China has tested fractional orbital bombardment system that uses hypersonic glide vehicle: report

A report of Financial Times’ Demetri Sevastopulo and Kathrin Hille claims that China has tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic glider vehicle that goes into space and orbits the globe before traversing the atmosphere to its target. There would be huge implications if such a system were to be operationalized, and according to this story, which says she spoke to five officials confirming the test, the US government was caught completely off guard.

The test flight reportedly took place around August, with the boost-glide vehicle being carried into space by a Long March 2C rocket. The rocket launch, the 77th of its kind, was not disclosed by Beijing, while the 76th and 78th were, with the last taking place in late August. the FinancialTimes says the hypersonic gliding vehicle being tested missed its target by a few tens of miles, but that’s hardly reassuring given the capabilities that are apparently in development here.

The foundation of this cold war era concept is commonly referred to as a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System, or FOBS, but instead of carrying a traditional nuclear reentry vehicle, this Chinese system would carry a hypersonic glide vehicle that would possess immense kinetic energy during reentry. As such, it could perform a very long maneuvering flight through the atmosphere at very high speeds to its target.

The FOBS concept has long been a concern due to its ability to circumvent not only missile defenses, but even many early warning capabilities. Compared to a traditional intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), a FOBS can execute the same strikes but from highly unpredictable vectors. Range limits also become a non-factor and the timing of an incoming strike is also much less predictable. But at least with a traditional FOBS ballistic missile system some kind of projection could be made if the mid-course “orbital” vehicle can be tracked, although this can still be a real challenge.

This is not at all the case with a hybrid design like the one that would have been tested here, which would be totally unpredictable.

The maneuvering hypersonic hover vehicle, descending from high altitude at extreme speed, could travel thousands of miles to its target, which may be totally off a normal ballistic trajectory. To complicate matters further, these systems can attack from the South Pole, not just the North where most US early warning, tracking and ballistic missile defense devices are concentrated. Intercepting such a system would also be very difficult, especially since US mid-course intercept capabilities are focused on traditional ballistic missile flight profiles, which follow more of a parabolic trajectory and have generally known spans of each flight stage.

With a hover vehicle endgame delivery system paired with a FOBS, its vehicles can enter the atmosphere beyond the range of an interceptor’s mid-course exo-atmospheric destruction envelope, the hovering vehicle making its way through the atmosphere to its final target. The line of sight of traditional surface-based radar systems is also significantly reduced as the hypersonic glide vehicle moves through the atmosphere. Coupled with the extreme speeds involved, this can render these systems nearly useless in providing details regarding the impending attack.

Hypersonic glide vehicles themselves are also very difficult to kill with no real defense against them available at the moment. Elaborate defensive concepts are being worked on, but their effectiveness will depend on how fast these vehicles are moving, their maneuverability, density, third-party sensors available to help generate an engagement solution, and more . A hypersonic glide vehicle with the kinetic energy in its favor for an orbital-like delivery would probably be the hardest to kill.

Last month, Frank Kendall, Secretary of the US Air Force, hinted that Beijing was developing a new weapon. He said China has made huge progress, including the “potential for global strikes. . . from space.” He declined to provide details, but suggested that China was developing something akin to the “split orbital bombardment system” that the USSR deployed during part of the Cold War, before ‘give up.’ If you’re using that kind of approach, you’re not doing it. There is no need to use a traditional ICBM trajectory. It’s a way to avoid missile defenses and warning systems,” Kendall said.

In August, General Glen VanHerck, head of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, told a conference that China had “recently demonstrated very advanced hypersonic glide vehicle capabilities.” He warned that Chinese capability “would pose significant challenges to my Norad’s ability to provide threat warning and attack assessment.”

This layer would be absolutely essential when trying to defend against a FOBS, i.e. whether a defense is actually feasible or even strategically sound. We are not talking here about a rogue state with a few advanced ballistic missiles. China could deploy dozens or even hundreds of them at a time. At some point, kinetic defenses against such an ability become a losing and very expensive proposition.

However, this was the first test on board a complete rocket used for traditional space access missions. It will take some time for China to perfect such a system and package it into a rapidly deployable militarized configuration. There are also major thermal and ablative issues to be overcome, among others, but it’s not like China hasn’t been working diligently in boost-glide hypersonic vehicles for many years.

Either way, if this report ends up being completely accurate, one thing is likely: New calls for hugely expensive missile defense capabilities will ring loud and often on Capitol Hill, along with demands to do whatever who is in their power to bring China to the negotiating table in hopes of securing some sort of strategic arms limitation treaty.

We’ll continue to update this story as more emerge, but for now be sure to read the Financial Times’ excellent original report here.

You can find our continuing coverage of this story, which now includes a dubious denial from the Chinese government, here.

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