arms race.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.