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Is it a Bird or a Plane?

It's Not Superman...

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mike Milly, called it China’s “Sputnik moment” and, still a little baffled, “very concerning.” Tong Zhao, of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy in Beijing, was a little more philosophical about the test, saying that it would “help force the US to accept peaceful co-existence.”

All of which raises the question: Just what in the hell did the Chinese throw up in the air over the summer? And what does it mean for US nuclear missile defense?

For the generation whose boogey man was an active school shooter rather than the communists raining fiery death from above, the implications may not be immediate. So little of the Able Archer crisis was ever reported, it’s hard for most people to remember exactly how close we came to nuclear Armageddon in 1983.

By the early eighties, nuclear weapons had gotten both so destructive and pervasive that it created a certain perverse comfort for both sides of the Cold War rivalry. The concept was called Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) – that anyone launching a first strike nuclear attack assumed that the subsequent retaliation would ensure the destruction of both target and the first striker. If nothing else, it kept everyone from getting too trigger happy.

What changed that concept, and nearly brought the world to the brink was Ronald Reagan’s carrying on about the “Star Wars” missile defense system. Suddenly the Russian’s – who knew that their system was collapsing even if we didn’t – saw a world where the US could swat their Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) out of the air, and they couldn’t stop ours. Destruction was assured, but it was no longer entirely mutual.

In their panic and paranoia (it didn’t seem to occur to the powers in Moscow that the US didn’t know the USSR was on the verge of collapse) they saw signs of a buildup to a final knock-out attack everywhere. And precisely when the Kremlin was searching for signs of the coming attack, NATO simulate one for European war game exercises in November of 1983, codenamed “Able Archer.” The Russians thought that the end had come. Yuri Andropov, the ex-KGB Soviet premier spent an agonizing week debating whether or not strike to West first. He didn’t. The world as we knew it, however, did not come to an end with Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart in the top ten Billboard chart.

If China had its Sputnik moment, you could argue that the US is having a minor Able Archer moment. Our missile defense systems were built for an attack if ICBMs coming over the North Pole. An ICBM is something like a mortar: It launches into space where it will be detected by radar and defense systems, then tips down towards its target. At that point, it’s easy to determine where it’s headed and when it will get there. It won’t change course so counter-measures can be taken. The 200 or so ICBM silos recently detected in the Chinese hinterlands would fall under this system.

What the Chinese did this summer that took the world by off guard was loading a hypersonic glider to a Long March rocket that can theoretically travel over the South Pole, where the US lacks missile defense coverage. The glider then detaches at the upper-end of the atmosphere (under the missile defense radar) and glides at speeds up to five times the speed of sound towards a target. That’s slower than an ICBM but, and here’s the kicker, unlike an ICBM after it arcs, the glider is maneuverable. It can skirt around defenses and possibly change targets.

Hypersonic gliders are nothing new, both the US and USSR experimented with them during the Cold War. Between 1969 and 1983, the USSR had developed a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS). “Fractional orbital” because it didn’t need orbit around the planet. “Bombardment” here, is pretty straightforward.

What is new is the way the Chinese have married the two technologies to deliver a nuclear loaded glider to a target. It needs work, the glider crashed better that 24 miles off-target, but that’s close enough to terrify. The Chinese have denied that the glider is a weapon but are at a lost to explain why they kept the whole thing quiet. Although Mr. Zhao, of Carnegie-Tsinghua, did say, “China appears to be the first to turn this combination into a prototype for a weapon.”

Taylor Fravel, MIT professor and expert on Chinese nuclear power was unaware of the test when it happened but said that the weaponized glider could “negate” US missile defense.

All of this is bleak in light of the growing tensions over Taiwan and China’s increased belligerence. Still, though, the barbarians may not be at the gate. China needs external calm if Xi is going to continue in power, and the Chinese real estate crisis will makes internal calm a tall order. There are the Beijing Olympics, and the fact that China still needs Western technology. Like the Star Wars program the new system might just be what the government claims it is: Part legitimate defense, part bargaining chip in China’s long game for world peace. Which is, more or less, for the US to let it have the run of the place.

The 16 November video conference between President’s Xi and Biden gives us little hope of a thaw. It was polite but went absolutely nowhere. On the other hand, going nowhere is a useful tool in avoiding driving into a terrifying somewhere.