TWO recent tests of hypersonic glide vehicles by China have raised concerns over the rapid gains Beijing was making in harnessing a new generation of weapons. The tests were reported by Financial Times, and while US officials have remained tight-lipped, specialists are being cagey about the capability that was demonstrated.

These tests come on the heels of other reports based on satellite imagery, showing that the Chinese are constructing hundreds of missile silos capable of housing intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The logic that compels China to expand its arsenal also holds good for us vis-à-vis Beijing.

In the tests described by FT, a Long March rocket boosted a hypersonic glide vehicle to a low earth orbit where it flew through space before hitting its target, which it apparently missed by 30-40 km. Because it is manoeuvrable and does not follow a parabolic trajectory of a ballistic missile, such glide vehicles are difficult to track and destroy.

Commenting on the FT reports, US spokesman Ned Price said the US was “deeply concerned about the rapid expansion of the PRC’s nuclear capabilities, including its development of novel delivery systems.” He said China appeared to be deviating “from its decades-long nuclear strategy based on minimum deterrence.” The Chinese say they only tested a reusable space plane, and that too, in mid-July, not in August, as claimed by FT.

China’s nuclear posture, like that of India, emphasises “assured retaliation” and both countries have committed themselves to a “no first use” posture. Both have small arsenals — China around 300 and India of 150 nuclear weapons — in contrast to the US and Russia who possess nearly 6,000 warheads each, though a substantial number of them are in storage.

Yet, the US and Russia have no such restraints. The Americans, for example, make it clear that their nuclear posture is based on a desire to maintain primacy in all areas, nuclear and conventional and they give no assurances about the pre-emptive use of their nuclear weapons.

What China seems to be reacting to are the enormous changes being wrought by technological advances in a range of areas from Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics and quantum computing which could help the US develop capabilities to launch disarming conventional or nuclear first strikes that makes retaliation impossible.

This is not just in the realm of nuclear weapons. Conventional technologies used in Prompt Global Strike, and now, hypersonic glide vehicles weapons, can very quickly and accurately take out nuclear weapons and missile systems of adversaries.

Another aspect has been the use of unmanned systems which has lowered the threshold of conventional conflict. They have been used for eliminating Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani, dropping weapons and explosives in Jammu & Kashmir and bombing oil facilities in Saudi Arabia.

This will inevitably affect decision-making in the nuclear weapons’ area. AI-controlled swarms of unmanned platforms, networked intelligence and surveillance capabilities, can be used to launch overwhelming and conventional attacks on aircraft carriers, missile launchers and nuclear weapons facilities and pose a “use or lose” dilemma for a country.

In a 2015 article, Fiona Cunningham and M Taylor Fravel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had argued that despite US efforts to achieve strategic primacy, China was unlikely to alter the basic tenets of its “assured retaliation” strategy. But they could alter the way they put it into effect by “increasing the capabilities for the ‘assuredness’ of retaliation” by increasing the number and quality of missiles that can hit the US. That is what the Chinese seem to have been doing since. But in the process, they could be moving away from their “minimum deterrence” posture.

Conventional technologies used in Prompt Global Strike, and now, hypersonic glide vehicles weapons, can very quickly and accurately take out nuclear weapons and missile systems of adversaries.

And this is where India comes in. Given their adversarial relations, a sharp accretion of Chinese capabilities — nuclear and conventional — has implications for us. The logic that compels China to expand its arsenal quantitatively and qualitatively also holds good for us vis-à-vis Beijing.

Our problem is that while Beijing is already operating at the level of the US in terms of technology such as AI and quantum computing, in India, the DRDO has not even been able to develop a useable Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV).

According to the 2021 issue of the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ (IISS) Military Balance, as of now, India does not even have a fully formed force of intermediate-range ballistic missiles (Agni-III), leave alone intercontinental-range ones (Agni-V). While its force of short-range Agni-I and Prithvi missiles is sufficient to take on Pakistan, it has a limited capacity to deal with China.

Most nuclear powers believe that they will use their nuclear weapons against an existential threat. Countries like India and China have so far signalled that they will only do so to block nuclear coercion or retaliate against an attack. But the cycle of conventional technology developments is destabilising this logic since it makes smaller nuclear powers like China and India more vulnerable.

The obvious answer is to somehow control the proliferation of technology, literally before critical decision-making slips out of the hands of human beings altogether. But as of now, arms control agreements are under severe stress.

In 2002, the US walked away from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. More recently, it also terminated the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The Biden Administration has extended the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) negotiations with Russia and says it is ready for more arms control measures. The challenge, however, now is to rope in China which has so far resisted efforts in that direction.

The issue now is not just simply nuclear weapons and warheads, but the manner in which they are entangled with newly emerging technology.