Peter Huessy is Director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies

The Deputy Commander of the United States Strategic Command told a Mitchell Institute nuclear seminar forum on August 27th that China may replace Russia as the top nuclear capable adversary of the United States. 

The context of Lt Gen Bussiere’s remarks is the recent discovery that China is building up to 400 new ICBM silos in Western China, the construction of which could be completed within the next two-four years, if done at a pace not unlike that of the United States when our original Minuteman ICBMs were constructed. The missile slated for deployment in these silos would be the 6-10 warhead Chinese DF-41.

Suspected Missile Silo Construction Sites in China

Commercial satellite photos show suspected construction sites for missile silos in China. (Planet/Center for Nonproliferation Studies)

When Does China Surpass Russia?

When is the crossover point--when China actually surpasses Russia as the leading nuclear threat? Bussiere explained: “There's going to be a point, a crossover point where the number of threats presented by China will exceed the number of threats that currently Russia presents. 

As a matter of fact, there's more to it than numbers. We don't necessarily approach it from a pure numbers game. 

  • It is what is operationally fielded? 
  • What's the readiness status of those forces? 
  • What's the posture of those forces? 
  • And then what's the intent of that posture of those fielded forces? 
  • So it's not just a stockpile number? It's a much more informed decision on that.”

While the two nations have differing national objectives, there are indications said the General that those nations are “cooperating across different spectrums and presenting a cooperative deterrence model.”

As the Air Force Association’s John Tirpak writes, according to the General, “Both China and Russia have the ability to unilaterally escalate a conflict to any level of violence in any domain, in any geographic location, at any time, with any instrument of their national power…we haven’t faced a … global situation like that in 30-plus years.” 

No Nuclear Treaty

And while China will soon exceed Russia force capability, as Bussiere noted, “I'd also offer that that rapid, breathtaking expansion is coupled with the fact that we don't have, like we have with Russia, any treaty frameworks, we don't have any strategic stability talks, we don't have any avenues to alleviate any misperceptions or confusion.”

General Bussiere’s warning may come as a surprise to many national security specialists. Depending upon the source one references, China is often assumed today to want only a limited arsenal, on the order of no more than 250-350 warheads in its deployed nuclear force, consisting of a limited number of land based fixed and mobile ICBMs, some submarine launched missiles, and a modernizing strategic bomber force.

China Missile Silos

Yumen in northwestern China is among three locations where the Beijing government is constructing at least 250 new long-range missile silos. (Image: Planet Labs Inc. / Analysis: MIIS James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies)

This current force has long been described by the Chinese government and similarly mimicked by many western analysts, including some US intelligence agencies, as a “small minimal deterrent”, largely passive, with China overall described as a non-threatening economic and nuclear power characterized by a “peaceful rise’.

Less common is the view that China may already have a deployed nuclear force approaching 1000-3000 warheads as asserted by a number of US experts on the subject such as Rick Fisher, Brad Thayer, Peter Pry and Mark Schneider. .

However, whatever the size of China’s nuclear arsenal, it is dramatically growing, to a level that could be equal to or be greater than the entirety of the current US or Russian deployed strategic nuclear force.

Implications of Chinese Nuclear Build

There are at least three serious implications of the Chinese build which require a robust analysis by Congress—such as within the US-China Commission—or by the US intelligence community.

First while the Russian strategic, long range warheads (under New START limits) potentially available for deployment exceed that of the US, and second, while Russian shorter range, theater nuclear forces (under no arms deal limits) are at least now 400% of the US total, the new third element is that China’s deployed nuclear warheads have not been part of either an arms control framework (no arms deal restricts China’s nuclear forces), or an explicit new threat for sizing the US strategic nuclear deterrent force.

Here the question is simple. Do numbers matter? Does the size of the US deployed nuclear arsenal---90% of which is bounded by the 2010 New START treaty with Russia—now have to be examined in light of the major Chinese build-up? Does the future hold an environment where during a crisis the US could be facing as many as 5000 combined strategic warheads held by Russia and China?

Presidents Obama and Medvedev after signing the Prague Treaty.

Presidents Obama and Medvedev after signing the Prague Treaty.

Deterrence in the current geostrategic landscape is often considered viable as long as the US has a secure, credible retaliatory capability--even under scenarios where the US fully rides out an enemy first strike, and even if we were deploying our forces on a day-to-day non-generated peacetime pace.

Deterrence

Here some background is important.

Many in the disarmament community do not believe numbers matter in terms of securing deterrence as long as we can inflict serious damage to an adversary, usefully described as the number of cities we could attack. The founder of Global Zero testified before Congress in 2019 that 300-600 deployed US warheads was sufficient.

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Others believe deterrence is credibly maintained only by being able to destroy an adversaries major nuclear and military capabilities, as well as the leadership, without which an enemy country cannot wage war and maintain hegemonic power.

Totalitarian states are willing to accept the deaths of millions of their own people, and the destruction of many of their cities, and still consider it “victory” were they to prevail in a nuclear conflict. And prevailing may have much to do with the assumption our enemies make with respect to the prospects of being able to take out US nuclear forces.

In 1972, when the first arms deal was signed, SALT I, the US had over 2700 nuclear delivery vehicles, (SNDVs) including over one thousand missile silos, 41 submarines of which dozens were at sea, and hundreds of strategic bombers, many of which were airborne. That force eventually would grow to roughly 12,000 deployed strategic warheads as did the force of the USSR.

SALT 1

May 26, 1972. President Nixon and General Secretary Brezhnev signing the (SALT 1) ABM Treaty (Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems) and the Interim Agreement on strategic offensive arms in Moscow.

Our SNDV level was down to 1100 prior to the 2010 New START agreement, and Russia was around 500. But in the New START negotiations, to secure Russian consent, as General Cartwright told me, the US more than split the difference with Moscow and cut our SNDV platforms from 1100 to 700.

But that 700 number is not as robust as it might appear. Russia or China, to deliver counterforce damage and disarm the US has to destroy roughly 500 targets--400 ICBM silos, 40 Launch control facilities, 3 bomber bases, 2 SSBN submarine ports, and some C3I nodes. The fully survivable force is currently those submarines we rotate at sea or are in transit, some 4-8 submarines. According to our nuclear experts, that is currently a survivable force.

However, advocates of deeper warhead reductions beyond New START want to unilaterally eliminate our land-based ICBMs, which would reduce US deployed warheads to 1000, but also reduce the US target list with which Russia and China have to be concerned to around as few as 12-16 assets.

Now the US retaliatory capability from an un-generated, day-to-day deployment, if one assumes US ICBMs and bombers are destroyed on the ground as are our submarines in port, is arguably 6 SSBNs submarines on patrol, each with 20 missiles and an assumed 480 warheads.

However, as we look into the future, is that adequate when facing both a fully nuclear armed China and Russia? After all, Mark Schneider believes China and Russia combined might have over 700 ICBM silos, requiring some 1400 warheads--assuming that two warheads per silo are needed to ensure a high probability of destruction.

The Hami and Yumen missile silo fields are located deeper inside China than any other ICBM base and beyond the reach of conventional cruise missiles.

The Hami and Yumen missile silo fields are located deeper inside China than any other ICBM base and beyond the reach of conventional cruise missiles.

Or if we aimed our retaliatory capability at enemies cities, would totalitarian personalities accept destruction of upwards of 25% of their population in exchange for annihilation of their enemy and world domination? The answer to that question might very well be yes, but we cannot answer it intelligently unless we analyze the new nuclear balance which is now changing in the world today.

While arms deals did in fact reduce deployed nuclear forces dramatically starting with the 1987 INF treaty and the subsequent reduction agreements beginning with START I in 1991, US nuclear deterrence cannot be achieved through arms control. The U.S. “nuclear modernization holiday” that will have lasted over 40 years is in large part due to “global zero” being thought of as a serious idea and not a fantasy.

So, what is to be done?

Does deterrence require the continued US counter-force doctrine—of having enough survivable nuclear capability to inflict at least equivalent counterforce/countervalue damage on the enemy, especially enough to ensure adversary political-military leaders do not survive a nuclear exchange? Or do we adopt disarmament group opposition to counterforce doctrine and adopt arms control as the means of reducing nuclear weapons to such low levels that in the interim stage from “global zero”, only “city busting” is a deterrent option.

What also is the role for spaced-based missile defenses, especially if designed to make disarming nuclear missile strikes obsolete (President Reagan’s SDI vision) where “he who strikes first no longer wins.”

An artist's depiction of SDI

An artist's depiction of SDI

Part of the emerging posture we might seek is a greater number of platforms or assets, apart from the extent to which warhead levels are limited. Years ago, I asked General Cartwright didn’t it make more sense to expand our platforms and SNDVs even as we reduced warheads, so the calculus of deterrence improved. He explained the Russians would not agree.

But if the US did expand its SNDVs, it would take decades and hundreds of billions more defense costs. Although having 1000 US ICBMs, 30+ submarines with 480 missiles, and some 60+ strategic bombers on strip alert would markedly improve the strategic balance. For example, the future 7 to 1 ratio of Russian and Chinese strategic warheads to US nuclear assets would no longer be the threat, but with a ratio closer to 3 to 1.

In short, do numbers matter and is improving stability possible? In the early Reagan administration, multiple National Security Defense Directives sought an end to the Soviet empire and a more secure and stable nuclear balance. How? A ban on multiple warhead land-based missiles, moving more nuclear forces to sea on survivable submarines, preserving our dual use strategic bombers for their critically needed conventional mission, in addition to robust missile defenses and major reductions in arms through arms control agreements.

We know Soviet political leaders had elaborate plans to strike NATO and particularly the US pre-emptively. But during the Reagan administration, surviving U.S. nuclear capabilities, even after a “successful” Soviet first strike, was over 2,000 U.S. nuclear weapons. This was a formidable deterrent, more credible than the estimated 400-500 retaliatory warheads that might be our minimal deterrent under not unreasonable assumptions we can make today.

Mark Schneider reports that on August 12, 2021, the Commander of U.S. Strategic Command Admiral Charles Richard stated, “We are witnessing a strategic breakout by China….The explosive growth in their nuclear and conventional forces can only be what I described as breathtaking." He added that "…frankly, that word ‘breathtaking’ may not be enough.” Admiral Richard characterized China as a “peer” nuclear competitor and noted that we now face two nuclear “peer” competitors, Russia, and China, compared to one during the Cold War.

The US did previously build during the Reagan era three hard target kill capable missiles able to take out key Soviet military targets, including the Soviet reserve ICBM force. 

But the 500 Peacekeeper warheads the Reagan administration deployed are retired, the remaining highly capable 400 high yield W-88 sea-based warheads may not hold all newly hardened targets at risk, while the advanced cruise missile has also been eliminated. The remaining Minuteman ICBM force is much improved but reportedly not necessarily capable of taking out super hard 30,000 psi concrete silos.

W88 Warhead

Development flight test for the W88 Alt 370

But the US is still nearly a decade away before the modernized platforms enter the deterrent force. What is needed is a full analysis of whether the planned nuclear force, (much less a smaller one), can deal with the newly expanding Chinese and Russian nuclear forces, including deeply buried hardened targets, many defended by advanced defenses.

Admiral Richard explains that every US operational plan in Department of Defense rests on the assumption that strategic nuclear deterrence will hold. And he notes if strategic nuclear deterrence doesn’t hold, “none of our other plans, and no other capability that we have is going to work as designed. We can’t afford to have nuclear deterrence fail.”

Peter Huessy is Director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies