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New details on China's hypersonic missiles and nuclear program add to alarm

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Chinese military vehicles carrying DF-17 hypersonic missiles travel past Beijing's Tiananmen Square during a military parade marking the 70th founding anniversary of the People's Republic of China, on Oct. 1, 2019. | REUTERS

China has demonstrated yet another advanced military capability, using a July test of a hypersonic weapon to fire a projectile from the system as it approached its target at around five times the speed of sound, media reports said Monday.

The Asian powerhouse’s advances in delivery systems, coupled with its growing stockpile of nuclear warheads, have stoked fears that the weapons could be employed to prevent U.S. and Japanese intervention in a regional conflict, including over Taiwan, some observers say.

The technological leap forward revealed Monday — a capability that no other country has previously demonstrated — allowed the nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV), a maneuverable craft launched on a rocket, to fire a separate projectile midflight in the atmosphere over the South China Sea, the Financial Times reported, citing unidentified sources familiar with the intelligence.

The purpose of the projectile, which was fired with no obvious target of its own before it plunged into the sea, was also unclear, the newspaper said. Military experts were also divided over what exactly was fired, with some saying it was an air-to-air missile and others claiming it was likely a decoy designed to confound missile defenses.

The capability reportedly caught Pentagon officials off guard, with experts at DARPA, the Defense Department’s research agency, unsure how China had been able to fire the projectile from a vehicle traveling at hypersonic speeds.

The Wall Street Journal also confirmed the FT report, noting that U.S. officials had expressed concern that the advanced weapons platforms could be used to “target American ports or installations in the Indo-Pacific region.”

Asked about the development, a Pentagon spokesperson did not confirm or deny the reports, instead pointing The Japan Times to a news conference last week by U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who said Washington has “concerns about military capabilities” that China “continues to develop.”

Top American defense officials have voiced concern that the U.S. is falling behind in the development of hypersonic weapons and missile defense technology, with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Mark Milley, calling the hypersonic tests — the one in July and another in August — “very close” to a “Sputnik moment” for the United States.

China’s rapid weapons developments have also provoked unease with U.S. allies, including in Tokyo, where Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi have both cited Chinese hypersonic weapons, among other threats, as key reasons for bolstering Japan’s defenses.

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Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley | AFP-JIJI

Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said the issue was contentious among the analyst community, with some calling the development “a serious capability” while others saying that it is “irrelevant and changes nothing.”

During the tests over the summer, the Chinese appear to have demonstrated a new type of delivery system based on the so-called Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS) approach — developed and subsequently dropped by the Soviets in the 1960s — that also employs the new hypersonic glide vehicles.

“If the Chinese were to operationally deploy this system, it would be likely that they’d produce a significant number of them, and deploy them on a military missile, rather than a space-launch vehicle,” Davis said. “That would give China a new way of striking at the U.S. and its allies: rather than going over the North Pole, where U.S. ground-based radars and defenses are orientated, they could deliver these HGVs via the South Pole, against the U.S. or its allies.”

Experts say that while this capability would undoubtedly complicate U.S. missile defense plans, the more significant issue could be how the tests align with China’s breakout from its minimum nuclear deterrent posture — and concerns that it may be edging away from its stated “no-first use” nuclear policy.

According to the Pentagon’s annual report to the U.S. Congress on Chinese military power, released earlier this month, Beijing is bolstering its strategic nuclear arsenal, and could have as many as 700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027 and 1,000 three years later. China currently has about 350 nuclear warheads, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

This shift, coupled with its advances in delivery systems, could be intended “to support a new strategy of limited nuclear first use” and be used by Chinese leaders to attempt to prevent U.S. and Japanese intervention in a conflict over Taiwan, the bipartisan U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission warned in its annual report to Congress last week.

China views Taiwan as a so-called core issue and an inherent part of its territory — a renegade province that must be brought back into the fold, by force if necessary. The U.S. maintains a policy of “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan that is deliberately vague about how it would respond if China were to attack the self-ruled island, though it is required by the Taiwan Relations Act to provide Taipei with the means to defend itself.

Although Taiwan and Japan do not have formal diplomatic ties, the two sides have long maintained a robust economic and cultural relationship. Senior Japanese officials have in recent months noted with trepidation the possibility of conflict erupting in the Taiwan Strait, which some say would represent an existential threat to Japan’s own security.

“If China is in fact planning to stalemate the U.S. at the nuclear level, in order to undertake large-scale conventional military operations against the U.S. and its allies, including Japan and Australia, as part of a Taiwan crisis, then this new approach to striking the U.S. could be part of that,” said Davis.

“China wants to checkmate U.S. nuclear forces to enable it to use conventional forces on a large scale,” he added. “Circumventing U.S. missile defenses, and exposing the U.S.’s vulnerable flank in this manner contributes to that.”