The Buzz

China's Nukes: What Happens in a Showdown with America?

As the Islamic State dominates national security headlines, tensions between Washington and Beijing on a whole host of issues—think the East and South China Seas, Taiwan, China’s rising conventional military power with growing overseas power projection capabilities etc.—only get the occasional attention they truly deserve. Getting even less attention these days: China’s multi-decade quest to modernize its nuclear weapons arsenal. Beijing is developing nuclear armed missiles that have longer ranges (and yes, they can hit the United States), tipped with multiple warheads that are now being deployed across multiple domains (air, land and now in the ocean).

While recent attention on China’s nuclear arsenal—specifically that Beijing is testing a railcar based mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with a range of 7,500 miles or more—was certainly welcomed, America’s academic community has been keeping a close eye on China’s growing nuclear weapons program for many years. Case in point, a recent article in the renowned academic journal International Security sheds new light on Beijing’s nukes. So what makes this article special? The author’s detailed analysis on an important subtopic: if Beijing will eventually abandon its long-standing nuclear strategy of assured retaliation for what MIT-based authors Fiona Cunningham and M. Taylor Fravel call a “first-use posture” that “will be a critical factor in future U.S.-China strategic stability.”

As I like to do of late, here are the major themes of this recent article, titled Assuring Assured Retaliation: China's Nuclear Posture and U.S.-China Strategic Stability.

Point #1- Revealing China’s Current Nuclear Posture:

“In general, China has sought to maintain the smallest possible force capable of surviving a first strike and being able to conduct a retaliatory strike that would inflict unacceptable damage on an adversary, at the time and place of China's choosing. Rather than expend all of its nuclear forces in a single, massive retaliatory strike, China has structured its nuclear forces to conduct multiple waves of large- or small-scale retaliatory strikes. As result, key principles in force development since 1980 have been “close defense” (yanmi fanghu) and “key-point counterstrikes” (zhongdian fanji). Close defense refers to ensuring the survivability of China's forces, which first emphasized concealment and then mobility. Key-point counterstrikes refer to the means and methods of retaliation and how to inflict unacceptable damage on an adversary. Historically, Chinese planning has targeted population and industrial centers as well as soft military targets, such as military bases.”

The authors also note:

“How much is enough for China? The answer to this question has always been relative to a potential adversary's capabilities, namely, those of the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia. Historically, China's leaders have lacked confidence in their ability to assure retaliation. At times, either China has lacked enough weapons or the weapons that it possessed were not sufficiently survivable. By the mid-1990s, for example, China only possessed approximately twenty DF-5 ICBMs capable of reaching the continental United States. These missiles were liquid fueled, which increased the time required to prepare them for launch and reduced their reliability and survivability. The missiles were vulnerable to an enemy strike while they were being fueled, as were the fuel storage areas. China was also concerned about the reliability of its missile technology and the reconnaissance capabilities of its opponents. As a result, China sought to modernize its forces to increase survivability and penetrability. This included developing two road-mobile, solid-fueled missile systems, the DF-31 and DF-31A, as well as a submarine-launched variant, the JL-2, to be used aboard the new Type-094 class of ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). China's first-generation Type-092-class SSBN armed with the JL-1 missile encountered so many technological challenges that it never conducted a single deterrent patrol.”

Point #2 - China Fears America’s Missile Defenses