Week of October 25, 2021

New China and North Korea
Weapons Tests Worry US


Tests by China and North Korea this week are worrying some in the West.

North Korea launched a submarine-based missile this week.  North Korea said that the new missile had improved guidance and maneuvering technology.  The missile launch was in conjunction with an arms exhibition in Pyongyang.  Being a submarine launched missile makes it harder for South Korea, Japan, or the US to detect it before launch.

The missile has an estimated range of 1,900 kilometers, although this test only flew 450 kilometers.

Although the North Korean missile launch is a new technology for NK, it is a technology the US has developed adequate defenses for.  North Korea’s conventionally powered submarines don’t have long range and are unable to travel far enough into the Pacific to threaten most of the US.  In addition, North Korea’s waters are shallow, making hunting the NK submarines easier.  North Korea’s submarine must also go through several chokepoints that are closely monitored by South Korea, Japan, and the US.

Another test that worried Western observers was a test of China’s hypersonic glide vehicle that purportedly made two orbits before reentering the atmosphere and missing its target by about 24 miles.  The hypersonic glide vehicle was launched by the Long March 2C liquid fuel missile.

The Chinese government has denied the report and maintained that the vehicle was a spaceship.

US Disarmament Ambassador Robert Wood said that the US is concerned about the deployment of such a vehicle because the US hasn’t developed a defense against it.

“Hypersonic technology is something that we have been concerned about, the potential military applications of it and we have held back from pursuing military applications for this technology, “Wood said at a press conference on October 18th.

The test caught the US intelligence community off guard, noting that it was unaware that China was so far in developing its capabilities.

However, like many reports on defense technology, journalists are woefully lacking in understanding the physics.  For instance, every object orbiting in space is travelling at hypersonic speed.  In that regard, this Chinese vehicle is no different than the first satellite (Sputnik) that went into orbit in the 1950s.  Journalists also don’t consider that additional energy is needed to slow the glider enough to safely reenter the atmosphere.

But is this technology that advanced?  Many observers doubt it.  Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control analyst at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, noted that the American space shuttle is also a hypersonic glide vehicle.  “The only difference,” he noted, “was that the space shuttle doesn’t have a nuclear bomb onboard and the Chinese vehicle doesn’t have landing gear.”

The technology is very old and goes back to Nazi Germany in WWII to attack New York.  The US tested a hypersonic orbital or suborbital vehicle (C-20 Dyna-Soar) in the late 1950s.  It was designed to fly at hypersonic speeds in low orbit and glide to a target on Earth.   In addition to its ability to put a man into space, the US Air Force saw its application in reconnaissance and as a bomber.

There were technological problems that killed the program.  One was the damaging heat that built up in the vehicle as it glided into the atmosphere.  One way to solve the problem was to “skip” on top of the atmosphere – gaining altitude as the vehicle got hot to allow the temperature of space to cool it down.

The heat problem wasn’t solved until the Space Shuttle and the development of its high temperature tiles on the space vehicle’s surface.  However, they were fragile and any flaw or damage to the tiles could cause a catastrophic failure as was seen in the Columbia disaster in 2003.

Another problem was that the low trajectory, unlike the high trajectory of the traditional ICBM, made it harder to hit the target.  Since these were first strike weapons designed to hit hardened targets like missile silos and command bunkers, pinpoint accuracy was necessary since any attack by these missiles would be instantly countered by land-based ICBMs controlled by American command and control bunkers.

Development ended in 1964, but the Soviets took a simpler track in later years.

The one clear advantage of these missile systems was that the weapon could attack the US from any direction like the southern hemisphere, while traditional ICBMs must fly over the North Pole region, where it would be detected by American radar.

A memo from the State Department Bureau of Intelligence in 1967 noted that the Soviet Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS) was being pursued by the Soviets, but its only advantage was its ability to reach the US unobserved.  The memo went on to note that the US was on the verge of fielding a satellite that could detect any launch by the Soviets.  Therefore, the Soviets would soon discard this technology since the chance of surprising the US would be lost.

The State Department analysis proved to be right.  Testing soon ended and the last of the FOBS ICBMs (only 20 were constructed and 18 deployed) were retired in 1983.   The Soviets discovered that the missile could only carry one nuclear bomb (5 megatons) and only 50% of the missiles would fall inside a range of 1.1 kilometers of the target.  That would make the chances of hitting and destroying the missile silos problematic.

In the meantime, normal ICBMs could reach the target faster than the FOBS and multiple independent reentry vehicles of the Soviet R-36 were more accurate and more devastating.

With this history of the FOBS, one must question if the Chinese are interested in deploying such a system.  Any ICBM launch by the Chinese would be detected with America’s satellite constellation and American ICBMs could be heading towards China before the FOBS reached the continental US.

Of course, it is true that the US is currently unable to intercept and destroy these FOBS missiles.  However, the technology has already been developed and it only requires incorporating it into a current system.

The biggest challenges to US air defense are the speed and the direction of the incoming missiles.  The Navy’s Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System has the range to hit a FOBS but isn’t designed to hit such a weapon.  However, the Navy is undoubtedly looking at upgrading the software, radar capabilities, and missiles to intercept such a glide vehicle.

Another option is to arm the Navy’s Standard missiles with enhanced radiation nuclear weapons that wouldn’t require a direct hit on the FOBS vehicle but could safely destroy the FOBS nuclear warhead with a blast of high energy neutrons that could damage the electronics or the warhead itself.  The Sprint Anti-Ballistic Missile System, which was never fully deployed, was designed to destroy hypersonic speed missile warheads just seconds from impact.

Clearly, there is technology that could counter the FOBS technology, given enough time.

The biggest problem for China is that as fast as it is, America, with its early warning satellites will have enough time to retaliate before they hit their target.  In other words, the launch of FOBS vehicles by China would be the equivalent of a “first strike” and a declaration of war.

Given that, is China heading towards developing a deployable FOBS system?

Maybe not.

As many strategic arms experts have noted, the test could very well be a test of a civilian space system.  All orbital systems travel at hypersonic speeds, just as the American space shuttle did.  The test could have merely tested flight characteristics of the glide vehicle in a near earth orbit.  Although the technology is something the US would prefer China doesn’t have, it isn’t proof of hostile intent

However, rest assured that all results of the test will be forwarded to the People’s Liberation Army.

Even if China’s intent is purely peaceful, rest assured that the US will use the test flight to boost defense spending on hypersonic missiles, glide vehicles, and upgraded missile defenses.  No politician will want to be perceived as allowing China to develop a technology that makes the US vulnerable.

But how much should the US worry about China’s FOBS technology?  It should balance the threat with an understanding of the difficult technology and the Soviet’s decision to abandon it.

No doubt, China is quickly advancing its strategic weapons technology.  Much of it is in the public arena and what is secret, seems to be leaked by American scientists and engineers willing to sell out America for cash.

The challenge for America is to discern which Chinese developments should be aggressively countered.