On an unknown date in the summer of 2021, a Chinese Long March rocket carried out a secret mission. Under its fairing, a mysterious orbital glider capable of carrying a nuclear charge anywhere on the globe without being disturbed by the defenses of the adversaries. According to the Financial Times, which has just revealed some details of this project, it is a weapon close to the “fractional orbital bombardment system” imagined by the Soviets during the Cold War. The test was reportedly successful in the early stages, but not until impact in the China Sea, as the target was reportedly missed by some 30 kilometers.
The concept is simple: instead of using an intercontinental ballistic missile, whose launch is detectable, the range limited and the parabolic trajectory predictable, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) wants to deploy in low orbit a kind of maneuverable space drone. , therefore unpredictable, and able to strike anywhere on the planet. The hypersonic glider flies at Mach 5, slower than a ballistic missile, but its maneuverability compensates for its speed deficit, at least against the current defenses of the US military and its allies. And a loophole in the space treaty even allows it to be deployed without breaking international rules.
Space weapons a possibility
American intelligence would have been taken aback by this test, which illustrates the extremely rapid technological advances of Chinese military laboratories. Yet some Pentagon officials had already publicly warned that Beijing was approaching the goal. “It is possible that weapons are launched from space according to the old concept of the Cold War, the fractional orbital bombardment system,” for example warned Frank Kendall, the secretary of the US Air Force, during a forum in September. “It is a way to thwart early warning devices and missile defense systems,” he added. In fact, Russians and Americans continue to develop similar systems.
If such a system becomes operational, it could mark the entry of China into a so-called first strike posture. These orbital gliders can in fact be launched very discreetly, then put to sleep in low orbit until a possible strike order. Their trajectory can cross the South Pole, thus geographically bypassing – in addition to surpassing them technologically – American missile defenses, all oriented towards the North Pole.
China already has nuclear weapons capable of striking any enemy on the globe with its missiles. But with these new technologies, and as tensions in the China Sea and around Taiwan intensify, the balance of global nuclear deterrence is likely to be shifting.