It wasn’t that long ago that arms control advocates would point to China as an example of how a more limited nuclear strategy could meet America’s national security goals with far fewer nuclear weapons.
If China’s “minimal deterrence” doctrine was sufficient to deter all adversaries, including the United States, with only 300 or so nuclear warheads, then indeed, the argument went, the U.S. could dramatically reduce its stockpile of 3,750 warheads and still have an effective nuclear deterrent.
“The easiest way to summarize China's historic approach to nuclear strategy would be ‘assured retaliation,’" said Gerald Brown, a defense analyst at Valiant Integrated Services. “The basic premise is that you maintain a capacity to retaliate against an adversary with enough pain to make it so they don't find it worthwhile doing in the first place.”
China’s strategy was effective so long as its goals were purely defensive, and the purpose of its relatively small arsenal tightly proscribed: to deter a nuclear attack, to limit the escalation of conventional conflict, and if attacked with nuclear weapons, be able to launch a counterstrike.
That was then. This is now.
As the Pentagon’s November report on China’s growing military power outlines, Beijing has wholly abandoned its minimalist approach and is embarked on an all-out campaign to accelerate the expansion of its nuclear capacities rapidly, including fielding a triad of bombers, submarines, and intercontinental ballistic missiles to rival the U.S.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are witnessing a strategic breakout by China. China’s explosive growth and modernization of its nuclear and conventional forces can only be what I describe as breathtaking” is the way Adm. Charles Richard, commander of U.S. nuclear forces, described its symposium this summer. “And,” he added, “that word 'breathtaking' may not be enough.”
The Pentagon report notes the People's Republic of China is making massive investments in nuclear infrastructure, including fast-breeder reactors and reprocessing facilities to produce and separate plutonium, the building block of nuclear bombs.
“The accelerating pace of the PRC’s nuclear expansion may enable the PRC to have up to 700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027. The PRC likely intends to have at least 1,000 warheads by 2030, exceeding the pace and size the DOD projected in 2020,” the report says.
In June, commercial satellite imagery revealed two fields in China’s western desert with hundreds of holes in the ground in a geometric grid that appear to be at least 250 additional long-range missile silos.
The problem is the silos are covered with tents, and no one can see inside them.
Each one could be destined to hold an intercontinental ballistic missile tipped with one or more nuclear warheads, such as China’s DF-41, that, with a range of 9,300 miles, could target the U.S. mainland.
“We don't know whether or not there are missiles in them yet. The assumption seems to be at the moment that there aren't any," said Dean Cheng, an expert on China's military at the Heritage Foundation.
“It is a very open question about whether or not, if you have 300 silos out there, whether that's 300 warheads or, potentially, let's say 1,500 warheads with five warheads per ICBM.”
The silos could also be decoys or part of an elaborate shell game to move missiles around, to hide the actual number of missiles, and make targeting them difficult.
“I know there’s been a lot of discussion on why they are doing this,” said Richard in August. “It doesn’t matter why China … continues to grow and modernize. What matters is that they are building the capability to execute any plausible nuclear employment strategy, the last brick in the wall of a military capable of coercion.”
With Russia having modernized 85% of its Cold War nuclear weapons and the U.S. just now embarking on a massive upgrade of its nuclear triad, China has been feeling left behind, especially considering President Xi Jinping's vow to transform the People's Liberation Army into a “world class” military by 2049.
“China has correctly figured out that you cannot coerce a peer nuclear-capable opponent from a minimum deterrent posture,” Richard said at a U.S. Strategic Command symposium in September.
“I haven't really seen any evidence that China seeks to defeat the U.S. in a nuclear war or launch from out-of-the-blue strike,” said Brown at a recent event sponsored by the Arms Control Association, “but this doesn't necessarily make it any less concerning.” Brown said China’s ambitious nuclear aspirations are more about enabling conventional warfare by changing the risk calculus for the U.S.
With only a limited arsenal and its “no first use” pledge, China’s military strategists feared a scenario in which the U.S. would be able to take out most of its missiles in a preemptive strike and then blunt China’s retaliatory counterattack with missile defenses.
A more robust nuclear capability, including more missiles, submarines, and China’s new H-20 bomber armed with air-launched cruise missiles, could embolden the People's Liberation Army when the day comes that Beijing decides to move against Taiwan.
“The PLA likely assesses that the United States would not risk a nuclear exchange for a war outside its shores,” said Brown. “So, with this more assured retaliatory capability and with clear conventional goals in the region, the risk for conflict does escalate substantially.”
Brown argued with the U.S. and China heading for effective nuclear parity, the greater deterrence of China could come from the U.S. building up its conventional forces because that is where a future war would likely be fought and won.
In a speech at the Reagan Defense Forum this month, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the U.S. would meet the challenge posed by China with “confidence and resolve, not panic and pessimism,” adding, “China is not 10 feet tall."
Back in September, retiring Joint Chiefs Vice Chairman Gen. John Hyten, a former U.S. nuclear commander, had more sober advice.
“We need to be able to sit down … and talk about these issues with China,” Hyten said at a Brookings Institution event. “Because as different as we are, we do have a fundamental common goal, and that is to never go to war with each other because war with a nuclear power is a bad thing.”
Jamie McIntyre is the Washington Examiner’s senior writer on defense and national security. His morning newsletter, “Jamie McIntyre’s Daily on Defense,” is free and available by email subscription at dailyondefense.com.