In October 1957, electronic beeping from the Soviet satellite Sputnik—the first artificial object placed into orbit around the Earth—sparked near-panic in the United States. Heading the list of concerns was the possibility that future Soviet satellites could be loaded with nuclear weapons, potentially allowing the commies, in the words of then Senate majority leader Lyndon B. Johnson, to drop “bombs on us from space like kids dropping rocks onto cars from freeway overpasses.”

Superficially, therefore, it seems appropriate that China’s reported tests of an orbital nuclear delivery system, which occurred in July and August 2021, have repeatedly been described as a “Sputnik moment”—if not something “waaaay scarier.”

While the prospect of a nuclear attack against the United States is terrifying, this is no Sputnik moment—partly because it’s not entirely clear what was tested, but mostly because the threat of a Chinese nuclear attack on the United States isn’t remotely new.

What the Test Could Mean

The tests’ purpose is not yet entirely clear. According to media reports, the U.S. intelligence community believes that China tested a new nuclear-weapon delivery system—one that is initially launched into orbit before releasing a glider that then descends onto its target (or at least within “two dozen miles” of it). China acknowledged the July test but claims that it involved a reusable space vehicle.

James M. Acton
Acton holds the Jessica T. Mathews Chair and is co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
More >

Both interpretations of the test are plausible, though not equally credible. I suspect that, as reported, China is following the Soviet Union’s lead in developing a so-called fractional orbital bombardment system. But I can’t rule out the possibility that China is developing a space plane, like the United States’ X-37B. Because tests of space planes and some orbital weapons could be indistinguishable, determining China’s intentions is difficult. In fact, it is even possible that China tested a technology demonstrator with multiple potential applications.

U.S. Vulnerability Isn’t New

Yet to focus on this test is to miss the forest for the trees. China has had the ability to attack the United States with nuclear warheads since the 1980s (and the U.S. territory of Guam was likely vulnerable even earlier). Meanwhile, the United States’ one operational homeland missile defense system—the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system—is explicitly designed to intercept only North Korea’s intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

U.S. defenses focus on North Korea because China’s ICBM force is too “large and technically sophisticated” to defend against. (In fact, poor test results and chronic mismanagement suggest that the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system couldn’t be relied upon to stop North Korean ICBMs either.) As a result, the United States has, for decades, sought to prevent a Chinese ICBM attack by threatening dire consequences—that is, by deterrence—and not by seeking interception capabilities.

However, like defense officials in the United States—and pretty much every other country, for that matter—Chinese leaders take a worst-case view of what their competitors could do and plan accordingly. There have been no limits on the size of U.S. missile defense deployments since the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002. So Beijing is concerned that the United States could seek the capability to attack China’s nuclear forces preemptively and then use missile defenses to intercept whatever surviving missiles are launched in retaliation. Indeed, there is support from some members of Congress for trying to do so.

The U.S. general officer responsible for homeland defense has assessed that China’s concerns about missile defenses are likely motivating its efforts to build up its ICBM forces. Thus, China is building hundreds of new ICBM silos (even if it’s likely that only some of them will be filled with ICBMs). Beijing is also arming ICBMs with multiple warheads and developing missile defense countermeasures, such as decoys.

China is also developing non-ballistic nuclear delivery systems that could evade U.S. sensors or fly beneath the reach of U.S. interceptors. These weapons include an intercontinental hypersonic glider as well as “novel nuclear-powered capabilities” (which, if modeled on Russia’s programs, could include a torpedo, a cruise missile, or both). A glider delivered by a fractional orbital bombardment system can also potentially be added to this breathless list.

It’s Time to Limit Missile Defenses. Again.

As a resident of northern Virginia who could be incinerated by a large nuclear blast over the Pentagon, I am indifferent about which delivery system carried the warhead that fried me. The focus should be on preventing a nuclear war and mitigating the costs and tensions of a new nuclear arms race.

The United States has long wanted to engage China in risk-reduction talks. Beijing has long refused. A rethink of U.S. missile defense policy could help break this impasse.

It is increasingly clear that whatever value the United States hoped to gain from homeland defenses has been more than outweighed by China’s reaction—and Russia’s too. The United States, therefore, should offer to negotiate new limits on missile defenses, to which it would only agree if China and Russia offered very significant concessions in return. It’s time to start planning such a trade.