China has developed a unique hypersonic weapon in space that can strike targets on earth with a nuclear warhead from any angle and Beijing is expected to use its expanding power to coerce Taiwan, the commander of the U.S. Strategic Command told Congress recently.
The weapon, known as a “fractional orbital bombardment system,” was tested by the Chinese military in July and “has an unlimited range, can attack from any azimuth, and comes down in a hypersonic glide vehicle with great performance,” Adm. Charles Richard, the commander, said during a Senate hearing. “No nation in history has ever demonstrated that capability.”
The admiral told lawmakers at last week’s hearing that the overall Chinese nuclear buildup is “easily the biggest expansion in China’s history and rivals the biggest expansion of any nation in history, including us and the Soviet Union back in the early ‘60s.”
Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of the U.S. Northern Command, which is in charge of defending against enemy missiles, testified in March that Chinese test of the orbiting hypersonic missile was a concern. The hypersonic space weapon “demonstrated the weapon’s ability to survive re-entry and perform high-speed and maneuvering glide after orbiting around the globe,” he said.
The Pentagon currently has no defenses against that type of missile.
“When fielded, China’s ICBM-class [hypersonic glide vehicle] will be able to evade current ground and space-based early warning capabilities due to its low-altitude approach and ability to maneuver midcourse, which compounds the detection and warning challenges I already face from Russia’s Avangard HGV and advanced cruise missiles,” Gen. VanHerck said.
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Adm. Richard said the debate within the military and intelligence community two years ago was whether China would double its nuclear warhead arsenal by the end of the decade.
“That’s already happened while I’ve been the commander of U.S. Strategic Command,” he said. “… Whatever the intelligence community tells you about what China’s going to do, divide it by two in time and you’ll probably be closer to what happens.”
The expansion of the missile silos took place in a few years and in addition, China has doubled the number of its road-mobile ICBMs, nuclear strike weapons that are difficult to track as part of strategic deterrence.
The Chinese military also now has “a true air leg” of strategic forces with nuclear-capable H-6N bombers that can carry air-launched ballistic missiles, a capability neither the United States nor Russia has in their arsenals.
China’s navy also continues to conduct at-sea patrols with Jin-class submarines that operate from a protected bastion in the South China Sea, and “more are coming,” Adm. Richard said.
Additionally, the Chinese military has developed what the admiral described as “a true nuclear command and control system” and is building a nuclear attack warning system.
“They aspire to launch under warning, launch under attack capability,” he said.
The theater nuclear missiles contradict the Chinese government’s claim that its policy is not to be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict, called no-first-use, U.S. officials say. Those weapons “have no role in a true minimum deterrent no-first-use policy,” Adm. Richard said.
Adm. Richard testified before the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee last week that the United States is facing what he termed “crisis deterrence dynamics” in confronting China and Russia that the nation has faced only several times in history.
“When I testified to this committee in March, I expressed concern regarding three-party deterrence dynamics that we face today,” he said during a subcommittee hearing Wednesday. “The nation and our allies have not faced a crisis like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in over 30 years.”
Strategic Command currently has “the absolute minimum” forces to deter both China and Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion using “thinly veiled nuclear threats to deter U.S. and NATO intervention,” he said.
Further east, China “is watching the war in Ukraine closely and will likely use nuclear coercion to their advantage in the future,” the four-star admiral noted.
“Their intent is to achieve the military capability to reunify Taiwan by 2027, if not sooner,” Adm. Richard said.
During a press briefing later at the Pentagon, Adm. Richard said the fractional orbital bombardment weapon is an example of a large-scale nuclear expansion that includes an estimated 360 silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles in western China.
“We don’t know what the end point of China’s trajectory is with the expansion of its forces, strategic forces being a subset of that,” Adm. Richard said.
China’s Communist Party-affiliated Global Times dismissed the admiral’s testimony as an attempt to hype the nuclear threat posed by Beijing.
“Sensationalizing China’s ‘nuclear threat’ to justify actual U.S. nuclear expansion has become a familiar trick of Washington,” the outlet said, adding that of all five declared nuclear weapons states, China is the only one to adopt a no-first-use pledge.
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