While there has been lots of discussion of the U.S.-Russia Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) over the past few months, one very important consideration continues to receive insufficient attention: China’s robust nuclear-force modernization program.
It is not clear the administration or lawmakers have thought through the implications of the fact that as we build down our strategic nuclear forces (by some 20–30 percent under New START) in the White House’s hope of playing Pied Piper to others on the road to “global zero,” the People’s Republic of China is building up its strategic nuclear forces.
As Congress could vote on whether to ratify the treaty in the coming days or weeks, now would be an excellent, indeed critical, time to consider this matter, especially since passing the arms-control pact will obligate us to its provisions for the next ten years.
While the exact shape of China’s ambitions may not be completely clear, there is little question that its aspirations are grand. In congressional testimony last year, then–director of national intelligence Dennis Blair said that Beijing’s international behavior is driven in part by a “longstanding ambition to see China play a role of a great power in East Asia and globally.”
To this end, China has been feverishly building all aspects of its national power: political, economic — and most worrisome, military. China’s military modernization has proceeded at a feverish pace; its defense budget has increased by roughly 10 percent per year over the last two decades.
On the nuclear front, China relies on the services of its strategic-rocket forces, known as the Second Artillery Corps. The Second Artillery has long been equipped with a small force of liquid-fueled, silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) armed with three- to five-megaton thermonuclear warheads such as the CSS-3s and -4s. But in recent years, it added a number of solid-fueled, road-mobile missiles such as the DF-31A, reducing the reaction time associated with the silo-based force while increasing survivability.
In addition, in its annual report to Congress on China’s military power, the Pentagon warns this year that China has “the most active land-based ballistic and cruise missile program in the world.” It may also “be developing a new road-mobile ICBM, possibly capable of carrying a multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicle (MIRV),” which can strike different targets, even though they are carried on a single ICBM. MIRVing of Chinese missiles will also mean that the number of warheads “could more than double in the next 15 years,” according to the Department of Defense (DOD). The Pentagon further notes that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is working on maneuvering re-entry vehicles (MARV), decoys, chaff, jamming, and thermal shielding for its strategic forces, increasing their ability to reach their intended targets.
And the problems do not end there. China’s Second Artillery has reportedly built 3,000-plus miles of tunnels in northern China, known as “The Underground Great Wall.” Some believe the tunnel system is intended to conceal China’s growing nuclear arsenal, while providing Beijing with a land-based nuclear capability that could survive an enemy’s first strike.
But it’s not just the Second Artillery that is getting a boost. Beijing is also diversifying its nuclear dossier from its longstanding “monad” of land-based nukes into the more traditional “triad” of land-, sea-, and air-based nuclear forces embraced by other major nuclear powers such as Russia and the United States.
Nowhere is this transition more dramatic than at sea. During the Cold War, Soviet and American submarine forces were considered the stealthiest and most survivable arm of the nuclear triad, especially in providing for a second-strike capability. Well aware of this, China is now sending its nuclear deterrent below the waves.
China’s new class of strategic submarine, the Type 094, has replaced its long-troubled first-generation fleet ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), the Type 092. The Type 094 may already carry twelve of China’s first intercontinental-range, sea-launched ballistic missiles, the JL-2, whose range exceeds 4,000 miles. Two or three of the boats may be in service already, with another two to three on the way. Beijing is building another SSBN, too, the Type 096, which is expected to be able to carry as many as 24 intercontinental-range missiles.