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Rich Lowry: The missile gap between US and China
Rich Lowry
Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review. - photo by File photo

The Biden administration is hesitant to call our competition with China a new Cold War, even though Beijing has zero qualms about making the parallels with our decades-long struggle with the Soviet Union abundantly clear. 

We are once again discussing a “Sputnik moment,” a nuclear arms race, and a missile gap – all throwbacks to the 1950s-1980s – thanks to China’s aggressive pursuit of military capabilities designed to deter and defeat the United States. Whatever Beijing may say and however we may try to comfort ourselves with cushioning delusions, the Chinese have repeatedly made it plain that they intend to hold U.S. bases and our homeland at risk.

The example of Sputnik, the primitive Soviet satellite launched in 1957 that raised the prospect of the U.S. losing the space race, was on everyone’s lips with a bombshell Financial Times report over the weekend.

According to the FT, the Chinese tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile that circled the Earth once before descending on its target, thus demonstrating “an advanced space capability that caught U.S. intelligence by surprise.”

It’s not clear why anyone would be shocked. It wasn’t a secret that China and Russia were developing these technologies, and indeed, it wasn’t a secret that China had leapt ahead of us.

(The Chinese, bringing the same transparency they’ve shown regarding the origins of COVID-19, say it was just a routine space launch.) Hypersonic missiles bring a new element to the ever-evolving competition between missile offense and defense.

As former state department official Christian Brose notes in his book “The Kill Chain,” ballistic missiles travel fast but in a predictable parabolic path. Cruise missiles, on the other hand, travel relatively slowly but are maneuverable and therefore unpredictable.

Hypersonic missiles are both unpredictable and fast – six times faster than a Tomahawk missile.

That means they are uniquely suited to defeat our missile defenses. Not only can’t we counter them, we can’t track them adequately at the moment.

Over the summer, the head of North American Aerospace Defense Command – yes, that’s NORAD of Cold War fame – said that the new missiles would pose “significant challenges to my NORAD capability to provide threat warning and attack assessment.”

The FT reports that the test missile missed its target by roughly two dozen miles. That’s a significant miss but wouldn’t necessarily be that much comfort if the missile were carrying a nuclear payload. And the targeting will presumably be improved -- that’s one reason to carry out the test in the first place.

An MIT professor told the FT that just because China tested the capability doesn’t mean that it will deploy it. But the history of expansionistic totalitarian states forbearing from fielding advanced weapons after pouring significant time and resources into developing them is not, to say the least, very encouraging.

It’d be best if we abandon all wishful thinking and admit the obvious.

We’ve had a zombie arms control policy focused on deals with Russia, while China has been aggressively adding new weapons and delivery systems.

We’ve allowed China to rob our technology and pour it into developing threats against us. We’ve been much too slow in developing the next generation of weapons, including hypersonic missiles, and are modernizing our nuclear triad at a glacial pace while China is rapidly adding new capabilities.

The response to the new circumstances should reflect a Cold War-era urgency. The Biden administration has proposed more spending on hypersonic missiles, but the latest news should mean even more of an emphasis on their rapid deployment, so we can hold at risk Chinese assets and maintain our deterrence.

We should, with an eye to the growing Chinese missile threat, deploy missile- defense interceptors in Australia and more sensors in space, as well as work toward directed-energy weapons that would be the best counter to hypersonic missiles.

If we aren’t going to call it a new Cold War, we must – or risk falling further behind – treat it as one.

Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review.

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