Chinese Fractional Orbital Bombardment
APLN Policy Brief 78
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Reports of China testing a new missile system, known as Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS), have fuelled concerns about the nuclear weapon state’s advancing military capabilities and the consequences for the United States.
The flight tests conducted in July and August saw a rocket launched into orbital flight, which later re-entered the atmosphere and released a maneuverable glide vehicle travelling at hypersonic speeds. Long-range missile systems like this can carry nuclear or non-nuclear warheads. With no official explanation from the Chinese government, some American commentators were quick to assume the worst – a new Chinese ability to bombard the United States from outer space with nuclear weapons.
In this new policy brief, Dr. Bleddyn Bowen and Dr. Cameron Hunter from the University of Leicester assess the technical and policy implications of this new system and whether these concerns are justified.
The authors argue that it is unlikely China has developed ground-breaking new technologies with the recent flight test: the system does not change the balance of power in Earth’s orbit, nor does it usher in a new phase of American vulnerability to Chinese weapons.
However, the test of this technology feeds into existing trends of growing fear and mistrust of China in the United States. And yet, the Chinese military will not gain the game-changing capability it is hoping for. In the long run, Chinese officials may come to see the decision as a mistake if American leaders feel compelled to respond.
The authors highlight the possible risk of circumventing the Outer Space Treaty (OST). Placing nuclear or other “weapons of mass destruction” into orbit is banned under the OST. However, FOBS would not breach the treaty if it never completed an orbit and is technically “in transit” in space which is practically permitted even if it did carry nuclear weapons. If China proceeds with testing of a FOBS-like technology, it may be perceived by American officials as an Outer Space Treaty violation waiting to happen.
The authors make the case however that policymakers and experts must not treat weapons prototypes or flight tests such as this in the same way as a massive deployment or rollout of hundreds of vehicles or platforms. Many military technologies are designed and tested, but few are rolled out at scale or begin to alter the balance of power. They urge for cooler heads to prevail and make a series of recommendations for policymakers including:
- Sensationalist alarmism is not a useful, warranted, or justifiable response. The United States and other countries should not rush to react to the development with ill-thought-out weapons technologies in response.
- More dialogue on outer space security in the Asia-Pacific is urgently needed. Other governments should not wait for the United States or China to lead on solutions to these space security concerns. States within the Asia-Pacific such as India, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines can play an important role in promoting or even hosting multilateral dialogues on space security issues that are specific to the region.
- States should strengthen international agreements on outer space security, such as the United Nations Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space with the aim of eventually developing a transparent Space Traffic Management regime and encouraging more routine space situational awareness data between states and private companies.
About the Authors
Dr. Bleddyn Bowen is a Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Leicester, UK. He is the author of War in Space: Strategy, Spacepower, Geopolitics published by Edinburgh University Press. He is an expert in space warfare, military theory, and international relations in outer space.
Dr. Cameron Hunter is a Research Associate at the Third Nuclear Age Project at the University of Leicester, UK, funded by the European Research Council (Grant number 866155). He is an expert on American-Chinese relations in outer space and the technopolitics of nuclear weapons.