The Sputnik moment re-examined

Analysis and Commentary, Featured, Ploughshares Monitor, Space Security

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 42 Issue 4 Winter 2021

A U.S. military official recently described a missile test conducted by China in August as “very close to a Sputnik moment.” It seems that the test involved the launch of a re-entry vehicle capable of entering orbit and re-entering Earth’s atmosphere with its payload intact; this primary vehicle also carried a hypersonic glide vehicle that was released following re-entry.

Experts are describing these combined capabilities as a possible fractional orbital bombardment system (FOBS) with a hypersonic twist. China has insisted that what was tested was a reusable space plane.

In theory, an orbital bombardment vehicle would be able to initiate an attack from almost anywhere above Earth. A hypersonic glide vehicle payload means that the warhead would be manoeuvrable and able to outwit the missile defences of adversaries, leaving them vulnerable to nuclear attack.

But does this test truly represent a Sputnik moment? Perhaps, but not for the reasons you might have read about in the press. And, in both cases, the security significance of the incident is overstated.

The Sputnik moment

The Soviet Union launched Sputnik-1, the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth, on October 4, 1957. Sputnik inspired hope and awe in those people who believed that this advance into outer space marked a new era of global peace.

But for others, especially many in the United States, Sputnik marked a new era of deadly weapons and inspired shock and fear. Launched during a nuclear arms race, amid the development of new, long-range delivery capabilities, Sputnik sparked fears that Americans were ceding technical superiority to the Soviet Union and were more vulnerable to enemy weapons than ever before.

The launch of Sputnik produced what was later dubbed the “Sputnik moment,” which Roger Launius, senior curator of space history at the Smithsonian Institution, defines as “a trigger mechanism…that makes people collectively say that they need to do something, and this sets a course in another direction.”

That new direction became the space race. As Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson said in a report to President Kennedy, “Failure to master space means being second best in every aspect, in the crucial arena of our Cold War world. In the eyes of the world, first in space means first, period; second in space is second in everything.”

Appearance vs. reality

But the popular American view of Sputnik was inaccurate. A surprise to the public, the launch of Sputnik was not unexpected by the U.S. military. Both the United States and the Soviet Union had been developing military satellite and space launch capabilities to complement their intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) weapons programs. Taking pains to make both rocket launch and satellite payloads appear more “civilian” in nature, each announced in 1955 their intentions to launch satellites to coincide with the International Geophysical Year celebrating cooperation in science, which ran from July 1957 to the end of 1958. And both succeeded; the U.S. Explorer-1 was launched in 1958.

Sputnik’s strategic value was also misinterpreted. Instead of inflicting a coup de grâce on U.S. space programs, Sputnik allowed greater freedom of action by legitimizing the practice of free orbital overflight. NASA was created in 1958. And following a redirection of resources to military reconnaissance satellite efforts, the CORONA photo reconnaissance program began operations in 1960. By this time, the United States had three times more satellites in orbit than the Soviet Union.

The U.S. military also anticipated the panic that Sputnik would arouse in the American public. Although President Eisenhower conducted a series of ‘pep-talks’ to calm the nation, this fear was also productive, helping to fuel not only a space race, but an arms race. The U.S. military conducted the first nuclear tests in outer space in 1958 under Operation Argus; Explorer-I served as a target for the first fly-by test of an ICBM anti-satellite capability in 1959.

So, if there was a Sputnik moment, it was at least partly manufactured and mobilized by military interests.

Sputnik Redux

If the latest Chinese missile test is indeed another “Sputnik moment,” it’s because of the way it is being used by the U.S. military.

The shock expressed by the United States is not convincing. China has been open about its development of a reusable space plane. This vehicle, which can take off and land multiple times, is likely similar to the U.S. X-37B currently in orbit. The U.S. military has also reportedly tracked “hundreds” of Chinese hypersonic tests.

The United States, on the other hand, has conducted only nine hypersonic tests, most of which failed. This disparity in numbers no doubt causes the U.S. military and sectors of the American government angst – just as Sputnik did.

But once again, the strategic implications are overstated. It is true that existing ballistic missile defences are incapable of defending against this potential new threat. But these defences are also incapable of defending against China’s (and Russia’s) existing intercontinental ballistic missiles. This has always been true. The Chinese test does nothing to change the strategic balance of power.

The key point is that, as was true in the past, this new Sputnik moment has been created and is being used to shape the future course of action. We need to focus on that course of action.

The original Sputnik moment mobilized the public imagination and military resources that fuelled the arms race. The current moment comes at a time when a new arms race—or races—in space could be developing.

The immediate American response to the Chinese test seems to be a doubling down on strategic missile defence. But this could backfire. Concerns by China about the ability of American defences to neutralize China’s nuclear deterrent are a core driver of its efforts to develop new weapons capabilities in the first place.

Charting a new course

The current international situation is unstable and threatening. How should the United States and other key players respond? Certainly not with another arms race, which would only be dangerous and unproductive. What we need are talks that bring all key players to the table. We need effective arms control to slow down the growing nuclear escalation that seems to be occurring between China and the United States.

Ultimately, we can say that the Chinese test really WAS a Sputnik moment. Not because it aroused appropriate fear of the object that was launched into space. In both cases, such fear was and is misplaced. No, the test represents a Sputnik moment because it reflects an earlier time in which there was a real danger of triggering a global arms race and widespread conflict. In both cases, the truth will be found by looking below the surface rhetoric.

Photo: “Dawn of the Space Age” by Gregory R Todd is licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0

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