The New York Times reports another 110 missile silos under construction in China have been “discovered” bringing the total of recently “found” missile silos under construction to 245-260 .
Is this a big deal?
Well, it depends upon your assumptions. The projected cost to build 260 silos is roughly $31 billion —but just for unhardened silos. For the projected 355 deployed and test missiles, the cost would be a projected $45 billion.
Warheads, infrastructure and NC3 would be add to that.
Now why would China be making such a huge investment, for a massive buildup of their nuclear arsenal if one assumes to date China wants only to keep a minimal deterrent of around 300 warheads?
The Times’ reporters—William Broad and David Sanger—conclude if the Chinese are building up, well the US made them do it. As former US ambassador to the United nations famously quipped in a 1984 speech, critics of the US security and foreign policy “always blame America first.”
And so, the Times, including various similar assessments, blames the USA as they explain (without evidence) that China’s build-up is: (1) a reaction to USA missile defenses or (2) simply joining an existing USA led arms race, or (3) trying to reach nuclear parity with USA or (4) building stuff to trade away in an arms control deal that the USA is pushing them to adopt!
Whatever China’s motivation, how extensive is the projected nuclear build-up?
Well, here again the diminutive school of thought thinks there is nothing to worry about. China is simply trying to preserve a secure retaliatory deterrent strike capability in the face of United States threats, and is not really adding very many warheads to its arsenal despite the hundreds of new missile silos.
For example, a Harvard professor says the Chinese missiles would shuttle missiles in underground tunnels to their silos but the USA wouldn’t know which silo had a missile. However, when the USA contemplated such an MPS-- multiple protective shelter--option for our own Peacekeeper missile, the cost was so prohibitive the idea was deep sixed. (We are talking about multiple hundreds of billions of dollars to build such a system of silos and tunnels.)
Furthermore, China already has a rail mobile system that has tunneled rail lines into mountains. New ICBM deployments could be done using that system which estimates are China already paid $65 billion to build.
Alternatively, the Times approvingly cites another analysis that concludes China will not use an MPS system but deploy missiles from above ground. But only a few (12) missiles will be added—the large number of silos will be to confuse USA targeting. Or writes the Times, China could even magnanimously trade the “extra” empty silos for an arms control deal.
Why would this be necessary? Well, silos are considered launchers for arms control deals. That is one key thing arms control between USA and Russia limits—thus even if China doesn’t put missiles in the silos, all the silos would count as real missiles. And the missile in question is the DF-41 each carrying 6-10 warheads. So, if China is forced to give the silos up, China will be needlessly spending tens of billions on systems they would have to jettison shortly after construction. So why would the US trade anything for what the Chinese can’t keep anyway?
So, what is actually going on?
Let’s start with dropping the always blame America narrative.
Well, in a huge understatement, the Times article does go a small step in that direction. The Times writes that China may be discarding it’s supposedly long held minimum deterrence strategy.
After decades of the Times reporting that the PRC was a special kind of nuclear power in not pursuing a large nuclear arsenal—-invariably portrayed as an example of how the USA could also deter adopting the same strategy and minimally sized deterrent, it is a welcome change to have the Times admit China is moving to build a major nuclear capability.
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Missing from the Times analysis is for what purpose China is pursuing such an expanded nuclear force. For example, China might be building a first class and eventual “second to none” coercive (not deterrent-based) nuclear capability in furtherance of its pursuit of becoming a hegemonic world power. That would certainly run counter to the China’s communist leaders long proclaimed “peaceful rise.”
Two hundred thirty silos can hold 230 missiles. If each missile is the DF-41, that can carry 6-10 warheads, that gives China a potential arsenal from silos-based missiles alone of some 2300 warheads of which 98% would be on alert.
Compared to USA with about 1000 on alert and the potential balance of power picture becomes more clear.
Some analysts have made the mistake of assuming the US overall stockpile of strategic weapons—3800—is somehow “operational” and thus the measure of comparison, when in fact the totality of the current US nuclear arsenal operational on a day-to-day basis is somewhere around 1350 warheads.
In short, the Times headline should have been: “Is China headed to an on-alert nuclear arsenal more than double US?
What is China intent upon doing with these new nuclear beans? This new military muscle could easily be used to pressure and coerce other nations to follow China in its Belts and Road Initiative. On the same day that the Times revealed the growing China nuclear arsenal, a new report from the Committee on the Present Danger/China, revealed the PRC has funded their Belts and Road initiative in some 140 nations to the tune of $4.2 trillion.....roughly the equivalent of the dollars corralled by China from 10 years of trade surpluses with the USA.
Or 7 years of intellectual property theft by China from US industry.
To put such funding in perspective, by comparison, the USA has spent in 18 months some $5.2 trillion in CV relief funding.
But China’s economic power is not the only hegemonic power we need to be concerned with. China’s growing military power may have serious real-world consequences.
In a related matter, a defense exercise done by the United States testing our defenses of Taiwan ended very badly for the US.
News reports are the USA lost to China—and did so quickly. This result echoed a similar finding in a Mitchell Institute study of the gap in US strategic bomber capability in protecting Taiwan from Chinese aggression.
Could the US lose a conflict with China over Taiwan?
Well, similarly, former Senator Jon Kyl told a national security audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies two years ago that in all the years he was associated with various studies and commission reports on US national security strategy, he had never found experts tell him as they did in a 2018 Commission review of US security with which he was a member, that in a large number of scenarios, the US lost conflicts to peer competitors China and Russia.
These conclusions may tell us the extent and seriousness of the Chinese challenge.
Some senior defense officials are taking note. News reports relate that the current Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Hyten has ordered major changes in USA war fighting strategy as a result.
To make that effective, the US must also build strong, credible, and timely nuclear deterrent---all current strategies that heretofore had been considered viable in defending the US in a conventional conflict had all assumed that there would not be any use of nuclear weapons.
China’s build is not because twenty years ago the US built a missile defense against rogue state missile threats such as from North Korea and Iran—which China suddenly believes it has to overcome. .
Though many missile defense advocates would like to see a deployed USA missile defense that would significantly blunt any Russian or Chinese first strike strategies, no US missile defense deployment on the horizon would vitiate any nation’s genuine deterrent capability, including that of China. But without a robust and credible US nuclear deterrent and missile defense, the US will not have the capability to checkmate China’s drive to hegemonic power.
Peter Huessy is President of Geostrategic Analysis of Potomac, Maryland, and Director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute.