In late July, China conducted a test of a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile that entered low earth orbit, circled the globe, and struck a predetermined target in China. The test allegedly stunned U.S. military and intelligence officials for its complexity, with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley calling the test a near “sputnik moment.” The test comes amidst an unprecedented evolution of China’s nuclear arsenal, from a potential dramatic expansion of its nuclear warheads, to rapid innovation in its nuclear delivery technologies. Why is China pursuing this nuclear evolution, how important was its hypersonic missile test, and what does this mean for the stability of the global nuclear balance and prospects of nuclear war? To help us answer these questions, today on the podcast we are joined by Dr. James Acton.
James Acton is the Jessica T. Mathews Chair and is co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. A physicist by training, Acton’s current research focuses on the escalation risks of advanced conventional weapons and the future of arms control. An expert on hypersonic conventional weapons, Acton has testified on this subject to the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee and the congressionally chartered U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.