Sputnik was a wake-up call for the US. China’s ‘hysonic missile’ is a tougher challenge – Community News
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Sputnik was a wake-up call for the US. China’s ‘hysonic missile’ is a tougher challenge

For example, NBC radio introduced the signal from the first satellite in space on October 4, 1957.

But it wasn’t a triumph of American science: The sound came from the Soviet Union’s Sputnik, a beach ball-sized piece of hardware whose launch stunned the world — and the United States in particular.

The phrase “Sputnik moment” was coined to mark the moment. It was a shock at the loss of a supposed superiority, the technological leap of a rival that could destroy the nuclear balance of power.

Then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower claimed to be “not an iota” concerned about Sputnik, but public and political response in the US was less optimistic. “Russian science beat American science,” shouted the Boston Globe.

Last week, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, recalled the “Sputnik moment” when he spoke of China’s test of one or more hypersonic missiles this summer.

“What we saw was a very important event of a test of a hypersonic weapon system. And it is very concerning,” Milley said. “I don’t know if it’s a very Sputnik moment, but I think it’s very close to that.”

China says it has done nothing but launch a reusable space vehicle — and just based on these tests, it’s hard to determine its intentions. But China has invested heavily in missile and space capabilities in recent years, while also developing conventional armed forces and cyber warfare.

In terms of national security, surprises and the inability to assess a threat keep top executives up at night. Sputnik briefly ticked both boxes. China’s rapid development of hypersonic technology may be of a different order.

In the years after Sputnik, the US quickly overtook the Soviet Union in satellite and space technology. NASA was founded in 1958 (and flew the very first hypersonic test vehicle in 1959). In 1960, the US had three times as many satellites orbiting the Earth as the USSR.

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Parity was restored, despite some accidents along the way. The first US response to Sputnik exploded on launch; the test of a hypersonic vehicle in October failed.

So little is known about the Chinese program that it is almost impossible to judge whether a larger gap has emerged.

Intelligence officials told the Senate Intelligence Committee in private briefings that the Chinese test marked a significant advance in China’s ability to launch a strategic first strike against the United States, according to people familiar with the briefings.

Other officials and experts are not so concerned about the missile test, saying that – although it was intended to be provocative – the technology does not give Beijing the upper hand and therefore does not destabilize it.

The technology itself is not new: the US, China, Russia and other countries have been working on it for decades. Russia is developing a series of hypersonic weapons that President Vladimir Putin claimed are “invincible.”

If one power were to take a decisive lead in arm hypersonic technology that would be destabilizing.

Low Altitude Agility

Hypersonic missiles aren’t as fast as ballistic missiles — though at five times the speed of sound they aren’t lanky — but they travel at low altitudes and are maneuverable. They can potentially change targets during flight and are therefore difficult to detect and intercept.

A RAND report in 2017 noted that even “defenders with capable ground and space sensors have only a few minutes to know these missiles are coming in.”

If an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) were to be fired at a US target, approximately 25 minutes would elapse between detection and impact. Some analysts calculate that if a hypersonic weapon were used, that delay would be only 6 minutes.

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To protect the continental US from a hypersonic arsenal would require a priceless number of high-altitude defenses. And that presupposes much better defenses than those currently deployed.

In addition, US anti-missile systems target the Northern Hemisphere: a highly maneuverable hypersonic missile in low orbit could be routed over the South Pole.

Some experts point out that the era of hypersonic rockets so far has been more theoretical than real – a lot of engineering is still required.

Ivan Oelrich, a former vice president of the Federation of American Scientists, argues that “hysonic weapons will add some new military capabilities, but will not revolutionize warfare.”
But the RAND report, written in 2017, estimated that there was “up to a decade before hypersonic missiles became militarily significant.”

Sputnik in search of souls

The original Sputnik moment sparked a lot of soul-searching in the US.

Critics argued that the US had been slow to recognize and respond to the Soviets’ ambition to go into space first. Both Lyndon Johnson and John F Kennedy, US senators at the time, used the Sputnik moment to criticize US unpreparedness.

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Johnson famously warned that the Soviet Union could bomb America with nuclear warheads, like children throwing rocks from an overpass.

Likewise, some critics today say the US has been slow to recognize the threat. “The Pentagon has failed to communicate the need for hypersonic weapons and then manage their development,” said Andrew Senesac of the National Defense Industrial Association.

Sputnik boosted science education spending: The National Defense Education Act was passed in 1958.

Whether the rapid accumulation of Chinese capabilities will inspire similar investment in the US remains to be seen.

Sputnik also saw huge investments in satellite technology by both the US and the Soviet Union. Humanity has benefited from civilian applications for it — GPS, telecommunications — but until 1990, about four out of five satellites in space were military.

Today, in Australia and Europe, hypersonic technology is being developed for commercial, peaceful applications. But much of that technology could have military value.

Weapons Control and Defense

The Sputnik moment was important in two other ways.

Russia's Vladimir Putin oversees hypersonic missile test near Crimea

The risk that space could upset military balance eventually sparked an era of arms control deals — because nuclear-armed ballistic missiles had the potential to obliterate an adversary.

Satellites became an important part of early warning systems that allowed humanity to live with ‘mutually assured destruction’.

But the specter of destruction also sparked research into missile defense: how to intercept and destroy incoming missiles — an effort that culminated with President Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars program in the 1980s.

China’s progress may reheat the choice – between exploring ways to defend against hypersonic, nuclear-armed missiles and striving to match China’s and Russian offensive capabilities.

Missile defense has a checkered history.

russian "invulnerable"  nuclear missile ready to be deployed, says Putin

James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says the US should “offer to negotiate new limits on missile defense, which it would agree to only if China and Russia made very significant concessions in return.”

A large-scale study by the RAND Corporation came to the same conclusion. “The inevitable requirement is that the United States, Russia and China agree on a non-proliferation policy,” the authors said.

That could – possibly – usher in a new chapter of nuclear deterrence, as some argue that Sputnik did.

There is one important caveat. In the decade after Sputnik, the US and Soviet Union developed channels of communication to prevent conflict from arising through miscalculation.

Today there are few such channels with China, which is problematic when so many platforms can carry conventional or nuclear warheads.

Money and knowledge

An unsurprising similarity to the Sputnik moment is how such watersheds give rise to a lot of spending.

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The Pentagon’s budget for R&D of hypersonic systems will rise to $3.8 billion next year. In October, Raytheon Technologies CEO Gregory Hayes said the US was “at least several years behind” China in developing hypersonic technology.

Fareed Zakharia, writing in the Washington Post, says that “instilling fear of a massive and tech-savvy enemy is a surefire way to guarantee massive new budgets that can be spent countering any enemy movement, real or imagined.” .”

“Real or imagined” is part of the problem when it comes to hypersonic weapons.

To use the expression of former United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, “There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is, we know there are some things we don’t know.” know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know, we don’t know.”

And, as he later said, “they’re the ones who get you.”