Earlier this year, American intelligence officials revealed that China had conducted a largely successful test of a new hypersonic fractional orbital bombardment weapon that entered earth’s orbit before reentering and impacting miles away from its intended target.
The news prompted a slew of headlines about China shocking the world with an advanced new hypersonic missile; the problem is, neither of those assertions is true. The weapon China tested a few weeks ago was not a missile, nor was it new technology. In fact, the Soviet Union deployed a dozen and a half similar weapons during the Cold War, and the United States very nearly leveraged the same basic premise to field a hypersonic sub-orbital bomber in the 1960s.
China’s recent test was of something we usually call a FOB, or fractional orbital bombardment system, and it might be more prudent to compare it to the U.S. Air Force’s secretive X-37B uncrewed orbital vehicle than a hypersonic missile like Russia’s air-launched Kinzhal missile. The big difference, of course, is that the X-37B is designed to land, and a fractional orbital bombardment system collides with its final target.
These weapons enter low earth orbit, but rather than following an arcing trajectory like an ICBM, the FOB can use thrusters to change course and choose when and how it will renter the atmosphere. This is a serious problem for the United States, as the nation’s missile defense apparatus relies on early detection of an ICBM launch and then carefully calculating the weapon’s trajectory in order to intercept it. China’s new FOB follows no set trajectory, deploys a hypersonic glide vehicle that can defeat local missile defense, and can even approach the U.S. from over the South Pole, where Uncle Sam’s defenses are thinnest.
It’s certainly a potent weapon — and that’s exactly why America was hard at work developing similar technology before the Soviets even put Sputnik in orbit… But (and there is a big BUT here) in this era of mutually assured destruction, one could argue that there’s no need for exotic new (or old) nuclear weapon delivery vehicles. The “everybody dies” arithmetic adds up the same if Americans and China launch 200 nuclear ICBMs or 200 nuclear FOBs at each other: neither nation’s defenses are formidable enough to intercept that volume of missiles (or really, anything close to it).
Practical in today’s geopolitical climate or not, the concept is not only sound, it’s just as formidable today as it was in the 1950s. Today, it may even be seen as a “first strike” weapon, or a weapon intended to limit an opponent’s ability to respond.