This week, the US Department of Defense released its. As usual, the report covers an extensive range of technological, tactical and strategic assessments of Beijing’s goals and capabilities. But it comes at a time when tensions mount – and even more frighteningly, nuclear weapons are emerging from the background to become a primary problem in the strategic competition between the two powers.
There is both more and less here than some breathless comments would suggest. China has long been abetween nuclear-weapon states: Despite its near-superpower status, its arsenal has remained closer in size to that of middle powers such as France, Britain or India than to that of the United States or Russia. Until recently, China also seemed content with a much less diversified set of delivery systems, relying heavily on land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and a very limited fleet of missile submarines, compared to the full-fledged “ of bombers, submarines and ICBMs deployed by Moscow and Washington.
That seems to have changed. Last fall, the Air Force of the People’s Liberation Army showed off awith what appears to be an air-launched ballistic missile, a type of weapon that makes the most sense with a warhead. The PLA Navy has been and building more submarines to transport them. Nor is the land-bound part of the triad left out: China is building for ICBMs and recently tested a with a fractional orbital bombardment capability. Of course, new delivery systems don’t mean much if they don’t have nuclear warheads, and on that front, the new DoD report suggests the PLA will increase the number of nuclear warheads deployed from about 350 to maybe a thousand by 2030.
But these developments do not happen in a vacuum. Even the alleged increase in the number of Chinese warheads still won’t put it on par with the United States, which(although according to the terms of the) Arms Restriction Treaty, less than half of which are available for immediate use). Meanwhile, the United States has significantly modernized its own nuclear delivery systems, including stealth and , and . The US has also withdrawn from several major arms control treaties in recent years, although it’s worth noting that those treaties were originally signed between the US and the USSR, and China was never a party to them. And finally, the United States has been actively developing missile defense, which could theoretically undermine the logic of nuclear deterrence.
And yet, despite all these technological advances, the underlying logic of nuclear threat remains much the same as it was before. A new nuclear arms race isn’t necessarily new, but it helps refocus our attention on dangers that have been with us for a long time.
Take, for example, the hypersonic missile test that attracted so much attention. Sure, the ability to evade and attack missile defenses from angles not covered by early-warning radars offers some advantages in certain apocalyptic scenarios — but the underlying reality is that China has long had the ability to build high-yield nuclear weapons. deliver to targets in the continental United States; the US has the ability to do the same with China, and there’s virtually nothing both can do to prevent it. Non-silo-based missiles – whether mounted on submarines or ground vehicles – aremassively before they can be launched, and once the rockets fly, . The US missile defense system, for all the billions involved, has proven unreliable in real-world testing and can be easily overwhelmed by sheer numbers (or by relatively cheap and simple decoy heads).
if, the purpose of China’s sudden nuclear acceleration might not be to win or even fight a nuclear war. It’s about creating and sustaining a credible deterrent — if you will, a front-of-mind presence in circles of hostile decision-making — to open up the space for more aggressive movements at the conventional or unconventional non-nuclear level. . (Russia’s recent push for highly unconventional systems like the Poseidon supertorpedo and a nuclear-powered cruise missile is harder to explain in this way, as Moscow already has a vast and highly survivable nuclear arsenal.)
To be clear, none of this is good news. No matter how much policy attention is given to them, the existence of nuclear weapons creates an inherent possibility of nuclear war, be it by accident, misunderstanding, miscalculation or – most likely – a combination of all three. Adding new systems, especially those with seemingly groundbreaking capabilities, changes the balance of deterrence, which is already a fragile thing, kept as it is between distrust and often misunderstood adversaries. It’s not at all clear what tactical advantage that risk is worth.