Defense Department officials and industry executives are working “to just create artificial fear” of China’s growing nuclear arsenal, according to a senior Senate Democrat who expressed irritation at the phenomenon.
“I always hate it when they make out the Chinese or the Russians to be 10 feet tall and we're midgets,” said Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey during a Senate Foreign Relations hearing. "It's just the opposite. And I just think we have to keep that out there.”
China attracted international attention earlier this year by testing a hypersonic missile that orbited the globe before striking more than 20 miles from its intended target — a display of technological prowess reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, according to Army. Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Markey implicitly linked Milley to the Pentagon officials he perceives as misrepresenting the China threat.
“The Pentagon should not be hyping the threat from hypersonics or goading us into an arms race,” Markey said. “We just should not be trying — which I really feel the arms manufacturers are trying to do, and many in the Pentagon — to just create artificial fear in the United States. It's not a Sputnik moment.”
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That test was revealed weeks before the unveiling of a Pentagon assessment that China “likely intends to have at least 1,000 nuclear warheads by 2030,” but Markey downplayed the ramifications by touting existing U.S. capabilities.
“The Union of Concerned Scientists says that our ICBMs are 20 times the speed of sound,” he said. “I don't think there's any evidence thus far that the Chinese hypersonic weapons are going to be able to exceed what we can do in our country.”
The revelations of the Chinese missile test stand to influence a looming debate over the modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, a project Markey wants to curtail.
“The United States can deter our adversaries and reassure our allies without making an insane investment in nuclear weapons overkill, including capabilities that may invite rather than prevent a nuclear exchange,” Markey argued earlier this year. “We must bring the same energy in arresting the climate crisis to reducing another existential threat, posed by nuclear weapons, and that begins with smart cuts to our nuclear arsenal.”
Yet, other nuclear deterrence analysts regard China’s growing arsenal as a threat to stability, particularly as the various components of the U.S. nuclear triad are approaching an age at which they can no longer be used and their replacements may need to offset not only Russia’s nuclear arsenal but also Beijing’s.
“If a tripolar great nuclear power regime were to emerge, parity — long a key component of Russian-US arms control agreements — would no longer be possible for each of the three nuclear giants,” Hudson Institute senior fellow Andrew Krepinevich wrote in a recent study. “Correspondingly, establishing and maintaining a US deterrent capable of providing an assured destruction capability against two comparably armed powers would prove challenging. Doing so while preserving today’s level of deterrence seems especially daunting.”
Markey implied China’s hypersonic missile capability doesn’t represent a major shift in the balance of power, despite its ability to evade any existing U.S. missile defenses. He pressed a senior Pentagon official to acknowledge that U.S. missile defenses do not “pose a threat to China’s strategic deterrent.” That is, he argued the U.S. can’t defend against China’s traditional nuclear arsenal, quite apart from their hypersonic innovations.
“It does not pose a threat [to China],” he said of U.S. missile defenses.
Krepinevich has argued hypersonic missiles could nonetheless “exert a significant influence on the strategic balance,” especially if U.S. officials choose not to replace the expiring land-based nuclear arsenal — and thus leave open the possibility of an enemy strike against the limited number of bases home to U.S. air and sea-based nuclear weapons.
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“Absent the land-based deterrent, these five bases — and the bulk of the US nuclear arsenal — could be destroyed at the cost of a handful of nuclear weapons — or perhaps by conventional precision fires, such as by hypersonic cruise missiles or hypersonic boost glide vehicles,” he wrote.