by DAVID AXE
On January 11, a large missile streaked upward from a test site in China. The missile rocketed beyond the atmosphere and struck another similar missile launched from a separate site. Later that day, the official Xinhua news agency announced a “test on ground-based mid-course missile interception technology.”
“The test has achieved the expected objective,” Xinhua proclaimed. “The test is defensive in nature and is not targeted at any country.”
It was a seemingly impressive accomplishment — and apparently a big surprise to Western governments. To date, just one nation has managed to fire one missile to intercept another outside Earth’s atmosphere: the United States. And that was after some 20 years of concerted technology development. Today the United States spends around $10 billion a year developing and buying missile-defense equipment, yet has hit another missile in exo-atmospheric tests on just a handful of occasions. The Chinese test seemed to represent a huge step towards eliminating the U.S. lead.
It’s unclear, however, how realistic the Chinese test was and how advanced the Chinese missile-defense technology truly is. It’s equally unclear what exactly the Chinese missile interceptor is for.
These uncertainties are not unusual. The whole field of missiles and missile defense is notorious for its political theater. Nations will fund, buy or just plan for ballistic missiles and ballistic-missile defenses — however technically troubled or operationally impractical — solely for posturing. “These things tend to be tools of international politics,” says Phil Coyle, an expert in missiles and missile defenses.
By firing just a handful of ballistic missiles, Iraq was nearly able to draw Israel into the 1991 Gulf War, which could have shattered the Western-Arab alliance arrayed against Iraq. North Korea, Iran and China all field ballistic missiles to back up their rhetoric towards South Korea, Israel and Taiwan, respectively. By the same token, systems that promise to render impotent these politically-empowering ballistic missiles carry much of the same weight in the halls of diplomacy and at the bargaining table.
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