The return of ‘FOBS’: China moves the space arms race towards the nuclear sphere

China recently demonstrated a new orbital hypersonic glide vehicle weapons system, by surprise and alarm from top leaders in Washington and allied capitals around the world. Your concern is well placed. This specific weapon is designed to be launched into space on a rocket and then run towards targets at near-orbital speed. The hypersonic payload is designed to re-enter the atmosphere at high speeds, more than five times the speed of sound, and then maneuver toward targets in ways that are difficult to intercept with current missile defense technologies.

Currently there are no defenses and tracking sensors against this type of threat. That is precisely why it is time for the US Space Force to organize, train and equip itself to address threats in a warlike manner. That means defeating these kinds of capabilities.

The deployment method used by the Chinese for their hypersonic glide vehicle is not new. From the 1960s to the 1980s, the Soviet Union tested and deployed such a weapon. This system, called Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS), was designed to launch thermonuclear warheads in a south-north trajectory to eliminate North American Aerospace Defense Command(NORAD) ballistic missile early warning radars. Following the destruction of those radar sites, a Soviet bomber and missile strike force could launch undetected over the North Pole and destroy Strategic Air Command missile and bomber bases in a decapitating first strike.

This weapon was considered by many in the Department of Defense (DOD) as an existential threat to the American homeland and the American nuclear deterrent forces. American leaders demanded an answer.

One option was to declare the Soviet Union publicly and diplomatically in violation of the recently ratified 1967 law. Outer space treaty, which declared that no nation will be allowed to deploy weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, in orbit around the Earth or on celestial bodies such as the Moon. The Soviet FOBS system was a clear violation of this treaty. However, instead of taking this option, the Johnson administration decided not to invoke the treaty; he believed that attempting to hold the Soviet Union accountable so soon after ratification would jeopardize the treaty and its likely future benefits. As a result, then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara dropped this option and sought other means to address the threat.

Seeking a means by which to defend the U.S. deterrent forces against a nuclear attack from space, the DOD sought an offensive solution by repurposing existing missiles as an anti-satellite nuclear mission (ASAT), an effort called 437 range. Missiles with nuclear warheads were placed on Johnston Island in the Pacific to intercept the overlying FOBS, should circumstances warrant action. Program 437 crews were on duty until 1975, when President Gerald Ford ordered the mission to be completed to find a non-nuclear ASAT system to replace it, along with a newer missile warning satellite and phased array radar systems. land.

Currently, the United States does not have an active and dedicated countermeasure to Chinese FOBS. The Cold War systems were retired years ago. The conflicting actions now require the United States to consider all options for how the Space Force and other DOD agencies and services could address this threat.

This is not a case of armed adventurerism. It all boils down to fundamental responsibilities to deter conflict and defend the American public. China took the first step and now the United States must respond. The lessons learned from the Cold War will be instructive in considering the most effective and sensible way forward. The next steps include:

  • The Biden administration should immediately declare China in violation of the Outer Space Treaty ban on weapons of mass destruction in space, given that this system flew beyond the accepted ballistic flight path on an orbital or fractional flight path.
  • Congress must prioritize funding to rapidly build and deploy both the Next Generation Aerial Persistent Infrared (Next generation OPIR) and proliferated based on low Earth orbits (pLEO) tracking layer satellite systems for maximum tracking coverage for tracking FOBS missiles fired from China.
  • The Space Force must begin to take nuclear threats in and out of space more seriously. To achieve this, the COO staff must begin to examine current registration programs that could be leveraged using rapid acquisition authorities to reuse and rapidly deploy to address and, in the short term, deny this threat to the homeland and deploy. , terrestrial cash. This needs to be done quickly and included in the next president’s budget request.
  • US Space Command should begin to create plans and requirements to address space fighting and deterrence options up to and including nuclear options operating in, from and into space as a means of deterring or defeating the threat of Chinese FOBS.

Recent actions by China have escalated the space arms race to the nuclear realm. American leaders cannot ignore this threat. It expresses a level of danger that we have not had to consider since the Cold War. The United States must prepare its forces to operate in a nuclear combat environment in, from and to the space domain soon. If the United States does not do so, it will not only cede its ability to protect and defend critical satellite infrastructure, but it will also open the American homeland to catastrophic attack.

Christopher Stone is Principal Investigator of Spatial Studies at the Spacepower Advantage Research Center from the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. He previously served as a special assistant to the deputy undersecretary of defense for space policy at the Pentagon.

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