Does China’s Nuclear-Capable Hypersonic Missile Threaten U.S. Deterrence?
U.S. officials revealed in August that China had test-fired a hypersonic missile — the Xingkong-2 or Starry Sky-2 — capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and of thwarting missile-defense systems. Although this was the first such test that was openly acknowledged by Beijing, it was, according to the Washington Free Beacon, merely one of many that the U.S. has been monitoring.
Pictured: A DF-31 intercontinental ballistic missile, capable of carrying nuclear warheads, on display at the Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution in China. (Image source: Tyg728/Wikimedia Commons)
About two months earlier, China tested the DF-41 — one of its most advanced intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). It has a range of 12,000-15,000 km, and is capable of carrying 10 miniaturized nuclear warheads, rather than a single large one.
These miniaturized nuclear warheads on a single ballistic missile are referred to as “multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles” (MIRVs). MIRV-ing a missile enables it to counter enemy missile-defense systems. Because the DF-41 uses solid rather than liquid fuel — as does the DF-5 ICBM — it is more mobile and its launching requires less preparation time. Although it can be dispatched from mobile launchers, it can also be launched from silos. Over the years, China has developed dummy silos — to confuse the enemy and force it to have to distinguish between real and fake ones.
The DF-41 can also be canister-launched. This is a cause for concern, because until now, China has kept its nuclear warheads and delivery systems separate, as part of its “no first use” doctrine, but canister launches require the missile to be fitted with nuclear warheads. And when the missile is fitted with nuclear warheads, its attack time decreases considerably, thus enhancing China’s nuclear deterrence and increasing both the mobility and operational flexibility of the missile.
China is no doubt assuming that if its ICBMs can reach the United States mainland, they will deter the US from interfering in China’s affairs in the South and East China Seas.
Although the United States is improving the National Missile Defense (NMD) and Theater Missile Defense (TMD) programs, and counting on them to protect its homeland from enemy attack, its current ability to intercept China’s ICBMs remains to be seen. China is working unrelentingly to make up for its quantitative disadvantage in its nuclear arms race against the U.S. by competing qualitatively. This development is not something about which the United States can afford to be complacent.