Placing “Guardrails” on the US-China Nuclear Competition

Placing “Guardrails” on the US-China Nuclear Competition

Placing “Guardrails” on the US-China Nuclear Competition

A failure to challenge inflated claims about China’s nuclear arsenal will have serious and painful consequences.


With the United States and China both speeding up the acquisition of new nuclear weapons, some analysts predicted that Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping would discuss limits on those munitions during their virtual summit on November 15. However, they barely touched on the matter, agreeing only that both sides should take steps to prevent the unintended escalation of future crises. As Biden told Xi during their three-hour exchange, the two sides need “commonsense guardrails to ensure that competition does not veer into conflict.” Yet no plans were made for negotiations leading to the adoption of such measures, so the US-China arms race will only gain further momentum.

Historically, talk of nuclear arms racing has applied almost exclusively to the United States and the Soviet Union, and now Russia. Indeed, the US and Russia still possess the overwhelming majority of the world’s nuclear warheads, along with its most advanced nuclear delivery systems. But now China—long a minor player in the nuclear arena—appears to be bolstering its capabilities, while the United States is developing new weapons with the Chinese, as well as the Russians, in mind. The risk of a war between the US and China has also been growing, especially due to tensions over Taiwan, increasing the danger of nuclear weapons use.

Fueling these dangerous trends is a steady stream of alarmist pronouncements by US officials about China’s nuclear buildup. The Chinese are engaged in a “remarkable expansion of [their] nuclear and strategic capabilities,” Adm. Charles A. Richard, commander of the US Strategic Command, told the House Armed Services Committee last April. As a result of these initiatives, “China is capable of executing any plausible nuclear employment strategy regionally now, and soon will be able to do so at intercontinental ranges.”

But while China is certainly undertaking the modernization of its relatively old and meager nuclear arsenal—as compared to those of Russia and the United States—it can hardly be described as undertaking a “remarkable expansion” of its arsenal nor is it capable of “executing any plausible nuclear employment strategy” in a US-China war. Yet these inflated claims by senior Pentagon officials are helping spur Congress—which doesn’t really require much nudging—to finance a vast expansion of America’s own nuclear capabilities.

A failure to challenge these inflated claims and to slow the burgeoning US-China nuclear competition will have serious and painful consequences for both sides. If nothing else, it will lead to the massive allocation of resources for nuclear weapons procurement, with no end in sight. Any hope of trimming the Pentagon’s proposed $1.7 trillion modernization of all three “legs” of the nuclear “triad”—intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and long-range strategic bombers—will disappear. And the emphasis on ever-more-capable conventional weapons, combined with new developments in cyber, space, and surveillance technology, will increase the likelihood that future crises trigger an unrestrained escalatory spiral terminating in nuclear annihilation.

Fortunately, the US-China nuclear arms race is still at a relatively early stage, at least when compared to the long-running US-Soviet/Russian competition. It is possible, then, to conceive of measures that might constrain this contest before it gathers additional momentum. Before considering such measures, however, we must possess a clear understanding of this dynamic and dispel various misconceptions regarding China’s nuclear capabilities.

Understanding China’s Nuclear Posture

For starters, bear in mind that China currently maintains a relatively modest nuclear arsenal. In its latest tally of world nuclear stockpiles, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) calculated that China possessed approximately 350 nuclear warheads—a bit more than the number deployed by France (290), but a very small fraction of the 5,550 warheads possessed by the US and the 6,375 by Russia. China has also chosen to limit its arsenal of nuclear delivery systems. According to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), it has deployed only about 100 ICBMs and 48 SLBMs, compared to 400 ICBMs and 336 SLBMs in the US inventory. China also has a few dozen heavy bombers, but none with a range or nuclear payload comparable to the US B-2 and B-52 bombers.

That China maintains such a modest strategic arsenal has long provided confirmation for Beijing’s claim that it seeks nuclear armaments solely to implement a “minimum deterrence” posture—one that requires sufficient weapons to survive an enemy first strike and deliver intolerable damage on the attacker but not enough to conduct a disarming first strike on an adversary.

China’s arsenal has remained relatively unchanged for several decades, but now is being substantially modernized—allowing US military officials to claim that it is engaged in a major expansion along with a shift in its weapons employment doctrine. China’s nuclear arsenal is expanding at a“breathtaking” rate, Admiral Richard declared in August, and will soon achieve a “strategic breakout,” allowing Beijing to execute “any plausible nuclear strategy” it wishes to pursue.

Typically, when describing the Chinese buildup as “breathtaking,” and one affording Beijing new nuclear attack options, US officials point to two recent developments: first, a claim that China is in the midst of a radical expansion of its nuclear stockpile; and second, that it is constructing hundreds of new missile silos in its western deserts, supposedly in anticipation of a vast expansion of its ICBM fleet.

In its 2020 annual report on Chinese military power, the Department of Defense (DoD) reported that China’s nuclear stockpile was growing at a modest pace was not expected to exceed 400 or so by the end of the decade. This year, in a new edition of the same report, the DoD asserts—without providing any evidence—that China has accelerated its stockpile expansion and “likely intends to have at least 1,000 warheads by 2030.” (This claim soon generated worldwide headlines, typically with the “likely” removed and the alleged “1,000 warhead” aspiration painted as a near-certainty.)

It can be difficult to dispute a prediction made for 2030 that’s based on mere suppositions, but suffice to say that most non-governmental experts who study these matters perceive no sign that China is engaged in a stockpile expansion commensurate with the DoD’s 1,000-warhead projection. Rather, China appears to be replacing its single-warhead ICBMs with multi-warhead variants at a steady, if not hurried pace, generating a need for additional nuclear devices. According to Hans Christensen and Matt Korda of the FAS, this could result in a stockpile of 400 to 500 warheads by the end of the decade—half or less the number in the Pentagon projection.

As for all those new silo holes—270, at latest count—it’s easy to assume that China plans to fill each one with a new ICBM, almost tripling its current fleet. But there is no evidence that China is mass-producing its newest crop of long-range missiles(DF-31s and DF-41s) or has any plan to fill the holes with hundreds of new ICBMs. A more likely explanation, discussed further below, is that Beijing plans to place a few missiles in the desert silos and keep moving them around, to frustrate any US plans for a disarming first strike.

In sum, the evidence for a vast and rapid buildup in Chinese nuclear capabilities is underwhelming, to say the least. Also lacking is any indication that Beijing has abandoned its “minimum deterrence” strategy. What recent Chinese developments do suggest, however, is that Chinese officials fear that their existing nuclear force is becoming increasingly vulnerable to a first strike—sometimes called a “counterforce” strike—and so must be strengthened in order to safeguard its retaliatory capability.

US Nuclear Initiatives and China’s Response

In contrast to China, the United States has long maintained that its nuclear forces should be capable of many functions beyond just “minimum deterrence.” Current doctrine, as encapsulated in the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) of 2018, states that nuclear weapons could be employed in response to an overwhelming conventional, as well as a nuclear, attack on the United States; even a major cyber assault on the United States might justify such usage. In the event that a nuclear conflict does erupt, moreover, US forces are expected to limit damage to this country by engaging in counterforce strikes on the enemy’s offensive forces. “If deterrence fails,” the NPR states, “the United States will strive to end any conflict at the lowest level of damage possible and on the best achievable terms for the United States, allies, and partners.” (A new version of the NPR is now in the process of formulation.)

To limit damage to the United States in a future nuclear exchange, US forces must be capable of striking enemy ICBMs, SLBMs, and other attack capabilities at the very outbreak of conflict. This requires developing missiles with very great accuracy (to be able to destroy enemy ICBMs in their hardened underground silos) and deploying surveillance systems able to track an enemy’s mobile missiles and missile submarines in real time—all now major priorities for the Department of Defense. America’s SLBMs, for example, are being equipped with a “super fuze,” enabling them to strike enemy silos with far greater accuracy than ever before. At the same time, the DoD is seeking an array of advanced conventional weapons—especially super-fast hypersonic missiles—capable of striking key enemy assets, such as early-warning radars, missile batteries, and command-and-control systems.

To further limit potential damage in a future nuclear exchange, the Pentagon has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on missile defense systems—despite widespread skepticism within the technical community about the effectiveness of such systems. Such doubts notwithstanding, the DoD requested $10.9 billion for missile defense in its budget submission for fiscal year 2022.

In justifying these initiatives, Pentagon officials typically argue that this country must be able to deter and defend against Russia and North Korea, as well as China. But while such claims are not without merit, it is essential to grasp how these initiatives must surely appear to Chinese leaders. From Beijing’s perspective, Washington’s pursuit of a damage-limiting strategy would appear to be indistinguishable from a first-strike, counterforce strategy—one aimed at eliminating China’s ability to retaliate if the United States were to employ nuclear weapons against it. Surely the combination of enhanced US offensive and defensive capabilities—both increasing the destructive impact of a first strike on China’s modest ICBM fleet and diminishing the survivability of any Chinese missiles that are fired toward the United States—must be viewed in Beijing as an existential threat, and one requiring an effective response.

Under these circumstances, China’s nuclear buildup can largely be viewed as an attempt to overcome the vulnerabilities of its deterrence force, ensuring that enough of its weapons can survive an enemy first-strike assault and penetrate enemy defenses. This would explain both of the developments noted above: the replacement of single-warhead missiles with multiple-warhead variants and the construction of multiple silo holes in the desert.

By equipping their ICBMs and SLBMs with a number of independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVed missiles, in Pentagon-speak), the Chinese evidently hope to ensure that even if only a few of their weapons escape American missile defenses, those survivors will still be able to launch multiple warheads against US targets; likewise, by constructing hundreds of additional silos and moving their ICBMs from one to the other on a random basis, they can circumvent a US first strike. None of this, however, suggests an intent to acquire a US-style counterforce capability.

Taking Action Now

As suggested by this analysis, China’s nuclear modernization does not pose the same sort of threat to the United States as US nuclear and conventional initiatives pose to China. True, China is capable of inflicting catastrophic damage on this country in the event of a nuclear war, but it does not appear to be seeking a first-strike or damage-limiting capacity akin to that possessed by the United States. Nevertheless, the danger of a US-China war is growing, and any major confrontation between US and Chinese forces could result in colossal losses on one or both sides, precipitating the early use of nuclear weapons. This is the perfect time, then, for the Biden administration to seek talks with Beijing aimed at eliminating or curtailing weapons developments that are placing both countries at greater risk.

The goal—at least in the early stages of such engagement—should not be the adoption of conventional arms control agreements, like those signed between the US and the USSR during the Cold War era. Rather, the two sides should engage in high-level talks aimed at identifying the greatest risks of precipitous or unintended escalation, and in devising strategies for minimizing those dangers. (Reportedly, the Biden administration has been considering the initiation of such talks with China, but there is no indication that formal plans have yet been made to proceed with this.)

Such high-level conversations—sometimes called “strategic stability” talks—could focus, for example, on the expected deployment on both sides of numerous hypersonic missiles aimed at each other’s high-value targets, and pursue ways to curtail their numbers or mode of employment, to minimize the risk of rapid escalation. Both sides could also agree to eschew cyberattacks on each other’s nuclear command-and-control systems, with the same goal in mind. Mutual restraints could also be crafted to reduce the danger of escalation during a crisis, for example through limitations on the scale of air and naval maneuvers in the area surrounding Taiwan.

In the months ahead, as the Biden administration attempts to draft a new Nuclear Posture Review and Congress votes on a proposed $715 defense bill for FY 2022, we can expect to hear a lot more about China’s “breathtaking” nuclear buildup. If we are to reduce the risks of nuclear war and lower the costs of nuclear weapons procurement, we must challenge such assertions and provide a balanced, realistic assessment of Chinese developments. We must also urge Biden to work with Xi in developing the “guardrails” that both agree are necessary to avert catastrophe.

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