In November 2021, the Financial Times reported that China had tested its new nuclear hypersonic missile system. The testing of any missile system is not abnormal or surprising news but the surprise lay in the methods and technology. According to the report, before the hit, the test missile made two rounds of the earth in lower orbital space, making it nearly undetectable. It was also highly maneuverable and could change its path during travel. According to this report, this missile, called a hypersonic glided vehicle, was launched in lower earth orbit and, theoretically, could evade any U.S. missile defense system.
Officially, China denied the nuclear-capable hypersonic missile test and said it was a routine spacecraft check. However, many U.S. experts, including serving and retired army generals, warned the U.S. that China might be the first to deploy nuclear weapons. U.S. Gen. Mark Milley, chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also confirmed the test of a nuclear-capable hypersonic weapon by China. The outgoing vice chairperson of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff called it stunning and warned that China could launch a surprise nuclear attack on the U.S. in the future.
Many countries, including Russia and the U.S., are working on a hypersonic weapons system. In 2018, Russia announced that it has hypersonic nuclear weapons that can hit almost any part of the world. The U.S. is working on land, air and sea-based hypersonic weapons systems. The U.S. has conducted some successful tests after many failed attempts. In October 2021, the U.S. announced a successful trial, but in December 2021, the third test of the AGM-183 Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) failed. Observers and experts warned that, when it comes to developing hypersonic weapon systems, the U.S. lags 20 years behind China and Russia, who have already deployed their systems. However, the U.S. hypersonic weapons program is still in the developmental and testing phase.
Hypersonic missiles are weapons that can travel more than five times the speed of sound. Speeds between Mach 1 and Mach 5 are categorized as supersonic, whereas any speed over Mach 5 falls into the hypersonic range. Sound travels 1,225 kph (699 mph), which means hypersonic missiles can travel at least more than 6,000 kph (3728 mph). It is reported that the top speed of the Russian hypersonic missile Avangard is near Mach 20.
The development of hypersonic weapons opened the debate about new weapons races, especially weapons systems in low orbit or outer space. Whether weapons can be tested in outer space is not up for debate; however, the way China launched its hypersonic glided vehicle worried experts. According to some experts, this test violates a treaty to use outer space for peaceful means. In order to respect the sanctity of peace, no weapons systems are allowed to be deployed in outer space. Deploying any weapon in outer space will create uncertainty and trigger a costly, dangerous weapons race.
China's test and the U.S. response initiated a new debate on the politics of outer space, or astropolitics.
Usually, artificial satellites fly from low Earth orbit (LEO) to geostationary orbit. The LEO is the range spanning from 100 kilometers to 1,500 kilometers from the Earth's surface. Some communication, surveillance and remote sensing satellites fly in this orbit. The International Space Station (ISS) also operates in this orbit. The distance spanning 6,000 kilometers to 20,000 kilometers from Earth's surface is called medium Earth orbit (MEO). Most telecommunication satellites move in this orbit. High Earth orbit applies to the distance up to 36,000 kilometers from Earth's surface and mostly weather satellites can be found in this orbit.
Military technology using outer space is nothing new, but only for communication, surveillance and weather observation purposes. No country has deployed any weapon in outer space until now. There is no evidence that China is trying to deploy any weapon in the LEO, so only the method of its testing is disputable.
Experts divide space weapons into three categories:
In another way, these weapons can be divided into kinetic and non-kinetic space weapons.
An earth-to-space kinetic weapon is also called an orbital anti-satellite weapon (ASAT). These weapons generally have a warhead or projectile that directly hits the targeted satellite or aircraft. This type of weapon hits the target in LEO and can destroy any satellite in this range. It poses a danger since in times of war, military spy satellites, some communication satellites and navigation satellites can be hit easily. The U.S., Russia, China and India have successfully tested this missile system. There is no bilateral or international treaty that bans striking satellites in war. With Earth-to-space non-kinetic weapons, jammers, lasers and cyber capabilities are included. Through jamming technology, one satellite can scramble another. Using lasers, an enemy satellite can be rendered useless. The U.S., Russia, China, Iran and North Korea already have these weapons.
The "space-to-space" kinetic weapons are the most passive system but can be used to hit any target in space during war. These weapons include co-orbital ASATs and derbies that can be crashed into a targeted satellite. In space-to-space weapons that are non-kinetic in nature, high-power microwave beams, co-orbital jammers and lasers are included. With space-to-earth weapons, a weapon can be de-orbited from a space carrier and hit a target on Earth. Though this weapon was never deployed, according to Cold War experts, the USSR weapon system known as the Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS), fell in this category, despite the USSR's denials. The USSR argued that it did not fall into the defined limit of lower orbit. China's recent hypersonic test is also considered to be in this category.
Nevertheless, this missile will not be counted in this category since it was not deployed in space for a long time before hitting the target. In space-to-earth non-kinetic weapons, high-power jammers and lasers are included. With lasers, any target on land or sea can be hit.
The continued development of hypersonic weapon systems by big powers creates panic and a new type of weapons race. Developing and poorer countries cannot compete because this technology requires big financing, advanced technological capabilities and highly skilled and trained human resources. Some developing countries, including Turkey, are also working on hypersonic technology, but their efforts are in the early stage. In December 2020, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited the leading Turkish defense company Roketsan and announced trials had started on liquid-propelled rocket engine technology. He also indicated that Turkey is developing a hybrid fuel rocket engine. If these efforts are successful, Turkey can progress with hypersonic technology. However, it will take time for Turkey to create an aerospace defense force with hypersonic capabilities.
As military activities increase in Earth's lower orbit, new treaties to protect outer space from weaponization need to be debated. Space treaties came into existence in the Cold War era following continued weapons testing in outer space, prompted by the U.S. and USSR ambitions to establish a military base on the moon. To prevent any militarization of space and avoid an escalation from either side, the U.S. and USSR signed a treaty in 1967. Given the changing concepts and dimensions, space weapons need to be discussed again taking the changes into account. Only communication, navigation, remote sensing and surveillance satellites should be allowed. The presence and testing of all weapons systems should be banned in outer space.