Arms Control China Crisis Management Defense Technologies
Fast Thinking October 18, 2021

FAST THINKING: What to do about China’s hypersonic weapons

By Atlantic Council


Call it an October surprise. China reportedly caught US intelligence officials off-guard by launching a nuclear-capable “glide vehicle” that sped around the planet at low-Earth orbit before landing within two dozen miles of its target, the Financial Times revealed on Saturday. The test suggests Beijing is further along than Washington realized in developing the potentially threatening capability, though on Monday China denied that its launch was a missile. Should US defense officials be worried about the pace of Chinese military modernization? What could China do with such weapons? Our experts fire off their thoughts.


  • Matthew Kroenig (@MatthewKroenig): Deputy director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and former missile-defense official in the Office of the US Secretary of Defense

Build-up better

  • Perched atop the Long March rocket that Beijing uses to blast objects into space, the vehicle is said to have traveled at Mach 5 (five times the speed of sound). That’s slower than ballistic missiles but no less dangerous: Hypersonic speed allows for a lower, adjustable trajectory that makes tracking these missiles difficult.
  • It’s far from the only nuclear capability that China’s amassing, Matt says. Others include nuclear-armed submarines, a nuclear-capable bomber, and hundreds of desert-based silos—presumably to hold the nuclear-armed missiles that it’s also building. “Pentagon officials have stated that the size of China’s nuclear arsenal will double, if not triple or quadruple, in the coming decade,” he tells us.
  • Christian, who co-authored an in-depth report on hypersonic weapons last year, says the hypersonic missiles are in part an outgrowth of Chinese “paranoia over US advantages in strategic forces,” considering that their leaders overestimate US nuclear deterrent capabilities.
  • So China pursuing such nuclear technology is not surprising, Christian adds. “Rather, the most shocking development is the speed with which China reached this point, which raises concerns about the status of this and other Chinese military modernization programs.”
  • Some might see this military build-up as a classic, reactionary arms race with the United States. But Matt believes the more plausible explanation lies in President Xi Jinping’s desire to turn China into a true superpower: “Xi has been very clear that he wants China to be a ‘first-tier military.’ China cannot be a first-tier military with a second-tier nuclear force.”

Subscribe to Fast Thinking email alerts

Sign up to receive rapid insight in your inbox from Atlantic Council experts on global events as they unfold.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Not all about nukes

  • But set aside the nuclear talk for a moment: Christian argues that the top takeaway for Washington should be that “Chinese hypersonic weapons are far more concerning in conventional applications than in nuclear applications.” 
  • That’s because these weapons can “quickly overwhelm” bases and aircraft carriers “while preventing US and allied forces from maneuvering early in a regional conflict,” Christian tells us. It’s a timely warning when tensions are increasing in the Taiwan Strait.
  • Matt believes that Taiwan is part of the reason for the missile test. Improved nuclear deterrence can give China “a freer hand to engage in conventional aggression against its neighbors, like Taiwan, without fear of US intervention,” he says.

Pentagon checklist

  • What can the United States do about the development? “For the first time in [US] history, Washington will need to deter, and if necessary defend against, two nuclear peer competitors: China and Russia,” Matt explains.
  • In response to these dual threats, Matt advises, the United States should maintain “a strong nuclear force” and advance major projects on “nuclear modernization” that have support in both parties.
  • Christian also makes the case for US weapons upgrades, considering that China has “shown little interest” in arms control. “The best approach for US policymakers is to continue to develop multifaceted, multidomain US hypersonic weapons,” he says, which will require improved coordination among military branches and with the defense industry.

Further reading

Related Experts: Matthew Kroenig and Christian Trotti

Image: Military vehicles carrying hypersonic missiles DF-17 travel past Tiananmen Square during the military parade marking the 70th founding anniversary of People's Republic of China, on its National Day in Beijing, China on October 1, 2019. Photo via REUTERS/Jason Lee.