Nervous ripples spread across U.S. social media Monday night (Sept. 30), as reports spread of China unveiling a scary-sounding new nuclear missile at a military parade.
The missile is designed to move very fast, even for a ballistic missile. (That’s why they call it “hypersonic.”) It approaches its target at a lower altitude. And it can make abrupt changes in direction that make it hard to track or hit with an interceptor.
An Associated Press tweet put the news in particularly alarming terms.
“China’s military shows off a new hypersonic ballistic nuclear missile believed capable of breaching all existing anti-missile shields deployed by the U.S. and its allies,” the AP wrote above a link to an article describing the event.
The AP isn’t wrong. The Dongfeng-17, described as a “hypersonic glider,” is specifically designed to be more difficult than usual to knock out of the sky, according to multiple news reports. But Americans don’t need to worry that China is suddenly able to breach the safety and security of U.S. missile defenses. That’s because U.S. missile defenses aren’t safe or secure at all, experts have long said.
As Laura Grego, a senior scientists and expert in nuclear issues at the Union of Concerned Scientists wrote back in 2017, the only shield the U.S. has is the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD). But the GMD basically doesn’t work. It’s not well-tested, Grego said. In tests conducted under ideal conditions — no bad weather, no countermeasures — the GMD has only been able to knock a missile out of the sky four out of 10 times. In the real world, she wrote, we should expect them to work even less often.
It’s just very hard to hit a missile with a missile in outer space.