This year, as in every year, the Department of Defense will seek to extract budget increases from Congress by highlighting the severe threats to US security posed by its foreign adversaries. Usually, this entails a litany of such perils, ranging from a host of nation-state adversaries to nonstate actors like ISIS and Al Qaeda. This year, however, the Pentagon is focusing almost entirely on just one threat in its funding appeals: The People’s Republic of China. Sensing that a majority in Congress—Democrats as well as Republicans—are keen to display their determination to blunt China’s rise, senior officials are largely framing the military budget around preparation for a possible conflict with that country. “The Department will prioritize China as our number one pacing challenge and develop the right operational concepts, capabilities, and plans to bolster deterrence and maintain our competitive advantage,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin declared on March 4.
From the Pentagon’s perspective, this means portraying every budgetary item—from Army tanks and Navy ships to Air Force jets and ballistic missiles—in terms of their utility in fighting the Chinese military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Every US military service is seeking more money than before (as they always do), and each one is touting the importance of their weapons in overcoming the Chinese military threat. But this year, after a series of rising budgets during the Trump administration, defense appropriations are expected to remain flat (at a nonetheless colossal $715 billion), meaning that any increase in spending on any given weapons system—be it a major warship, aircraft, or missile—is likely to come at the expense of increases in others. The result, not surprisingly, is a contest among the services to magnify the vital importance of their pet projects in overpowering the PLA.
This means that we can expect to be bombarded with Pentagon and industry propaganda on China’s growing air and naval capabilities—requiring, it will be stated, hundreds of billions of dollars in added spending on new fighter jets, submarines, and surface ships. Although China’s military capabilities still lag far behind those of US forces in terms of their technical proficiency—China’s two aircraft carriers, for example, can launch only a dozen or so combat jets, compared to the 75-plus deployed on America’s 11 carriers—but the PLA has nonetheless acquired many new ships and planes, so promoters of US weaponry have some real data to cite when making their claims of growing Chinese military prowess. “The PRC maintains the world’s largest naval force, which has tripled in size over the past two decades,” said Adm. Philip S. Richardson on March 21 (while not revealing that most of those ships are coastal frigates with little utility in a conflict with the US Navy). For the advocates of a buildup in US nuclear forces, however, it is hard to justify such claims, and so they have been forced to make wildly exaggerated claims about China’s nuclear capabilities.
This is an especially critical year for America’s nuclear weapons boosters, as plans for modernization of the US strategic “triad”—land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), sea-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and their submarine platforms, and long-range bombers—are all scheduled to move from the research and development phase to full-scale production. Funds have already been appropriated for a new bomber, the B-21 Raider, and for a new SLBM-carrying submarine, the Columbia class, and now the Pentagon wants to begin work on a new ICBM, which it calls, in its typically obfuscating way, the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, or GBSD. Costs for the new intercontinental missile are currently estimated at $100 billion ($10 billion more than a few years ago) and are sure to rise in the years ahead if full-scale production is approved by Congress.
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While nuclear modernization enjoys strong support in Congress, questions have been raised about the need for the GBSD, especially given the competition for funds from other favored programs, such as the F-35 fighter and the Los Angeles–class attack submarine, and the fact that an alternative exists in terms of refurbishing the Pentagon’s existing fleet of 400 Minuteman-III ICBMs. Some in Congress have also suggested that land-based missiles would be highly vulnerable in the event of an enemy preemptive strike and that the nation enjoys more-than-adequate deterrence to such attack with its undetectable fleet of missile-carrying submarines. For example, Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Representative Ro Khanna of California have introduced the Investing in Cures Before Missiles (ICBM) Act, which would divert funds from GBSD procurement to development of a universal coronavirus vaccine, while also extending the life of Minuteman missiles. “With all of the global challenges we face,” Khanna declared, “the last thing we should be doing is giving billions to defense contractors to build missiles we don’t need to keep as a strong nuclear deterrence.”
In response to these challenges, the nuclear lobby has gone all-out in touting the threat posed by China’s nuclear capabilities, even though these hardly come close to those possessed by the United States or its principal nuclear adversary, the Russian Federation. According to the latest (and most authoritative) data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China possesses 320 nuclear warheads in total—none of which is believed to be deployed at present on its ICBMs, SLBMs, or bombers. By comparison, Russia has 6,375 warheads in its stockpile, of which 1,575 are currently deployed on weapons systems, and the United States has 5,800 warheads, with 1,750 deployed. China is said to be increasing the size of its nuclear stockpile, in part because it is replacing some older, single-warhead ICBMs with newer, multiple-warhead versions, but its progress in this direction has been slow and no analyst, inside or outside of government, predicts an increase that will bring the Chinese arsenal anywhere close to those possessed by Russia and the United States.
None of this has stopped top Pentagon officials from warning of a vast and growing nuclear threat from China. “Behind a complete lack of transparency,” Gen. Charles A. Richard, commander of the US Strategic Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 20. “China is rapidly improving its strategic nuclear capability and capacity, with rapid growth in road-mobile production, doubling the numbers of launchers in some ICBM brigades, deployment of solid fuel intercontinental ballistic missile silos on a potentially large-scale, an added air leg, and are well ahead of the pace necessary to double their nuclear stockpile by the end of the decade.”
These come across as worrisome developments, but each, upon close examination, proves to be far less daunting than originally appears. According to the most recent assessment by Hans Kristensen and Matt Korda of the Federation of American Scientists, China currently possesses just 20 DF-5 silo-based ICBMs capable of reaching the continental United States, plus 72 road-mobile DF-31 ICBMs capable of striking perhaps half of this country. China has for decades been developing a replacement for those two missiles, the solid-fueled DF-41, but while some DF-41s have been flight-tested and displayed in parades, none are known to have been placed on active duty. In sum, there has been no significant increase in China’s ICBM numbers and no evidence of “large-scale” ICBM production.
As Kristensen and Korda note, China has been working slowly and methodically to acquire a genuine triad of nuclear launch systems, but its progress towards that goal has been remarkably slow. It now possesses six Type 094 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, each carrying 12 JL-2 SSBNs (nuclear-powered ballistic missile carrying submarines) with an ability to reach Alaska and Hawaii, but not the continental United States. Only four of these submarines are currently in service, and there is little evidence to indicate they have ever been equipped with nuclear warheads on operational patrols. The Chinese are thought to be building a more advanced sub, the Type 096, along with an extended-range SSBN, the JL-3, but work on these is proceeding slowly. As for aircraft, China is thought to be developing a variant of its H-6 bomber to carry a nuclear-armed cruise missile—that “added air leg” Richard spoke of—but, again, it will be years before such a system can be operational deployed. Finally, Richard’s claim that China is on track to double the size of its warhead inventory by the end of the decade is pure speculation, and not backed by any hard evidence.
Despite the blatant distortions in his testimony, Richards insists on warning of a massive Chinese nuclear threat. “By these measures,” he asserted, “China is already capable of executing any plausible nuclear employment strategy within their region and will soon be able to do so at intercontinental ranges as well.” In fact, as these words unintentionally suggest, China long-range nuclear strike capacity remains modest, especially when compared to that of the United States and Russia. But accuracy is not his objective; rather, it is to exploit the anti-China proclivities now dominating Congress to gain support for his pet projects, especially the embattled GBSD. While the Minuteman fleet has served us well in the past, he asserted, delayed modernization has resulted in “aging components, asset attrition, and declining infrastructure,” necessitating “a comprehensive weapon system replacement.”
As debate over the Pentagon budget heats up in coming months, Congress will have ample opportunity to discuss and debate the merits of procuring a new land-based ICBM as opposed to refurbishing the existing Minuteman fleet—or of eliminating reliance on ground-based missiles altogether. But whatever stance they take, members should avoid being swayed by unfounded claims about China’s expanding nuclear arsenal. Of course, any Chinese nuclear weapons—like any nuclear weapons anywhere—pose a threat to US and global security, but we need not embark on a new nuclear arms race simply to overcome an over-hyped increase in Chinese capabilities.