China’s Fractional Orbital Bombardment System: Impact on India’s nuclear deterrence posture

The story goes that China launched a Long March rocket that employed a technique to propel an extremely maneuverable, nuclear-capable glider into orbit, allowing it to speed towards its target at hypersonic speed.

China’s Fractional Orbital Bombardment System: Impact on India’s nuclear deterrence posture
An LY-80 surface-to-air missile weapon system displayed at the China International Aviation and Aerospace Exhibition, or Airshow China, in Zhuhai, Guangdong province, China. (Photo source: Reuters)


Revelations by the Financial Times that this summer China may have tested an orbital bombardment system has prompted western defense analysts to suspect Beijing may have achieved a new military capability. The story goes that China launched a Long March rocket that employed a technique to propel an extremely maneuverable, nuclear-capable glider into orbit, allowing it to speed towards its target at hypersonic speed. If this news report is true, it’s a clear indication that China is making quick progress in developing weapons that can, to a large extent, evade existing Anti-ballistic missile (ABM) shields and the accompanying early warning systems present in North America and the European Union.

What is Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS)?

To be sure, the Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS) is not a Chinese discovery. In the 1960s, the Soviet Uniondeveloped an orbital bombardment system that could carry a nuclear weapon into orbit at a lower trajectory than a traditional fixed-trajectory ballistic missile.The Soviets had a FOBS version of the SS-9 Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). Since its flight path would not expose the target location, warheads could be guided to North America over the South Pole, thus avoiding detection by

North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD)’s early warning systems that are north-facing.In a sense the FOBS combined with the glider is not much different from a reusable space vehicle. In fact, China denied reports that it tested an orbital weapon and stated they only tested a space plane.

The idea behind FOBS is, a warhead is put into a stable orbit and it deorbits over the target. If the target and the launch position is lined up and the warhead keeps going round, it will complete a circle.Obviously, with the earth moving during this, it is more of a spiral than a ring, but the horizontal movement is countered in such a way that the warhead still goes over the target. The real point is that missile can be flown directly to the target, or it is fired in the opposite direction the other way around the planet and still arrive at the target from the opposite direction over the south pole instead of the north pole, where almost all of North America’s early warning systems are pointed.More importantly, the warhead can remain in orbit for days or months so that when the weapon deorbits and attacks its target or simply explodes in orbit, an EMP pulse is generated, which initiates an attack.

Detecting and Destroying a FOBS attack

The first sign of a FOBS attack could be what was initially thought as a satellite deorbiting to land or fly low over your territory, which is usually too late.The United States missile warning in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) will spot a FOBS space vehicle. South facing radars in North America will also pick up such Chinese FOBS. Over the horizon Jindalee Operational Radar Network in Australia are also capable to a certain extent of detecting FOBS launches in China. The US allies in South America can also allow the US military to set up early warning systems in their country that can track the non-parabolic trajectories of a Chinese FOBS glider vehicle approaching from the South Pole. Once detected interceptor missiles can be launched from multiple directions at once thereby increasing the chances of an intercept.

India and FOBS: Deterrence maintains the equilibrium

What does this Chinese FOBS test mean for India? The word future in the context of Sino-India relations challenges even the most unwavering.For decades the Chinese government has refused to settle the boundary dispute despite New Delhi’s earnest efforts and last year the PLA entered deep inside Galwan resulting in the deadliest border clash between India and China in decades. Exceptional payloads like FOBS that need heavy, silo-based rockets are somewhat less than perfectif there’s a credible threat of an enemy pre-emptive strike. Furthermore, China’s FOBS are not necessarily India specific. But nonetheless, China’s FOBS capability is yet another challenge that India will have to tackle because at the very least it will allow the PLA leadership to divert more

Intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs), Submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and long-range cruise missiles towards India and use their FOBS capability to target countries halfway across the world.

First, India will have to augment its nuclear stockpile considerably and also the means of delivering them. Procurement of MIRV capable AGNI-V ICBMs and submarine launched SLBMS need to be increased immediately.Western intelligence community are of the opinion that China has many more nuclear warheads than the commonly quoted figure of 350 and recently commercial satellite images obtained by researchers at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif., show China has begun construction of more than 100 new silos for ICBMs. Ergo, India needs to significantly increase its stockpile of nuclear weapons so that it dwarfs the collective nuclear stockpile of both China and Pakistan. Such strike capability needs to be backed up by advanced real-time imagery and data fusion powered by Edge Computing that will allow precision strike of even the adversary’s road mobile and rail mobile missiles. The Indian government must also invest in underwater vehicles and long-range cruise missiles that use nuclear energy as their primary source of propulsion.

Second, India needs to drastically increase the number of military satellites that it operates in LEO. At the same time leverage existing real time intelligence sharing agreements that it has with friendly countries to track any Chinese space plane that is deorbiting.

Third, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO)’s has already developed the reusable launch vehicle prototype RLV-TD. A variant of this launch vehicle needs to be developed that can serve as a space plane. This space plane can be boosted into space by a GSLV launch vehicle. Such a space plane can be used not just to test reconnaissance and spy sensors but also to deliver weapons from space.

Just like the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, India too will have to maintain the equilibrium through deterrence. The world is once again entering a new phase of nuclear and related arms race that is both multifaceted and multilateral. China is taking full advantage of the fact that the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty is no longer in force. Therefore, to prevent China from pursuing unacceptable actions or to force it into desired behavior, India’s nuclear deterrence capability needs to be credible.

(The author is a subject matter expert on competitive intelligence and market research in the defence & aerospace industry. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited)

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First published on: 25-10-2021 at 15:04 IST