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China in theory could develop an orbital nuclear weapon that could dodge America’s mainly north-facing strategic radars.
The United States in theory could head off this possible development by agreeing to give up certain missile defenses.
It’s a hypothetical scenario. But there’s real danger of it becoming real, U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall warned at an industry event in Maryland on Monday.
“There is a potential for weapons to be launched into space, then go through this old concept from the Cold War called the Fractional Orbital Bombardment System, which is a system that basically goes into orbit and then de-orbits to a target,” Kendall said.
There are no indications China is developing a FOBS. But there also is no reason it couldn’t develop one.
At the same time, there’s one good reason why it might do so. Namely, the United States for decades has been developing and deploying increasingly sophisticated anti-ballistic-missile defenses, including land- and sea-based interceptors.
“As long as the U.S. pursues an ABM capability that can, in concert with modernized strategic offensive forces, neutralize Russia, China or North Korea’s strategic deterrent capability, those countries will try to build their way back to deterrence,” tweeted Jeffrey Lewis, an arms-control expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California. “That may well include FOBS.”
FOBS has a long history. The Soviet Union between 1969 and 1983 fielded a small number of these fractional orbital missiles. Then, as now, the prospect of American missile-defense systems swatting away normal nuclear-tipped missiles motivated the FOBS deployment.
Early in the nuclear arms race, successive U.S. administrations worked on surface-launched missile systems that could shoot down incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles. President Richard Nixon in 1969 finally approved the deployment of the Safeguard Anti-Ballistic-Missile system.
Safeguard included two types of nuclear-armed missile-interceptor cued, in succession, by satellites with infrared sensors, then north-looking strategic radars and finally a pair of shorter-range radars.
American officials were aware that missile defenses risked escalating the arms race. Strategic deterrence works when both combatants in a potential nuclear war understand neither side can win—so fighting isn’t really an option.
Deploying missile defenses signals that one side believes it can win and thus might risk a first strike. Why then wouldn’t the other side develop even better offensive missiles?
“Were we to deploy a heavy ABM system throughout the United States, the Soviets would clearly be strongly motivated to increase their offensive capability so as to cancel out our defensive advantage,” saidRobert McNamara, secretary of defense for presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.
“It is futile for each of us to spend $4 billion, $40 billion or $400 billion—and at the end of all the spending, and at the end of all the deployment, and at the end of all the effort, to be relatively at the same point of balance on the security scale that we are now.”
It should have surprised no one that, in response to Nixon’s approval of Safeguard, the Soviets quickly designed a FOBS.
As its name implies, a fractional orbital nuclear weapon launches like an ICBM but then enters a brief but stable orbit before firing a small rocket in order to de-orbit after just a fraction of a trip around Earth.
Where a traditional ICBM briefly escapes the atmosphere as it predictably arcs toward its target—over the North Pole, in the case of a Soviet or Chinese rocket heading for the United States—a FOBS actually stays in orbit just long enough that, depending on its trajectory, it can streak toward a target from any of several directions.
As many of the most powerful strategic radars are fixed, and thus point in just one direction, a FOBS has great potential for an atomic sneak-attack. The less warning a target country has of an incoming nuclear strike, the less likely its anti-missile defenses are to work.
Thus FOBS is a kind of strategic remedy to ABM systems.
The Soviet Union deployed 18 R-36O FOBS missiles starting in 1969. Three years later, the U.S. and USSR signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which limited the two countries each to two ABM sites. Further negotiations decreased the limit to one site.
In 1975, the U.S. Congress voted to dismantle what was left of Safeguard. Eight years later, following the signing of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks 2 agreement, Moscow withdrew the FOBS missiles. “Why did the Soviets give up on FOBS?” Lewis tweeted. “Because the U.S. gave up on ground-based missile defenses.”
America’s missile-defenses spurred the Soviet FOBS deployment. Diplomacy eventually unwound that escalation after 14 dangerous years. What’s chilling about the state of the world in 2021 is that the United States, having unilaterally withdrawn from the ABM Treaty back in 2002, is deploying ever-better anti-missile systems without also negotiating in a serious way with any other nuclear power.
Indeed, thanks in large part to a deep resentment toward any arms controls on the part of ex-President Donald Trump and his Republican allies in Congress, the United States in recent years has been canceling treaties rather than writing them.
It’s an open question whether a Chinese FOBS—assuming Beijing opted to develop and deploy one—would change minds in the U.S. government and bring presidents and diplomats back to the negotiating table in good faith.
In this hypothetical scenario, the Chinese surely would give up a theoretical FOBS only in exchange for an end to U.S. ABM development. Would the Americans be willing to discard missile-killing missiles in exchange for the Chinese abandoning their own (again, theoretical) missile-defense-dodging orbital nukes?Follow me on Twitter. Check out my website or some of my other work here. Send me a secure tip.
I’m a journalist, author and filmmaker based in Columbia, South Carolina.