Should America Fear China's Nuclear Weapons?

As Washington worries about problems in Iraq and Ukraine, does it have a much bigger—and atomic—challenge on its hands?

Editor’s Note: Please see previous works by Robert Farley including: Asia’s Greatest Fear: A U.S.-China War, Five Revolutionary Soviet Weapons of War that Never Happened, The Five Most Overrated Weapons of War, America’s Troubled F-35: Five Ways to Replace It, Will the F-35 Dominate the Skies?, Five Best Bombers of All Time, and The Top Five Fighter Aircraft of All Time.

The presumably accidental revelation of the PLA’s DF-41 road-mobile ICBM is only the latest indication that China is modernizing and reorganizing its nuclear arsenal.  Over the past decade, China has worked to modernize its nuclear delivery systems, both on land and at sea.  This work has helped narrow the gap between China and the US-Russia superpower tandem, although Chinese capabilities remain far behind.

This article tracks the most important recent developments in China’s nuclear posture, then discusses some of the political implications of these developments for Asia, the United States, and the rest of the world.

Nukes by Land, Nukes by Sea

The DF-41 Arrives

The apparent confirmation of the existence of the much-rumored DF-41 ICBM has some very interesting implications for the future of Chinese nuclear weapon policy. In the simplest terms, the development of the new ICBM ensures that China’s nuclear deterrent can reach the entire continental U.S., as well as a variety of other potential foes.  It also gives the Second Artillery MIRV capable ICBMs for the first time, although reports suggest that the PLA is also working on MIRVing its older missiles.

China has long been dependent on the ancient DF-5 for its ICBM needs, recently supplemented by the DF-31A. The DF-41 represents a major modernization, as well as an expansion of China’s overall deterrent capability. Its development suggests that China is moving definitively away from minimal deterrence, and toward a more robust, survivable second-strike capability.  This indicates a significant change in how China views its nuclear arsenal.

The Boomer Fleet Grows

The development of an effective submarine deterrent also helps revise the nuclear equation between China and the United States. The commissioning of five boats of the Type 094 class over the past decade has radically increased China’s nuclear capabilities at sea, which less than a decade ago depended on a single, unreliable submarine.

Although Chinese boomers cannot yet effectively hide from American hunters, and the Chinese have yet to achieve the basic requirements of the Soviet “bastion” strategy of the 1970s, the Chinese SSBNs nevertheless significantly increase the reach of China’s nuclear deterrent.  However, they do not yet represent a practical threat to the mainland United States, as the missiles lack of range and the boats lack of quiet makes them sketchy to deploy in tense circumstances.

Reports indicate that China has already moved on the construction of the Type 096 SSBN, which will carry more missiles and presumably operate more quietly.  Given the undersea advantages of the United States, it will still be some time before China’s SSBN fleet poses a major threat to the United States.

The Political Implications

Arms Control

One of the biggest questions with respect to China’s changing nuclear posture involves arms control.  For four decades, the key nuclear arms control agreements have been conducted in bilateral terms between Washington and Moscow.  The increasing size and sophistication of the Chinese arsenal may make this approach obsolete.

If China’s increases the size of its nuclear arsenal, and the sophistication of its delivery systems, then arms control agreements that focus only on the United States and Russia will become quaint.  Of course, Moscow and Washington can still make considerable progress reducing warheads and delivery systems before the Chinese arsenal becomes comparable, but the PLA is closing the gap.  It’s also worth noting that because China is not party to the bilateral agreements, it has considerably more freedom to explore the technical frontiers of ballistic and cruise missiles than either the US or Russia.