Representational photo: People look at LY-80 surface-to-air missile weapon system displayed at the China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition, or Airshow China, in Zhuhai, Guangdong province, China on 29 September 2021. REUTERS
With the advent of fifth-generation (5G) internet technology and China’s dominant role in that area of technological development, the United States and China have already begun a new race to develop sixth-generation (6G) internet technology. Of course, the world is only just now starting to roll out the 5G technology that China has pioneered for years and there are many issues to be worked out as the civilian economy increasingly adapts 5G. Yet, this has not stopped Beijing from yet again leapfrogging their American rivals in the nascent 6G research field. And unlike the Americans, China’s first breakthrough in 6G has direct military implications.
Last summer, Beijing shocked the world when it successfully tested a hypersonic glide vehicle. Travelling at more than 3,800 miles per hour, a hypersonic glide vehicle can travel in any direction and overcome most known air defence systems. Armed either with conventional or nuclear weapons, and able to avoid both detection and defence, a hypersonic glide vehicle can wreak havoc on any country in the world. But there are technical limitations to this destructive new technology.
For example, whenever a hypersonic vehicle travels at five times the speed of sound (or faster), a communications blackout occurs for at least ten minutes as a plasma bubble forms around the hull of the hypersonic vehicle travelling at those hypersonic speeds. Standard communications signals cannot pass through this “black barrier”, meaning that for ten minutes, the hypersonic vehicle is approaching its potential target without any control whatsoever.
Not only does the plasma shield prevent communications from penetrating it but that “black barrier” can also mask the radar signatures of any incoming hypersonic vehicle from traditional air defence systems. So, if a method could be found for an attacking country to have continuous contact with its hypersonic vehicles while on their attack vector, these weapons could prove to be the nightmare weapons that many Pentagon defence experts fear they may become.
Chinese scientists at Tianjin University now claim to have overcome the communications deficit. Their solution uses a laser trained at the hypersonic vehicle to penetrate that plasma shield with powerful electromagnetic waves. As it happens, 6G internet requires electromagnetic waves to function. Essentially, the Tianjin researchers believe they can have complete communications and control of China’s hypersonic glide vehicles courtesy of China’s early investment in 6G internet technology.
Meanwhile, the Americans are fighting with their domestic airline industries about implementing 5G internet and the Chinese are already progressing onward to 6G internet. Now, the 6G development is still in its infancy. However, the fact that China has working experiments in 6G and in the hypersonic fields—and that China is now fusing the technologies together in a potentially lethal package directed at America’s ailing military—means that Beijing is likely ahead of the United States in the race for next generation technologies. This, as 60% of the world’s patents for 6G-related technologies are held by Chinese individuals and/or companies.
For too long the Americans have assumed that their technological advancement would prove decisive in deterring any challenge to their global primacy. Thirty years ago, when America’s power was at its apex, this was a fair assumption. Yet, in the intervening years, the Americans have squandered their Cold War victory on ruinous and inconclusive wars in the Middle East.
As that occurred, Washington abandoned its support for high-tech research and development, leaving it to a private sector that was incapable of prioritizing strategically important innovations over more cost-effective, less strategically vital ones. This explains why China in a single decade has outpaced their American rivals in critical high-tech industries, such as 6G internet and hypersonic weapons—even though the Americans have invested in R&D for both these technologies for far longer than China has.
America has dithered while China has engaged in a long march to what it believes will be global dominance. Beijing has married the desire to spearhead the next industrial revolution to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) need to rule the world. The primary goal for Beijing is to first be able to keep the Americans from projecting power into what they view as their sphere of influence, the Indo-Pacific. Therefore, China’s new hypersonic weapons capability along with the advances in 6G could prove decisive in holding American military power back. If Washington knows that China has a functioning arsenal of hypersonic glide vehicles that can threaten any location on Earth, against which there is little defence, American leaders might be more restrained in their application of power beyond their shores out of fear of being made to endure such a brutal attack.
Of course, China’s leaders know that Washington would retaliate in a significant way if Beijing ever did launch a hypersonic attack on the United States. Although, fortune favours the bold and the technology in question not only increases the risk of attack on the United States but the fact that the Americans lack their own working hypersonic weapon or that they have a defence against these systems gives Beijing clear advantages. It also gives China’s leadership the all-important escalation dominance. And from these technological advances that Beijing has masterminded, more will come—as the Americans are left behind.
Allowing for such game-changing technology to be left in the exclusive possession of the People’s Republic of China is hugely destabilising in the context of Sino-American relations. Already tensions between the two juggernauts are at all-time highs. Beijing has consistently proven its commitment to asymmetrical forms of warfare as a means of undermining America’s overwhelming conventional military dominance. The presence of active hypersonic glide vehicles with a reliable command-and-control system in China’s growing arsenal is a clear-and-present danger to the United States.
We hear often about a “Sputnik Moment”. Well, here it is. And if Washington does not respond; if America does not take high-tech research and development more seriously than it has, we risk being defeated soon by China and their next generation weapons technology.