A new Pentagon report on China says the country is developing dual-use hypersonic weapons, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles able to attack as both conventional and nuclear strikes.
China has recently successfully tested its DF-17 hypersonic glide vehicle, according to DoD’s 2021 “Report on Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China”
DF-17 Hypersonic Glide Vehicle
“The DF-17 passed several tests successfully and is deployed operationally. While the DF-17 is primarily a conventional platform, it may be equipped with nuclear warheads,” the Pentagon China report states. The report also says that the DF-17 is intended to attack foreign military bases and fleets in the Western Pacific. This would suggest that its primary use is likely to be conventional, yet a nuclear-armed hypersonic glide vehicle would introduce a paradigm-changing threat for U.S. and allied forces in the Pacific.
A nuclear weapon used regionally within the Pacific could be a “lower-yield” weapon and operate with an ability to strike quickly as it would not have to travel between continents. An attack weapon traveling at hypersonic speeds within the Pacific region seems nearly impossible to defend. Commanders within the Pacific region would have little or no time with which to track an approaching hypersonic attack and either try to intercept it or launch a counterattack.
Essentially, catastrophic nuclear damage could be inflicted at truly unprecedented speeds, something which greatly compounds the threat equation for U.S. forces in the Pacific. While the U.S. does have some Patriot Missiles and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptors, they simply might not be fast enough to stay on track targeting a hypersonic glide vehicle.
The well known anti-ship missile is also slated to be nuclear-capable, the Pentagon report also said. This weapon has gained notoriety and much media attention for being nicknamed a “carrier killer” weapon. This is because the missiles are reported to operate with an ability to travel as far as 2,000 miles to hit a U.S. Navy carrier operating at safe standoff distances from the shore.
“The multi-role DF-26 is designed to rapidly swap conventional and nuclear warheads and is capable of conducting precision land-attack and anti-ship strikes in the Western Pacific, the Indian Ocean, and the South China Sea from mainland China,” the Pentagon report on China states.
A companion Chinese weapon, called the DF-21D, can also reach long distances in the range of 1,000 miles against moving ship targets at sea such as carriers and other large U.S. Navy warships.
All of these weapons certainly reinforce a point made in the Pentagon report which is that China also intends to overcome and destroy the U.S. Navy ballistic missile defenses. A hypersonic glide vehicle or long-range anti-ship missile would clearly introduce the possibility that ship-based Aegis radar systems could be attacked, jammed or overwhelmed by Chinese attacks.
A Pentagon report on China’s military raises the concerning possibility that the People’s Liberation Army may well convert its well-known DF-26 “carrier-killer” anti-ship missile into a low-yield tactical nuclear weapon.
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This presents new threat dimensions given the range and scope of the weapon, which is widely reported to be capable of hitting large Navy surface platforms with precision guidance from ranges up to 2,000 miles.
“The DF-26 is the PRC’s first nuclear-capable missile system that can conduct precision strikes, and therefore, is the most likely weapon system to field a lower-yield warhead in the near-term. PRC military writings in 2012 noted that the introduction of new precise small-yield nuclear weapons could possibly allow for the controlled use of nuclear weapons,” DoD’s 2021 “Report on Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China” states.
Discussion about the prospect of any kind of “limited” or “targeted” nuclear engagement using tactical, lower-yield weapons has received much attention in recent years following Russia’s violation of the INF Treaty and pursuit of low-yield nuclear weapons. These developments generated significant concern at the Pentagon and were likely part of the rationale for the Trump administration's 2018 Nuclear Posture Review.
The NPR report launched a large-scale effort to build new low-yield nuclear weapons such as a submarine-launched, nuclear-capable cruise missile and a reconfigured submarine-fired Trident II D5 armed with low-yield warheads. Several years ago, former Defense Secretary James Mattis said part of the intent with the 2018 NPR’s call for new low-yield weapons was to bring Russia back to the negotiating table following its INF violations. The Pentagon report makes it clear that China appears to have taken notice.
“PRC concerns began to emerge that the United States would use low-yield weapons against a Taiwan invasion fleet, with related commentary in official media calling for proportionate response capabilities,” the Pentagon report says. “PRC strategists have highlighted the need for lower-yield nuclear weapons in order to increase the deterrence value of the PRC’s nuclear force, though they have not defined specific nuclear yield values.”
The issue of low-yield weapons has generated vigorous debate in recent years, with some members of Congress and other observers raising the concern that they could “lower the threshold” to nuclear war and lend evidence to the argument that some kind of tactical use of nuclear weapons could be contemplated as a realistic option.
Meanwhile many others have maintained that low-yield weapons are crucial to sustaining an effective nuclear deterrence posture. Fundamental to this discussion is the issue of “proportional response.”
Some argue that the possible use of any nuclear weapon, on any scale, should be met with the promise of a large-scale catastrophic response aimed at complete destruction. Should this be articulated as a clear deterrence message, the intent would be to prevent nuclear weapons use of any kind. By contrast, others argue that an ability to launch a limited, proportional response introduces counterattack options for commanders and decision-makers in a way that greatly reinforces and strengthens a deterrence posture.
“PRC nuclear thinkers could be reconsidering their long-standing view that nuclear war is uncontrollable,” the Pentagon report says.
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.