Questions after a possible Chinese test of nuclear space bombardment

China reportedly tested in early August the carrying of a nuclear weapon on a new hypersonic glider that was propelled into space and circled in low orbit, said on Saturday (October 16th). Financial Times, citing five sources familiar with the matter.

After circling the planet, the machine would have plunged back into the atmosphere, and the missile would have struck the earth about thirty kilometers from its target. According to FT, the event surprised American military intelligence, because it would testify to the very rapid progress of China in the hypersonic domain (speeds beyond Mach 5). Beijing announced its first hypersonic glider test in the atmosphere in 2014.

On Monday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry denied the event, citing a “Routine test of a spacecraft to verify reusable spacecraft technology”, in July. “It will certainly improve the quality of its nuclear deterrent to ensure that the United States abandons its idea of ​​nuclear blackmail against China”, however commented Hu Xijin, of the nationalist daily Global Times, validating the hypothesis of a military prototype.

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From the North Pole to the South Pole

The shot appears to be from a fractional orbital bombardment system – FOBS, to use the acronym. “The FOBS is less well known than the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) but it plays the same role: the intercontinental delivery of nuclear weapons”says Joshua Pollack of the James Martin Center on Non-Proliferation in Washington. Experts recall that the USSR deployed such an orbital bombardment system in the 1970s. China also launched a first program, which it canceled. An old concept therefore, which would have been brought up to date.

The advantage of FOBS is that it could outsmart the American early warning radars covering the North Pole, but also attack from the South Pole, less observed by satellites, thanks to its great maneuverability. Such a machine “Spends a time in orbit, but transplanted towards the Earth before having completed the ninety minutes of complete revolution of the planet”, said Laura Grego, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), on her Twitter account. Or a flight of about seventy minutes. “You might as well use an ICBM, which takes twenty to forty minutes to reach its target. The advantage here is to deceive the missile defenses ” with a trajectory that will remain unpredictable.

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