Mysterious Chinese hypersonic weapon can stay in orbit, Space Force general says



A senior US Space Force officer pointed out that China’s new hypersonic weapon system is indeed orbital in nature and could remain in space for an extended period of time. This is the latest official information on this new system that would use some sort of hypersonic glider, which might be able to launch its own projectiles to execute a strike.

Space Force Lt. Gen. Chance Saltzman, deputy chief of space operations for operations, cyberspace and nuclear, answered questions about this new Chinese strategic weapon at an online event hosted by the Mitchell Institute of the ‘Air Force Association earlier today. Saltzman, who moved from the Air Force to the Space Force last year, “has overall responsibility for the operations, intelligence, sustainment, cybersecurity and nuclear operations of the United States Space Force.” according to the service’s website.


A Long March 2C space launch rocket takes off from a platform in China. A 2C Long March has reportedly been used in at least two test launches of a new orbital weapon system the Chinese military is developing.

“I think the words we use are important, so that we understand exactly what we are talking about here,” Saltzman explained. “I hear things like hypersonic missiles, and I sometimes hear suborbital.”

Hypersonic speed is generally defined as anything above Mach 5. Suborbital refers to objects that can technically reach space, such as more traditional intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), but which do not fit into any kind. of orbit around the planet.

“This is a categorically different system, because a fractional orbit is different from a suborbital,” Saltzman continued. “A fractional orbit means it can stay in orbit for as long as the user determines, and then desorbit it as part of the flight path.”

Historically, a fractional orbit has been defined as an orbit in which the vehicle in question reaches orbit, but is returned to Earth before circling the entire planet. However, the common working definition of Fractional Orbital Bombardment Systems (FOBS), of which the Chinese system appears to be a particularly new example, has often been expanded to include concepts that accomplish one or more revolutions. Saltzman is clearly suggesting here that the Chinese system is designed to spend a longer time in space.

This description is broadly in line with the comments of retired Air Force General John Hyten, whose last post was as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, earlier this month. “He went around the world, dropped off a hypersonic glide vehicle that slipped into China, which hit a target in China,” he said in an interview with CBS News.

Then, on November 21, the Financial Time The newspaper, which broke the original news of this orbital system in October, published a new story saying that in one of two tests earlier this year, the glider released its own projectile. It is still not clear what the object was and why it was released, as The war zone
has already explored in depth.

The basic idea of ​​a FOBS dates back to the 1960s and the Soviet Union, although other countries, including the United States and China, explored similar concepts in the decades that followed. The system that the Soviets are known to have developed and deployed to a limited extent during the Cold War involved an ICBM-type missile that would orbit a more traditional re-entry vehicle containing a nuclear warhead. This warhead could then be deorbited in a controlled manner to strike a target.

This type of FOBS offers a number of advantages over a more typical IBCM, such as a depressed flight profile and the ability to maintain any target in a geographic band along the orbit at risk, presenting challenges to an adversary’s early warning networks and their ability to anticipate when and where a strike might occur. Beyond that, the orbital profile means that such a weapon could attack from the opposite direction to which most of an enemy’s existing early warning infrastructure could be pointed.

From everything we know so far about the Chinese system, it uses a kind of hypersonic glider capable of high-speed atmospheric flight that is largely horizontal and has some degree of maneuverability, rather than a vehicle. typical re-entry. This, at least in principle, would combine the evasion benefits of a FOBS defense with those of a hypersonic boost-glide vehicle. Financial Time“report that the vehicle of this new Chinese system might be able to launch projectiles itself, a technically complex ability for anything that moves at hypersonic speed, would present only more challenges for a defender.


A graph providing a very rudimentary representation of the advantages offered by hypersonic motorless vehicles and hypersonic air-breathing cruise missiles in terms of flight profile predictability over traditional ballistic missiles.

At the same time, if this Chinese weapon system is supposed to stay in some kind of sustained orbit, even one that is rapidly degrading, that circles the entire Earth several times, it would no longer be truly “split orbital”. in nature. The Soviets had specifically claimed that their FOBS was not designed to accomplish a complete revolution around Earth, specifically to circumvent the provisions of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, to which China is a party and which prohibits parking. nuclear weapons standing in orbit.

Beyond that, questions remain about the exact design and capabilities of the hypersonic glide vehicle. Its apparent ability to transport and release payloads has sparked new speculation that it may somehow tie into a reusable spaceplane. Although The war zone, among others, debunked an initial claim by the Chinese government that a test of its new orbital weapons system had been mistaken for one involving a space plane, the country is known to be working on a number of different designs for purposes military and civilian. Of course, this new orbital weapon could use a more warhead-like glider that can release multiple independent ammunition or other payloads, such as countermeasures, during its flight. We still can’t really say for sure, and Saltzman’s remarks do not exclude any particular design.


An artist’s design of a commercial space plane for the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, or CASC.

Separately, Lt. Gen. Saltzman raised some interesting points about how the difficulties of detecting and tracking the theft of such a weapon could also make it difficult to quickly assign it to a particular country. This could, in turn, reduce the amount of time a defender has to spot, then categorize an impending nuclear strike, then decide how to respond.

“A lot of our warnings, you know, are based on ballistic missiles because that’s the main threat for so many years,” Saltzman said. “And so it’s up to the Space Force, in my mind, to make sure that we develop the capabilities to track these kinds of weapons. Before they launch, ideally, but then throughout their lifecycle, either in orbit, or in the execution of their mission.

“If we can keep up, we can attribute… I think we can deter,” he added. “[Space Force needs] to make sure we develop those capabilities to be able to track and hold accountable countries that use these kinds of destabilizing weapons. “

This is not the first time that senior U.S. officials have warned of the potential impacts of not being able to quickly detect and track incoming hypersonic weapons. Saltzman’s remarks on these matters give additional weight to General Hyten’s comments during his CBS News interview in which he warned that this new Chinese development offers an inherent surprise first strike capability. Whether or not China positions itself to be able to do so, the deployment of this orbital weapon could have serious negative ramifications if the US government, among others, feels the need to actively prepare for this potential.

All in all, while many key details about this new Chinese weapons system remain obscure, the U.S. government’s assessment is clear that it has a true orbital component and is a key contributing factor. to its potential to upset the strategic balance of power between the two. countries.

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