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China’s Orbital Bombardment System Is Big, Bad News—but Not a Breakthrough

An attempt to evade missile defenses threatens to worsen a costly arms race.

By , director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
Performers dressed as soldiers perform in front of a screen showing rockets being launched during a mass gala marking the 100th anniversary of Chinese the Communist Party in Beijing on June 28.
Performers dressed as soldiers perform in front of a screen showing rockets being launched during a mass gala marking the 100th anniversary of Chinese the Communist Party in Beijing on June 28. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Over the weekend, the Financial Times reported that in August, China tested a new hypersonic weapons system that circled the globe. While the word “hypersonic” has gotten all the attention, what is more interesting is that the weapon entered orbit. This is no mere hypersonic system but what Cold Warriors called an “orbital bombardment system.” People are freaking out, with some calling it a “Sputnik moment.”

But just what is this thing, and how bad is it? Well, it’s an FOBS—a fractional orbital bombardment system. It’s not new. The Soviet Union deployed a similar system during the Cold War. But China’s test of such a system is unwelcome news, not because it’s some fantastic futuristic technology but because it is yet another step in a pointless, costly, and dangerous arms race.

Starting in the 1960s, the United States began working on a missile defense system, which eventually came to be called Safeguard. This system ultimately consisted of a number of missiles armed with nuclear weapons intended to vaporize incoming Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs. That’s not an acceptable situation from the standpoint of a relationship based on nuclear deterrence. The whole idea of nuclear deterrence is that if one party starts a nuclear war, everybody dies. If one side has a bunch of defenses, however, its leaders might start to think that they could survive and, God forbid, even prevail. And that makes starting the fight a dangerously tempting option.

Over the weekend, the Financial Times reported that in August, China tested a new hypersonic weapons system that circled the globe. While the word “hypersonic” has gotten all the attention, what is more interesting is that the weapon entered orbit. This is no mere hypersonic system but what Cold Warriors called an “orbital bombardment system.” People are freaking out, with some calling it a “Sputnik moment.”

But just what is this thing, and how bad is it? Well, it’s an FOBS—a fractional orbital bombardment system. It’s not new. The Soviet Union deployed a similar system during the Cold War. But China’s test of such a system is unwelcome news, not because it’s some fantastic futuristic technology but because it is yet another step in a pointless, costly, and dangerous arms race.

Starting in the 1960s, the United States began working on a missile defense system, which eventually came to be called Safeguard. This system ultimately consisted of a number of missiles armed with nuclear weapons intended to vaporize incoming Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs. That’s not an acceptable situation from the standpoint of a relationship based on nuclear deterrence. The whole idea of nuclear deterrence is that if one party starts a nuclear war, everybody dies. If one side has a bunch of defenses, however, its leaders might start to think that they could survive and, God forbid, even prevail. And that makes starting the fight a dangerously tempting option.

So, when the Soviets started putting defenses around Moscow in the 1960s, the United States dedicated a huge portion of its nuclear retaliatory forces to penetrating those defenses. Because, again, the core idea of nuclear deterrence is that if you start a conflict, you will die.

The Johnson administration felt enormous political pressure to respond with its own missile defense system. But President Lyndon B. Johnson and his aides were also afraid that a U.S. missile defense system would intensify the arms race with the Soviet Union. So they hit upon what they imagined was a clever idea: Make the system small enough that it wouldn’t alarm Moscow, and publicly frame it as a response to China’s development of ICBMs. In September 1967, then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara announced the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system with a long speech about why missile defenses were destabilizing, followed by a halfhearted explanation that the United States still needed what he called a limited “Chinese-oriented ABM deployment.”

It didn’t work. Moscow was still alarmed, not merely by what the system was but also by what it could become. One of the solutions that Moscow was already developing that helped solve the problem was orbital bombardment. The key word here is orbital.


Orbit is not an altitude; it’s a condition. You can fire a rocket very, very high and have it fall back down to Earth. That’s what an ICBM is, for instance.

So why don’t some objects in space, like satellites, fall back down to Earth? Well, they are falling. It’s just that they are also traveling fast enough that they fall constantly over the horizon in an endless loop. That loop is an orbit. Isaac Newton imagined orbit by thinking about a cannonball being fired to ever greater distances, one after the other, “till at last, exceeding the limits of the Earth, it should pass quite by without touching it.”

To be in orbit is to be in a state of free fall, continuously hurtling around the Earth. That’s why astronauts in space experience weightlessness—they and everything around them are falling endlessly without ever hitting the ground. That also means that, once in orbit, you pretty much stay in orbit. There is still a small amount of atmospheric drag in low Earth orbit, so objects do come back over very long periods of time.

If you want to bring astronauts back or drop a nuclear weapon on another country—and can’t wait a decade—you need to use more energy to slow down and fall back to Earth. This is what, for example, a space shuttle does. The orbiter fires its thrusters to slow down—what’s called a deorbit burn—which allows it to reenter the atmosphere and glide back to Earth.

An orbital bombardment system works the same way: A big rocket places a nuclear warhead in orbit. Attached to that warhead is a small rocket motor. The Soviets could fire that little motor to slow the warhead, bringing it back down wherever they wanted. Now, the Outer Space Treaty prohibits putting nuclear weapons in orbit, so the Soviets named the system “fractional orbital bombardment system” on the grounds that it didn’t make a full orbit. (Since orbit is a condition, not an altitude, space lawyers tend to think that fractional orbits are still orbits and that the system, if the Soviets had ever launched it with a real nuclear weapon, would have violated the treaty.)

The FOBS offered the Soviets a number of advantages. An ICBM travels in a really big arc—the apogee (top of the arc) for an ICBM going from Russia to the United States is about 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) above the Earth. The Soviet FOBS entered orbit at a much lower altitude, a few hundred kilometers, which meant it would arrive in the United States about 10 minutes quicker. And since it is impossible to tell where the FOBS will impact until it deorbits, the precise target would have only a few minutes of warning.


One big advantage was that the FOBS could evade U.S. early warning radars, which all looked toward the North Pole, the route that Soviet ICBMs would have taken. The FOBS could let the Soviets take the long way around, flying over the South Pole and hitting the United States from behind where there weren’t any radars.

Yet the FOBS also had some serious downsides. Accurate reentry from orbit is very difficult, which is why the United States and Soviet Union spent so much effort chasing down space capsules. It takes a lot more of a rocket’s energy to put a warhead into orbit, plus a nuclear warhead has to carry a small rocket stage to get it back down again, which meant it couldn’t carry more than one warhead.

Still, the FOBS had its fans. One warhead had a yield of several megatons. I sometimes hear colleagues say the Soviets toyed with the FOBS before rejecting it as some crazy fool’s errand. Nope. The Soviet Union deployed its R-36O FOBS from the late 1960s through the early 1980s. At one point, there were 18 FOBS missiles sitting in Soviet silos ready to attack the United States from the south. The Soviets were aware of the system’s drawbacks, but they only gave it up after the United States abandoned the Safeguard missile defense system it was intended to defeat.

The simplest way to think about China’s orbital bombardment system is to imagine a space shuttle, put a nuclear weapon into the cargo bay, and forget about the landing gear.

The Chinese weren’t amused either. We know that they considered orbital bombardment in the same period as the Soviets, although by the time they would have been ready to do it, the Safeguard system had been shut down.

But what is old is new again! The Chinese now appear to have tested a similar system, although with a modern wrinkle. The Times story says the object entered orbit and completed a full circle around the Earth (approximately 40,000 kilometers, or 25,000 miles). That’s orbital bombardment. We already knew China was working on a system like this—there are a couple of academic papers from Chinese defense universities on the FOBS, and U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall blurted it out in public last month.

The new Chinese version is a little more baroque than the Soviet one because the reentry vehicle is a glider. But this really shouldn’t be shocking. Gliding is a totally normal way to reenter the atmosphere. That’s the whole idea behind space planes. China just launched a reusable space plane, much like the U.S. X-37B or the old NASA Space Shuttle. The technologies demonstrated in that launch and in this one are fundamentally similar. You need a big rocket to boost the thing into orbit, an orbiter with retrorockets to slow it down, and stubby wings so it can glide where it’s going.

In fact, the simplest way to think about China’s orbital bombardment system is to imagine a space shuttle, put a nuclear weapon into the cargo bay, and forget about the landing gear. The Chinese have actually denied that they conducted an orbital bombardment test, saying the United States must be confused by their launch of the space plane in July.


So that’s an FOBS. It’s not new technology, but it is weird. So why is China doing this? For the same reason the Soviet Union did—to defeat U.S. missile defenses.

This isn’t really that complicated. You can’t deter someone from nuking you unless you can nuke them back. Russia and China look at U.S. nuclear forces, which are pretty large and capable, and ask themselves two simple questions: If the Americans hit us with everything they have, how many of our nuclear weapons will survive to retaliate? How many of those will get through U.S. missile defenses? That’s it. If the answer for the foreseeable future is enough, then great. But if it’s not, then Moscow and Beijing have to do something about that.

That is exactly how Soviet sources describe their interest in the FOBS. (And it is exactly what Russian President Vladimir Putin said when he unveiled an array of “invincible” weapons Russia is now developing.) Moscow was clear that the FOBS was about defeating Safeguard and similar systems. The Soviets only retired it after the United States abandoned Safeguard. Similarly, the Chinese didn’t develop the FOBS because the United States had abandoned the “Chinese-oriented ABM deployment.” Instead, the United States and Soviet Union agreed to the 1972 ABM Treaty, which limited each side to two national-level missile defense sites, later reduced to one.

The ABM Treaty was never popular with U.S. conservatives, least of all President Ronald Reagan, who was an enthusiastic proponent of space-based missile defense. Over the years, Republicans turned away from the ABM Treaty and toward Reagan’s vision. That turn was completed when President George W. Bush withdrew the United States from the ABM Treaty in 2002 and built a national missile defense site in Alaska to protect the United States from ICBM attacks taking the most direct route over the North Pole.

In the decades since that decision, China has increased the size of its nuclear forces—something the U.S. intelligence community predicted was an inevitable response. But overwhelming a defense with sheer numbers isn’t the only strategy. Orbital bombardment offers another route over the South Pole. The system in Alaska wouldn’t even see such a missile, let alone have a shot at it, and coverage from U.S. space-based missile warning assets is a little spotty over South America. China could also just build bigger ICBMs to deliver warheads over the South Pole, but orbital bombardment gets those warheads to U.S. soil much faster.

To be sure, the United States could add more defenses. Maybe it could negotiate with Australia or Colombia or some other country to build more missile defense sites to defend the United States from new attack trajectories, but that’s likely to encounter a fair amount of local opposition—and come with a price tag. The Ground-based Midcourse Defense system in Alaska has cost the United States about $70 billion. When Congress looked at adding a new missile defense site at Fort Drum in New York, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that a new site with just 20 interceptors, enough to handle five enemy missiles, would cost about $3.6 billion over the first five years.

And then there are other advantages of orbital bombardment when combined with a glider. If the glider can maneuver, China might be able to launch the system on a trajectory that would largely avoid a shot from one of these new missile defense sites, then turn and glide back to targets in the United States.


Here’s the thing. China already has about 100 nuclear weapons that can target the United States—and existing defense systems wouldn’t stop all of them or even most of them. The system is too small, and its test record stinks. So, if we’re willing to accept mutual deterrence with China, then the new orbital bombardment system doesn’t really change anything. Whatever direction China’s nuclear weapons come from in a nuclear war, they are going to incinerate your family. Will you be disappointed if they don’t come from the North Pole, like Santa? And the United States, with more than a thousand nuclear weapons, will avenge your family by incinerating hundreds of millions of Chinese families in its turn.

Now, it’s crazy to base U.S. security on the threat of mutual annihilation forever. But if you have some doubts about the nuclear deterrence enterprise, then the solution is to reduce nuclear weapons—not get into a renewed arms race with them. Even though the hawks say they’re happy to live with mutual deterrence, they don’t really mean it. Go back and look at the testimony of Bush administration officials when they withdrew from the ABM Treaty. They all criticized mutual deterrence as an anachronism of the Cold War.

A lot of folks just can’t give up on the idea that there might be a technological solution to the messy political reality of mutual deterrence and actually figure out how to win a nuclear war. If we could just keep U.S. casualties below some magical number, these people say, typically around 20 million, maybe we would prevail! And if that were true, then we could start bossing around the Russians and Chinese and anyone else who threatens our interests.

That’s why the situation today, as China and Russia test all these new weapons, reminds me of the months after 9/11. People were shocked and outraged. They felt vulnerable. And they demanded that something be done about those feelings, even if that something was dumb and dangerous and self-defeating.

Invading Afghanistan and Iraq was definitely something. But the Bush administration did something else, too—it withdrew from the ABM Treaty with Russia. “Today, as the events of September the 11th made all too clear,” Bush explained in justifying the decision, “the greatest threats to both our countries come not from each other or other big powers in the world but from terrorists who strike without warning or rogue states who seek weapons of mass destruction.”

Of course, in hindsight, most of the things done in panic after 9/11 made Americans much less safe. The United States panicked and made the world more chaotic and threatening. And, now, it’s gearing up to do so again.

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

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