Don’t Turn China’s Hypersonic Missile Test Into a ‘Sputnik Moment’

Don’t Turn China’s Hypersonic Missile Test Into a ‘Sputnik Moment’
Chinese military vehicles carrying DF-17 missiles take part in a parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist China, Beijing, Oct. 1, 2019 (AP photo by Ng Han Guan).

The recent report in the Financial Times that China tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic weapon has pundits, members of Congress, and even Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley worried about a “Sputnik moment.” Given the failure of the United States’ own test of a hypersonic missile last week, it seems to many that a hypersonic missile gap has opened, harming U.S. security.

But even if China’s test means it has perfected a new way to deliver a nuclear warhead—a big if—it’s no cause for alarm. A new nuclear delivery system will not meaningfully shift the balance of military power with the United States, nor would it enable a Chinese attack on U.S. partners and allies in East Asia. China already had an assured ability to conduct a nuclear strike on the United States. This test just makes it harder to pretend otherwise.

A “Sputnik moment” is actually something U.S. leaders should labor to avoid—not because it would represent a new national security threat, but because it implies undue panic. As was the case in 1957, when the Soviet Union’s launch of the first satellite into space generated fears of a “missile gap” that later turned out to be unfounded, China’s recent test is no indication that the U.S. has fallen behind in a realm vital to American security. The bigger danger is overreacting with accelerated competition in hypersonic technology, space weapons or other exotic new ways to burn money.

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