China could authorize the use of nuclear weapons as a counterstrike before an incoming first strike attack can detonate, according to a recently published Defense Department report on the communist country’s war strategies.
This is known as an “early warning counterstrike,” which is sometimes referred to as a “launch of warning posture” or LOW. The report, titled Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China, notes that the Chinese military could change the calculus of contemplating the use of a nuclear weapon. The report speculates that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) likely plans to keep a certain segment of its nuclear arsenal on a LOW posture. This speculation stems from China’s trend of conducting “exercises involving early warning of a nuclear strike and launch on warning responses” in recent years, according to the report.
“The PRC has also made advances in early warning needed to support a LOW posture,” according to the report. “China already has several ground-based large phase array radars—similar in appearance to U.S. PAVE PAWS radars—that could support a missile early warning role.”
Dual-use weapons that are both conventional and nuclear-capable have sparked an ongoing and serious debate within the United States. After all, a conventional strike could easily be misinterpreted as a nuclear attack and prompt a catastrophic nuclear weapons engagement. In a worst-case scenario, a large-scale nuclear counterattack could be launched before it is clear that an approaching threat is unworthy of a nuclear response. Some lawmakers have opposed the development of the Air Force’s dual-use, nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missile, known as the Long-Range StandOff weapon, due to the possibility that it would be easy to mistake a cruise missile or hypersonic weapons attack for a nuclear strike.
Similar concerns have been raised about now-in-development dual-use U.S. long-range hypersonic weapons too. They could travel quickly in a conventional strike and could easily be mistaken for a nuclear attack. This question is increasingly relevant due to several emerging U.S. hypersonics weapons programs like the Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike weapon and the Army’s Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.