What should really alarm us about China's new hypersonic missile test

John Pike, director of the private research firm GlobalSecurity.org, says that as long as we’re steeped in the bizarre logic of nuclear deterrence, the U.S. “has to address every countermeasure that China demonstrates, even though China does not deploy everything it demonstrates.” (Pike doesn’t necessarily endorse the bizarre logic.) In this sense, China may be playing a diabolical game—pressuring the U.S. to spend tens of billions of dollars on some new technology in order to defuse a demo that China doesn’t plan to turn into a weapon anyway.

Some are taking the bait. Michael Gallagher, a Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, told FT that the Chinese missile test should serve as a “call to action,” warning, “The People’s Liberation Army now has an increasingly credible capability to undermine our missile defenses and threaten the American homeland.” Gallagher seems to believe—as do many, for reasons that aren’t quite clear—that we actually have an effective missile-defense system that protects the United States. He also is wishfully blind to the fact that “the American homeland” and all the world’s homelands have been under threat of destruction since the nuclear age began in 1945—or at least since the missile age began in the early 1960s.

It is a terrifying thought that enough nuclear weapons exist to destroy all life on the planet several times over—and that only a small fraction of these weapons are enough to kill most Americans and wipe out everything we hold dear. It is a fact that we would all like to ignore, to the extent we’re forced to think about it. Hence our fascination with missile-defense systems and the free ride that Congress has given the Missile Defense Agency all these years, despite the pathetic test record of its products. The problem is that a good defense, even if we succeeded in building one, would only prompt our adversaries to step up their offense—which China seems to be doing (as is Russia).