Nuclear complexity in the Third Nuclear Age

Amid the intense debate over China’s military modernization, with concern over aspects of its ‘anti-access and area denial’ capabilities such as the ‘DF-21D Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile’ and advanced submarines, little attention has been focused on China’s evolving nuclear weapons capabilities. Since China first demonstrated a nuclear weapons capability with the detonation of its first nuclear device in 1964 at Lop Nor, China has adopted a very different path in terms of force development compared to the former Soviet Union and the United States. Unlike the two superpowers, China has not embraced a large nuclear arsenal designed for counterforce, involving thousands of strategic nuclear warheads poised on silo-based ICBMs, or submarine-based missiles, and bombers. Instead China has adopted a ‘minimum deterrent’ posture with a declared ‘no first use’ pledge. The size of its nuclear arsenal remains small –standing at 240 warheads deliverable by land-based ballistic missile, submarine launched ballistic missile, and aircraft, with the missiles controlled by the PLA’s elite Second Artillery Corps. (Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S Norris, ‘Chinese nuclear forces, 2011’ in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 67 6 81-87, 2011).

Most of the Chinese strategic nuclear delivery systems are old, and have limited capability. But modernization is occurring. Older missile systems like the DF-3A and DF-4 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are steadily being replaced with the DF-31 ICBM, whilst the DF-5A is likely to be replaced by the DF-31A, or may be held in service alongside the newer missile, given the shorter range of the DF-31A. The newer DF-41 ICBM, long rumored to be in development, has now appeared since July 2012, with commentators suggesting the DF-41 is road mobile, and could potentially be armed with multiple warheads.

China is also pursuing modernization of its sea-based nuclear deterrent force, with the Jin class ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) carrying the new Julang 2 (JL-2) submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). However the development of both the SSBN, and the missile is encountering problems. A new SSBN – the type 96 – is in early stages of development, but in the interim it seems likely that certainly three Jin SSBNs and potentially five boats could enter service, carrying up to 60 JL-2 SLBMs. The shorter range of the sea-based leg of China’s nuclear deterrent forces – a constraint imposed both by the range of the JL-2 and the risks of deploying SSBNs beyond the first island chain into ‘far seas’ in the central Pacific, means that the PLAN’s sea-based nuclear deterrent may be directed more at regional adversaries – for example, US military forces that are deployed forward at key bases such as Guam and Okinawa, as well as both India and possibly Russia. Of key significance is the likelihood that rather than risking quick detection and destruction by an adversary’s anti-submarine warfare (ASW) forces, China might follow the example of the former Soviet Union and embrace a ‘bastion’ strategy based around deployment of its SSBNs in the Bohai Sea, protected by the full weight of the PLA’s anti-access and area denial.

China can also deliver nuclear warheads via air-launched DH-10 cruise missiles, and free-fall bombs. But its current bomber forces, based around the H-6 Xian, a modernized copy of the old Soviet Tupelov Tu-16 Badger would struggle to penetrate modern integrated air defence systems. This may change, given its recent deal with Russia to acquire the production line for the Tupelov Tu-22M3 Backfire , to be known as the ‘Hong 10’. (see Norman Friedman, ‘World Naval Developments – Back(fire) to the Future?’ in Proceedings, August 2012, Vol 138/8/1,314, and http://blog.usni.org/2012/06/19/everything-old-is-new-again ). Chinese acquisition of Backfires will give it a much more capable long-range high speed maritime strike capability that contributes directly to enhancing its anti-access and area denial capabilities, but also offers a more sophisticated air-delivered nuclear strike capability, especially when Backfire is combined with long-range air-delivered land-attack cruise missiles carrying nuclear warheads.

So when you examine China’s nuclear forces, with a low number of nuclear warheads in comparison to the United States and Russia, and older delivery systems, the Chinese nuclear weapons capability and posture is not that threatening. This is reinforced by China’s nuclear posture, which remains minimum deterrence and no-first-use. The modernization described above will ensure that it remains a credible deterrent, as well as give China the potential to move from a basis of minimum deterrent / no first use, to a more robust nuclear posture in the future. The key question to consider is why would it choose to make such a change? A number of factors are emerging which could promote significant changes in both the size and role of China’s nuclear forces, and will demand greater attention by Western policy makers.

Of key significance to China is ensuring the survivability and maintaining the credibility of their nuclear deterrent in the face of a range of looming challenges. Looking from the perspective from Beijing, China faces the United States, which although currently de-emphasizing the role of nuclear forces and seeking to significantly reduce the number of nuclear weapons in its arsenal under the Obama Administration, is also maintaining a commitment to sustaining its own credible nuclear deterrent for the foreseeable future. This means that the aging nuclear delivery systems, as well as infrastructure to sustain the US nuclear weapons complex, will need to be modernized sooner rather than later to avoid undermining the credibility of the US nuclear deterrent.

This will be a critical and time-urgent challenge confronting the next President – be it Obama or Romney – at a time of increased funding constraints. One solution may be to minimize spending on modernizing nuclear forces, and either maintain those forces at current levels, or go towards ‘deep cuts’ suggested by proponents of nuclear abolition such as Global Zero in May 2012 (see Global Zero US Nuclear Policy Commission Report – Modernising US Nuclear Strategy, Force Structure and Posture, at http://www.globalzero.org/en/us-nuclear-policy-commission-report ). Such deep cuts in the US nuclear arsenal may be favored by a re-elected Obama Administration, and could be offset by investment in both missile defence systems, as well as long-range ‘prompt global strike’ capabilities based on conventional weapons. This has the advantage of not having to build new nuclear weapons that would be politically controversial given the strong sentiment for minimizing, and eventually eliminating nuclear weapons entirely. Furthermore, a conventional ‘sword’, matched by a defensive ‘shield’ in the form of a phased-adaptive approach to development of missile defence capabilities is also far more usable for a broader range of 21st Century threats, than nuclear weapons, whose only remaining use is to deter their own use, or failing that, respond devastatingly to nuclear attacks. An offensive-defensive conventional deterrent capability – whilst not being able to completely replace a nuclear deterrent – can thus minimize the need for sustaining large nuclear forces on quick-reaction alert, and contribute a positive step towards minimizing the role of nuclear weapons as much as is safe and practicable.

Yet such a prospect is likely to be seen by China as highly challenging to the survivability, and thus credibility of its own nuclear forces. The ability of the US to employ long-range precision conventional munitions to rapidly strike at detected Chinese nuclear forces, and then employ non-nuclear missile defence capabilities to counter Chinese retaliatory strikes raises the prospect of a disabling first-strike in the minds of Chinese nuclear planners. Prospects of US conventional strikes against the Chinese mainland as part of ‘Air Sea Battle’ to blind Chinese sensor and command systems also contributes to uncertainty about the survivability of China’s nuclear deterrent. How do the Chinese know for sure that such ‘blinding strikes’ would not be followed by rapid strikes on detected nuclear forces at a point of vulnerability in a crisis?

The easiest way to counter such a prospect is to deploy additional nuclear weapons – expand the size of its arsenal – and make the weapons more survivable through emphasizing mobility and rapid response. So development of the DF-41 road mobile ICBM, with the ability to deliver multiple warheads, developing quieter SSBNs protected in a bastion by submarine and surface anti-submarine warfare capabilities, and more advanced bomber capabilities in the form of Tu-22M3 Backfires makes a great deal of sense in this regard. Likewise, investment in a range of other capabilities designed to threaten vital nodes in the US and allied command and control systems would also be prudent. This could include undertaking strategic cyber warfare to neutralize an opponent’s command and control, and maintaining a range of counter-space capabilities to threaten critical communications and intelligence gathering satellites essential to US command and control, including nuclear command and control. Yet acquiring such capabilities makes little sense except in terms of early or pre-emptive use, to ‘pluck out the eyes and slice of the ears’ of the US military at the outset or prior to a military conflict. The US understands this challenge and would seek to deny China the ability to undertake Cyberwarfare and counter-space operations early in a conflict. The first shots in any US-Chinese conflict are thus likely to be delivered in Cyberspace and Space, and a ‘cult of the offensive’ may develop between both states to ensuring superiority in these domains.

But from China’s perspective, a more complex operational picture must also be considered beyond a US-China context. China faces growing nuclear challenges on its other borders, which it cannot ignore. India is pursuing nuclear modernization, both in terms of responding to Pakistan’s growing nuclear weapons capabilities, including tactical nuclear weapons, as well as China’s ‘regional nuclear’ capabilities such as the DF-21 missile. India’s Agni V ICBM is likely to achieve operational capability by 2014 or 2015, and India is also developing a sea-based ‘second strike’ capability with its Sagarika sea-launched ballistic missile – though this currently has short range and is aimed more at Pakistan than China. Nuclear war across the Himalayas is an appalling prospect to consider given unresolved disputes in Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin, or the likelihood of increasing Chinese-Indian naval rivalry. Whilst it is certainly not true that competitive arms racing is occurring, nuclear modernization could easily generate unstable dynamics, particularly if dialogue and transparency are absent from the relationship.

China will also be watching Russia’s nuclear modernization closely, particularly if Russia were to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, potentially as a result of deployment of US missile defenses in Europe. Russia is more likely to deploy shorter-range missile systems to threaten US missile defence in Central Europe before it withdrew from the INF. However the combination of US missile defence that Russia already considers a direct threat to its nuclear deterrent forces, and Chinese nuclear modernization, particularly with road-mobile multiple warhead ballistic missiles, itself driven by changing dynamics in the US-China and India-China nuclear relationship, would certainly add another layer of complexity and uncertainty to the relationship.

Finally, this complexity extends down to the regional level in Northeast Asia. South Korea has recently been given approval to acquire extended range, heavier ballistic missiles to counter North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, moving it beyond the limitations of the 1987 Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). The new agreement will allow South Korea to acquire missiles with 800km range – beyond the limit of 300km of the MTCR, and with a heavier payload for shorter range weapons. This will allow South Korea to effectively maintain a non-nuclear counterforce ‘deterrence by denial’ option against North Korea, but also potentially reach targets in China. Although South Korea has no direct clash with China in the same way that Japan has over the Diaoyu / Senkaku Islands, the prospect of PLA forces potentially intervening in a collapsing North Korea would be a potential basis for a military conflict, according to James Dobbins of the Rand Corporation (see James Dobbins, ‘War with China’ in IISS Survival, vol. 54, no 4, August – September 2012, pp. 7-24). South Korea does not have nuclear weapons, nor is it likely to acquire them. But as indicated above, conventional strike capabilities can neutralize nuclear weapons and are far more likely to be used in a military conflict. In the same way that US prompt-strike conventional capabilities would be challenging to Chinese interests, so would South Korean missile capabilities, not because such capabilities could directly threaten Chinese nuclear forces, but because the South Korean development sets a precedent for other actors, who would be classed as ‘threshold nuclear weapons states’ – such as Japan – to acquire similar capabilities. It is a fair question for Tokyo to ask that if South Korea can have such a capability, so should Japan, given that Japan faces clear security challenges from a highly unpredictable North Korean regime, and an increasingly assertive China that seems willing to employ coercive techniques in its dispute with Japan over the Daioyu / Senkaku Islands.

Is China is likely to respond to growing nuclear complexity in its relationships with its neighbors and with the US by breaking out of its traditional minimal deterrent posture, and moving its nuclear modernization process beyond merely replacing outdated nuclear weapons and delivery systems? This could see it increase the size of its nuclear arsenal, and possibly change its operational posture to better ensure credibility and most importantly survivability? Such a step would be bound to alarm both the US and China’s neighbors and thus prompt counter-responses on their part, exacerbating China’s concerns over the ensuring the credibility of its nuclear forces, in a classical security dilemma.

An alternative to the ‘nuclear breakout’ scenario might see China being content with maintaining a modernized nuclear capability that retains credibility, whilst looking on as the US’s nuclear forces are declining both by design through arms control measures, and through an unwillingness to sustain nuclear forces by investment in infrastructure? Certainly US financial constraints may preclude substantive modernization of its nuclear forces, and a conventional ‘offensive/defensive’ deterrent based around prompt-strike and missile defence could be one possible solution, whilst the nukes rust quietly in their silos. In this scenario, China can be patient and wait for nuclear parity to be achieved by default over time, whilst maintaining a sufficiently survivable nuclear deterrent force to ensure a credible deterrent, both against the US nuclear forces, as well as ‘second order’ threats such as India, Russia, and potentially other states.

Irrespective of which path it takes, China will seek to defeat US missile defence systems and its non-nuclear prompt strike capabilities. Through exploiting ‘assassin’s mace’ capabilities in areas such as Cyberwarfare and Counter Space capabilities that can erode essential US intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, as well as command and control (known as ‘C4ISR networks), the ability of the US to ‘blind’ Chinese forces in the early stages of Air Sea Battle would reinforce the survivability of China’s nuclear forces. So the importance of understanding how the Chinese think about these new operational domains cannot be overstated. They will be critical to the success or failure of China’s approach to fighting Local Wars under Informationised Conditions, and minimizing the risk of miscalculation that could lead to escalation in a crisis.

By Dr. Malcolm R Davis, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in China Western Relations, Department of International Relations and Centre for East-West Cultural and Economic Studies (CEWCES), Faculty of Humanities and Social Studies, Bond University, Queensland, Australia.

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