Staying out of the US-China Arms Race

In response to foreign media reports that China launched a hypersonic missile in August, Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense spokesman Shih Shun-wen said, “The national military is closely monitoring and will further evaluate the situation, in order to develop corresponding strategies and capabilities to safeguard national security.” What’s amusing is that U.S. website Defense News reported on Aug. 5 that the U.S. Missile Defense Agency had announced the termination of a previously launched project on hypersonic missiles. If even the U.S. Army couldn’t do anything about the People’s Liberation Army’s DF-17 or Russia’s Pioneer and Dagger missiles, how could the Taiwanese military?

If we don’t have the capability, we should admit it. This game has too high a price and is not something we can afford to play. Why not just say that the national army will not be part of the U.S.-China arms race?

The development of hypersonic missiles is extremely difficult. What makes it difficult? First, the speed of hypersonic missiles ranges from Mach 6 to Mach 20. The missile’s trajectory can change while in flight. Coupled with concealment design and the application of stealth coatings, tracking becomes extremely difficult. Second, there is no appropriate interceptor missile.

In the past, U.S. military development was incorrectly directed at the pursuit of hypersonic cruise missiles. This goal required an extremely wide range of technical knowledge and advancement, and ultimately ended in failure. The Russian and Chinese hypersonic missiles belong to the category of boost-glide hypersonic weapons. Its supersonic engine boosts it out of the atmosphere, and then it glides back into the atmosphere at high speed, relying on aerodynamic lift to glide — as though on water — to deliver long-range strikes.

It is extremely difficult to develop hypersonic missiles and even more difficult to intercept them, with only two ways to do so. The first is to improve existing anti-missile systems, especially for diversified near-space detection and tracking capabilities so that they become a means of intercepting hypersonic missiles. The second form of interception is laser weapons.

Lasers are currently the most promising weapons. All military powers are investing considerable resources in their research and development. The U.S. Army, for instance, has been equipping the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers with laser weapons. Current laser weapons can intercept only small targets at close range, such as drones or small aircraft. Intercepting large missiles is not yet possible, but it is not far off.

Two main factors limit the performance of laser weapons: For one, laser power is insufficient, and two, it rapidly decays in the atmosphere due to the presence of air, water vapor and impurities. Therefore, major powers are trying to figure out how to deploy laser weapons in space, thus eliminating the atmospheric effects. Although this has not yet been achieved, it will be soon.

Our national military does not have anti-ballistic missile capability, nor do we have robust space detection capability, and of course we do not have any laser weapon capability. It is enough to guard well our own acre of land; hypersonic missiles really have nothing to do with us.

About this publication

About Pinyu Hwang 39 Articles
I'm an undergraduate student at Yale University interested in linguistics and computer science. With a childhood split between Taiwan and the US, I'm fond of pinball machines in the night markets, macarons, tea, stories, and language.

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