China tests mid-course anti-ballistic missile: What it is, how it works and why Beijing is focused on the technology

China tests mid-course anti-ballistic missile: What it is, how it works and why Beijing is focused on the technology

China tests mid-course anti-ballistic missile: What it is, how it works and why Beijing is focused on the technology

China says it has successfully conducted a mid-course missile interception test, a move that could advance its ability to withstand foreign intervention as it presses its territorial claims.

A brief statement from the defence ministry late Sunday gave no details, but said the test was purely ‘defensive in nature’ and was not aimed at any foreign nations.

Let’s take a closer look at anti-ballistic missiles (ABMs) and why China is conducting such tests:

What are ABMs?

ABMs are surface-to-air weapons designed to intercept and destroy ballistic missiles (which use a ballistic flight trajectory to deliver nuclear, chemical, biological, or conventional warheads).

History of ABMs

As per Britannica, the development of these systems have been sought since the Cold War when the nuclear arms race raised the spectre of complete destruction by unstoppable ballistic missiles

In the late 1960s both the US and the Soviet Union developed nuclear-armed ABM systems that combined a high-altitude interceptor missile (the US Spartan and Soviet Galosh) with a terminal-phase interceptor (the US Sprint and Soviet Gazelle).

The 1972 Treaty on anti-ballistic Missile Systems restricted both sides to one ABM location each; the US dismantled its system, while the Soviet Union deployed one around Moscow.

During the 1980s, the US began research on an ambitious Strategic Defense Initiative against an all-out Soviet attack, but this effort proved expensive and technically difficult, and it lost urgency with the collapse of the Soviet Union, as per Britannica.

In 2002 the US formally withdrew from the ABM treaty in order to develop a defence against limited missile attack by smaller powers or “rogue” states, as per the website.

How do they work?
As per National Academies Press, defence against ballistic missiles can, in principle, be accomplished in any of the three phases of flight

  • Boost phase
  • Mid-course phase (which can in turn be subdivided into early, ascent, and decent phases)
  • Terminal phase.

What are the advantages of defence in mid-course phase?

The mid-course phase is the longest phase of a missile’s flight (for those missiles that leave the atmosphere), thereby allowing more time to observe and react to the threat.

What are disadvantages of defence in mid-course phase?

Targeting is difficult because nations that have perfected ICBM technology are also capable of adding decoys or countermeasures to their missiles that detach during the mid-course phase and travel at the same speed as the missile until atmospheric re-entry.

China and ABMs

As per Global Times, this is the second consecutive year that China has conducted this kind of test. A similar test was held in February 2021, according to an announcement of the Chinese defence ministry at the time.

As per the report, this takes tally of publicly announced Chinese land-based ABM technical tests to six with other tests being carried out in 2010, 2013, 2014, 2018 and 2021.

It was not revealed in which interception phase the test in 2014 was carried out, while all other five were carried out in the mid-course phase, as per the report.

Why China is focussing on ABMs

Missiles are a major component of China’s defence and are the backbone of its space program that has launched astronauts and components to the nation’s orbiting space station.

The interception test comes as China has been escalating threats against the self-governing island of Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its own territory to be annexed by military force if necessary.

A conflict over Taiwan would likely bring in the US, which is the island’s main source of weaponry and is legally bound to regard threats to it as a matter of “grave concern.”

China is also engaged in territorial disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam and other governments over the South China Sea.

China is also seen as backing Russia in its invasion of Ukraine, although it has not provided material support to its actions.

With inputs from agencies

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