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Analysis: Sputnik was a wakeup call for the US. China's 'hypersonic missile' is a trickier challenge

That was how NBC radio introduced the signal from the first satellite in space, on October 4, 1957.
But it wasn’t a triumph of American science: The sound came from the Soviet Union’s Sputnik, a piece of hardware the size of a beach ball whose launch stunned the world — and the United States in particular.
The phrase “Sputnik moment” was coined to mark the moment. It signified shock at the loss of a presumed superiority, a rival’s technological leap that might wreck the nuclear balance of power.
The then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower professed to be worried “not one iota” about Sputnik, but public and political reaction in the US was less sanguine. “Russian science whipped American science,” screamed the Boston Globe.
Top US general says China hypersonic test is 'very concerning'Top US general says China hypersonic test is 'very concerning'
Last week, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, recalled the “Sputnik moment” when he spoke about China’s test of one or more hypersonic missiles this summer.
“What we saw was a very significant event of a test of a hypersonic weapon system. And it is very concerning,” Milley said. “I don’t know if it’s quite a Sputnik moment, but I think it’s very close to that.”
China says it has done nothing more than launch a reusable space vehicle — and based on these tests alone determining its intentions is difficult. But China has invested massively in missile and space capabilities in recent years, while also developing conventional forces and cyber warfare.
In national security terms, surprises and the inability to assess a threat are what keep the top brass awake at night. Sputnik briefly ticked both boxes. China’s rapid development of hypersonic technology may be of a different order.
In the years after Sputnik, the US quickly overtook the Soviet Union in satellite and space technology. NASA was created in 1958 (and flew the very first hypersonic test vehicle in 1959). By 1960, the US had three times as many satellites orbiting the Earth as did the USSR.
China denies testing a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile, says it was a spacecraftChina denies testing a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile, says it was a spacecraft
Parity was restored, despite some mishaps along the way. The first US response to Sputnik blew up on launch; the test of a hypersonic vehicle in October failed.
So little is known about the Chinese program, it’s almost impossible to assess whether a larger gap has opened up.
Intelligence officials told the Senate Intelligence Committee in private briefings that the Chinese test marked a substantial advance in China’s ability to launch a strategic first strike against the United States, according to people familiar with the briefings.
Other officials and experts are not as concerned by the missile test and say that — while it was intended to be provocative — the technology does not give Beijing an upper hand and is therefore not destabilizing.
The technology itself isn’t new: The US, China, Russia and other countries have been working on it for decades. Russia is developing a range of hypersonic weapons that President Vladimir Putin has boasted are “invincible.”
If one power were to take a decisive lead in weaponizing hypersonic technology that would be destabilizing.

Agility at low altitude

Hypersonic missiles are not as fast as ballistic missiles — though at five times the speed of sound they are no slouches — but they travel at low altitudes and are maneuverable. They may be able to change target while in flight and are therefore difficult to detect and intercept.
A RAND report in 2017 noted that even “defenders with capable terrestrial and space sensors will have only a few minutes to know these missiles are inbound.”
If an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) were fired at a US target, roughly 25 minutes would elapse between detection and impact. Some analysts calculate that if a hypersonic weapon were used, that delay would be just 6 minutes.
China's latest missile test raises the stakes for Biden's nuclear weapons reviewChina's latest missile test raises the stakes for Biden's nuclear weapons review
To protect the continental US from a hypersonic arsenal, an unaffordable number of high-altitude defenses would be needed. And that assumes much better defenses than those currently deployed.
Additionally, US anti-missile systems are focused on the Northern Hemisphere: A highly maneuverable hypersonic missile in low orbit might be routed over the South Pole.
Some experts point out that the era of hypersonic missiles is, as yet, more theoretical than real — there’s still a lot of engineering required.
Ivan Oelrich, a former vice president of the Federation of American Scientists, contends that “hypersonic weapons will add some new military capabilities but will not revolutionize warfare.”
But the RAND report, written in 2017, estimated that there was “at most a decade before hypersonic missiles become militarily significant.”

Sputnik soul-searching

The original Sputnik moment sparked a good deal of soul-searching in the US.
Critics felt the US had been slow to recognize and respond to the Soviets’ ambition to be the first into space. Both Lyndon Johnson and John F Kennedy, then US senators, used the Sputnik moment to criticize American unpreparedness.
Pentagon reveals some details of Trump's 'super duper' hypersonic missilePentagon reveals some details of Trump's 'super duper' hypersonic missile
Johnson famously warned that the Soviet Union would be able to bombard America with nuclear warheads like kids throwing stones from an overpass.
Similarly, today some critics say the US has been sluggish in recognizing the threat. “The Pentagon failed to be effective at articulating the need for, and then managing the development of, hypersonic weapons,” says Andrew Senesac, from the National Defense Industrial Association.
Sputnik spurred spending on science education: The National Defense Education Act was passed in 1958.
Whether the rapid accumulation of Chinese capabilities will inspire similar investment in the US is yet to be seen.
Sputnik also spurred huge investment in satellite technology by both the US and the Soviet Union. Humanity has benefited from civilian applications for it — GPS, telecommunications — but until 1990 about four out of five satellites in space were military.
Today, hypersonic technology is being developed in Australia and Europe for commercial, peaceful applications. But much of that technology could have a military value.

Arms control and defense

The Sputnik moment was important in two other ways.
Russia's Vladimir Putin oversees hypersonic missile test near CrimeaRussia's Vladimir Putin oversees hypersonic missile test near Crimea
The risk that space might upset the military balance ultimately spurred an era of arms control agreements — because nuclear-armed ballistic missiles had the potential to obliterate an adversary.
Satellites became an important part of the early warning systems that allowed humanity to live with “mutually assured destruction.”
But the specter of obliteration also sparked research into missile defenses: How to intercept and destroy incoming missiles — an effort that reached its zenith with President Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars program in the 1980s.
China’s advances may reheat the choice — between exploring ways to defend against hypersonic, nuclear-armed missiles and aiming to match Chinese and Russian offensive capabilities.
Missile defenses have a checkered history.
Russia's 'invulnerable' nuclear missile ready to deploy, Putin saysRussia's 'invulnerable' nuclear missile ready to deploy, Putin says
James Acton at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says the US “should offer to negotiate new limits on missile defenses, to which it would only agree if China and Russia offered very significant concessions in return.”
A major study by the RAND Corporation came to the same conclusion. “The unavoidable requirement is for the United States, Russia, and China to agree on a nonproliferation policy,” the authors said.
That could — potentially — usher in a new chapter of nuclear deterrence, as some would argue Sputnik did.
There is one important caveat. In the decade after Sputnik, the US and Soviet Union developed channels of communication to try to ensure conflict would not begin through miscalculation.
Today, there are few such channels with China, which is problematic when so many platforms can carry either conventional or nuclear warheads.

Money and knowledge

One unsurprising similarity with the Sputnik moment is how such watersheds spur calls for lots of spending.
US general warns of hypersonic weapons threat from Russia and China US general warns of hypersonic weapons threat from Russia and China
The Pentagon’s budget for R&D of hypersonic systems will go up next year — to $3.8 billion. In October, the CEO of Raytheon Technologies, Gregory Hayes, said the US was “at least several years behind” China in developing hypersonic technology.
Fareed Zakharia, writing in the Washington Post, says “raising fears about a huge and tech-savvy enemy is a surefire way to guarantee vast new budgets that can be spent countering the enemy’s every move, real or imagined.”
“Real or imagined” is part of the problem when it comes to hypersonic weapons.
To borrow the phrase of former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: “There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
And, as he later said, “they’re the ones that get you.”
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