Minimum Deterrent No More: Where China’s Nuclear Buildup Is Headed
For the past year, senior U.S. military officials have been quietly warning U.S. policymakers that China’s buildup of nuclear weapons is a serious threat to the United States.
Nuclear issues are very much in the news now. For the past year, senior U.S. military officials have been quietly warning U.S. policymakers that China’s buildup of nuclear weapons is a serious threat to the United States.
Then late this summer, satellite pictures of multiple missile fields with hundreds of Chinese missile silos—completed or under construction—were publicly revealed. They number over 350 silos.
While skeptics initially dismissed the silos as nothing more than wind farms, it soon became apparent the Chinese were building a massive new nuclear capability that could in short order match or significantly exceed the totality of the U.S. deployed strategic nuclear force.
And thus, a debate began in the United States over what it all meant. For example, how many missiles will actually end up being placed in the 350+ silos completed or under construction by China?
If the DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) was the Chinese missile of choice, then each missile could carry from six to ten warheads, implying a future nuclear force at the high end of new estimates.
Another part of the debate centered on whether the long-held conventional wisdom that China has a very limited supply of nuclear weapons fuel was still valid. Is the scope of Chinese missile deployments going to be controlled by China’s warhead fuel supply? Or is China’s goal to have as large a nuclear force as possible? In short, is it the nuclear fuel or the missiles themselves that are driving the Chinese buildup?
Yet more important than the “what” of the discovered build-up is the “why.” What is China trying to achieve politically, diplomatically, and militarily, and what effect would it have on U.S. and allied security?
The good news is that recent discoveries have moved the debate over China’s nuclear future from mere guessing to being more grounded in facts.
In three key areas, skeptics—that had previously concluded that China’s minimal nuclear forces were nothing more than representative of the “peaceful rise” of a growing but benign nation—changed their minds.
In three key areas, China hawks and doves came to hold similar views.
The first occurred in early 2021 when skeptic Tom Cochran of the National Resources Defense Council and hawk Henry Sokolski of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center published a lengthy assessment of China’s nuclear fuel production that concluded that China could likely produce enough nuclear fuel for 1,270 warheads—nearly the same as the number of nuclear warheads the United States now deploys on a day-to-day basis on its intercontinental ballistic missiles.
But even more interesting, Sokolski and Cochran also assessed that China, under certain reasonable assumptions, could produce 2,500 bombs’ worth of nuclear fuel, a dramatic ten-fold increase from the 250 warheads that the U.S. intelligence community believes to be now deployed by China.
Subsequently, the U.S. Department of Defense projected that China would deploy 1,000 warheads by the year 2030, a four-fold increase from its previous assessments.
Though many China hawks believed China’s plans included deploying warhead numbers in the thousands, nuclear skeptics at the Federation of American Scientists accepted the 1,000 projected deployment, and subsequently changed their description of China’s nuclear strategy from “minimal” to “medium.” This represents a second important change from the long-held historical narrative widely accepted among disarmament proponents that China held to a strategy of only deploying a benign, restrained “minimum” nuclear deterrent.
The importance of this change is how it is affecting U.S. perceptions of why China maintains nuclear weapons. If China had jettisoned its “minimal” deterrent strategy where only American cities were targeted, (as opposed to holding at-risk U.S. nuclear and military assets), it became plausible that China was seeking—like Russia—a pre-emptive first strike: an “escalate to win” strategy where China’s nuclear forces can serve “coercive” military objectives, and are not solely for defensive deterrent purposes.
Unfortunately, despite the positive development where yesterday’s skeptics of Chinese military power have accepted more realistic assessments of China’s nuclear ambitions, shaky assumptions still are widely held.
For example, many skeptics of Chinese military power have historically opposed a robust U.S. nuclear deterrent because it is unnecessary to deter China’s “minimal” deterrent and would provoke an arms race with China (and Russia).
In addition, rather than seeing China as equally responsible for engaging in serious arms control negotiations, China often got a pass. As nuclear experts Mathew Kroenig and Dan Negrea of the Atlantic Council recently explained, while China “is engaging in an across-the-board nuclear arms expansion,” China repeatedly refused to even come to the table when U.S. administrations pushed for arms control talks.
Part of the reason China feels free to take such a rigid position is there is no pressure on China to change course. Most American groups supporting arms control including unilateral U.S. reductions don’t even demand that China offer the transparency necessary to determine the exact dimensions of its nuclear forces—without which arms deals are not credible. How can you verify an agreement where you don’t know the accuracy of what the other party is claiming to field? There was a reason former President Ronald Reagan repeatedly warned that when it came to arms deals, it was “trust but verify.”
Third, the disarmament community also sticks to a troubling assumption that China’s decision to build and deploy 1,000 warheads by 2030 is the fault of the United States. They apparently argue that China is building up its nuclear forces because the United States built forty-four missile defense interceptors in 2003-2004 to protect itself from rogue states like North Korea and Iran. Thus, China has to overcome such defenses to have a credible deterrent.
Yet if you don’t find the missile defense explanation credible, the skeptics have an alternative explanation. The Chinese nuclear expansion is a reasonable Chinese reaction to the United States engaging in what is described as a “nuclear arms race” or the United States threatening a nuclear first strike on China. But this argument falls flat. When completed, U.S. nuclear modernization will leave the United States with no more nuclear warheads than it currently deploys under the 2010 New START Treaty, and nearly 90 percent less than at the height of the Cold War.
Which raises the interesting question: How can an arms control deal (the 2010 New START Treaty) that skeptics support also fuel an arms race the skeptics oppose?
Although it is heartening to see some experts “coming together” in their assessments of China’s emerging nuclear strategy, there remain myriad factors that call into question the accuracy of the new intelligence community assessment that China’s nuclear build-up will reach only 1,000 warheads at the end of this decade, some nine years hence.
The 1,000-warhead estimate assumes China will add to its arsenal an average of fewer than ten DF-41 missiles and seventy warheads per year.
By comparison, sixty years ago, between 1962-1966, the United States built 800 Minuteman silos and missiles at an average pace of .6 per day or at a peak pace of 1.8 per day!
In light of the U.S. construction capability, I estimate that China—currently extraordinarily capable of construction projects—could build and deploy missiles for the full 350 missile field in two to four years.
Given China’s stance on nuclear transparency and arms control, what are the chances that cooperation with China will lessen the Chinese nuclear threat?
As Kroenig and Negrea wryly note, proclaiming that the United States “must cooperate with China on global challenges is like saying we must cooperate with burglars to reduce break-ins.”
Kroenig and Negrea support augmenting Washington’s deterrent especially with respect to theater forces in the Indo-Pacific, “to demonstrate to Xi [Jinping] that his aggressive arms expansion will only make China less safe. Seeing his security situation deteriorate may be the only way to persuade Xi to engage in arms control talks.”
Since 1987, the United States has dramatically reduced its nuclear forces by well over 90 percent when one includes the theater nuclear forces taken down by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the presidential nuclear initiatives under President George H.W. Bush. On the other hand, China has grown its nuclear forces fifteen-fold and by the end of this decade may increase its forces fifty-fold, unprecedented in the entire nuclear age.
China’s fast-expanding arsenal of missiles involves a large-scale increase in size as well as mission, scope, and functionality, according to a recent Department of Defense (DoD) report on China.
All of these developments are fortified by China’s aggressive missile testing and modernization programs.
“In 2020, the PLARF [People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force] launched more than 250 ballistic missiles for testing and training. This was more than the rest of the world combined,” DoD’s 2021 Report on Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China states.
Others explain that Chinese submarines are fast developing new capabilities to hold the continental United States at risk of catastrophic nuclear attack. China already operates six Jin-class SSBNs, or nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines, armed with JL-2 missiles, yet the People’s Liberation Army Navy is preparing to produce a far more lethal, longer-range JL-3 nuclear-armed ballistic missile variant.