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Why China’s Hypersonic Launch is a BIG problem

Chinese DongFeng-21D IRBM By IceUnshattered - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42933231
Chinese DF-21 and transporter. By Max Smith, release into the public domain but a photo credit would be nice – Own-photo, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2584130

A shot has been fired in the global arms race that is ensuing between the 3 leading contenders: Russia, China, and America.  This latest salvo was initiated by China, when they launched a nuclear capable hypersonic glide vehicle this past August.  It was sent into orbit, then guided towards its intended test target.

Thankfully, they missed the mark by 25 miles.  So it can’t be considered accurate by 21st century standards.  However, with an average modern nuclear warhead of well over 100 kiloton yields, 2 dozen miles from a city center is still devastating. But don’t think this lack of accuracy will remain.  I guarantee China is working hard on fixing the navigation issues, if that is even relevant to their end goal.

There is a slew of questions on what exactly happened this past August.  What exactly was fired and what type of glide vehicle was used?  Was this merely a test bed for something more sinister?   Also, why would you do it from orbit which defeats the hypersonic missile advantages of undetectable low altitude at 5,000 mph?

Intercontinental Weapons Delivery Systems

To fully understand the relevance of what occurred, you need to know a few things about intercontinental weapons delivery systems.  The leading theory is that a FOBS system was being tested by China.  FOBS stands for Fractional Orbit Bombardment System.  FOBS launch vehicles are a strategic alternative to the method that our current ICBMs (InterContinental Ballistic Missiles) use. The ICBM strategy of launching missiles against other countries quickly evolved to the technology we still use today called MIRV ICBMs.  

By H A A – File:Fobs.svg, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=76036332

With the MIRV (Multiple Independently targetable Re-entry Vehicle) tipped ICBMs, a large easily detectable ballistic missile is fired at a certain angle high into earth orbit, about 1200 kilometers or so.  At its apex, the trajectory angles down, the engine is separated from the second stage/payload,  and begins the controlled fall back toward the planet. Then the second stage launches its MIRV warhead(s) towards the intended cluster of cities and targets it is tasked to annihilate.  The MIRV keeps the warheads safe from Re-Entry stress and allows for safe deployment of armed ordinance once Re-Entry is safely achieved.

The number of warheads in a MIRV is anywhere from 3 to 15.  The multiple strategy of the warheads wasn’t to destroy 15 cities with a 15 warhead MIRV, it was to destroy 3 or 4 cities and overwhelm the aerial defense systems with multiple incoming projectiles.  And this is an assault no country can defend against still to this day.   And the USA has more of these than anyone in the world.

LGM-118A Peacekeeper MIRV at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. By Wilson44691 – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54522681

Swinging the BIG stick

We have over 20 times the amount of nukes that China does and still could easily wipe them off the planet multiple times over, so what is this Hypersonic FOBS thing they shot around the world and why should it matter? Here’s where things get a bit hairy.

The Fractional Orbital Bombardment System was an old technology that Russia researched back in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.  The idea was to have a lower flying missile that could avoid early detection by radar beams shot over the North Pole.  It would fly about 150km above the earth, a fraction of the orbit of ICBMs at 1200km.  This gave very little warning on when the missile would hit or where it was even going.  The program was in operation with actual weapons deployed until final decommission in 1983.

Great Idea, Wrong Century

The problems here where basically that the idea was ahead of its technological time.  The payloads of the FOBS missiles where half to 1/3 that of the ICBM big brothers.  That meant more of these weapons where needed for deterrence.  Also, they had piss poor accuracy.  The Russians couldn’t hit anywhere near the intended target.  And the early warning radar defeat was undone when the US put radar satellites into orbit in the mid 1970’s, specifically for this threat.  And any thought of going over the South Pole was negated with the lack of accuracy at such long ranges. This was also compounded by the fuel requirements for such a long flight, amongst other logistical and computing issues.

But now here comes China with their new hypersonic missile technology.  Partly stolen by them from us and partly sold to them by the illustrious Bill and Hillary Clinton.  So how does it fare against the kaput Russian FOBS program?  40 years later, pretty good.

21st century solutions for the end of the world

Part of the problem was that the Russian missile was detectable and limited.  Ground, air, and spaced based systems have a decent blanket of coverage over the northern part of the country.  And this Chinese missile too was detected by our systems.  The problem now is, a missile cruising at about Mach 7, or about 5,000 miles an hour is not possible to be destroyed with current tech, especially when it can maneuver.  And this missile is reported to have flown 21,000mph. 

It is unknown if that was the speed at time of impact or the speed at the height of the orbit.  I would reckon to reason that it was the maximum orbit height speed, but 21,000mph is not impossible.  It would explain why they missed; the physical speed is too fast for the computer guidance to adjust.  The Chinese have realized this physical speed advantage and are now in possession of a hypersonic glide vehicle that can strike anywhere in the planet in minutes, most likely undetected if it flies over the South Pole, and is nuclear capable.  Now all they have to do is dial in that accuracy and we’re screwed like a cheap hooker on Friday night.  

Well that doesn’t sound good.  Without piling on this technology with future nightmarish advancements to slaughter millions of people all at once; at the bare minimum, China now has the ability to assassinate the head(s) of a state in minutes.  It can be nuclear, conventional or otherwise.  The only thing that keeps them from doing so is the Boomer’s old cliche of M.A.D., Mutually Assured Destruction.  All them damn nukes, as old as grandpa, still keeping us safe, or so it seems.

What do you think?

Written by Jason Gouffray

Jason Gouffray is the founder and chief instructor of Defensive Bravo LLC in Fort Worth, Texas. He received his initial formal firearms training from SOCOM Marine combat veterans and continues to train everyday. He utilizes the techniques, tactics, and skills of firearms professionals to enable common citizens to most effectively defend themselves. You too can Defend Like a Pro, with Defensive Bravo. Booking: https://shootingclasses.com/defensivebravo

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