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By Kris Osborn - President & Editor-In-Chief, Warrior Maven

(Washington, D.C.) The Commander of the U.S. military’s nuclear weapons arsenal is expressing serious concerns about the growing weapons threat presented by China’s massive military expansion.

“We are witnessing a strategic breakout by China including explosive growth in modernization in nuclear and conventional forces which can be described as breathtaking. It does not matter why China continues to grow and modernize. They are building the capability to execute any nuclear employment strategy. China is unconstrained by treaties. Business as usual will not work,” Adm. Charles Richard, Commander. U.S. Strategic Command, told an audience as the 2021 Space and Missile Defense Symposium, Huntsville Ala.

Richard went on to cite a handful of specific Chinese weapons systems which continue to both expand and cause significant concern. China has road-mobile ICBM launcher able to launch missiles armed with multiple reentry vehicles, DF-26 missiles, Jin-class nuclear armed ballistic missile submarines armed with new, long-range JL-3 missiles and its H-6 nuclear-armed bomber. China is also rapidly increasing its arsenal of nuclear weapons and improving its nuclear capacity.

There are additional Chinese capacity variables which only compound U.S. concerns about the threat. China has a large and fast-growing number of nuclear weapons to include ICBMs, to include two nuclear missile fields in Western China, each with 120 missiles, Richard said.

Richard was clear that there are metrics and technological variables far more significant than sheer numbers when it comes to the actual size of a given country’s number of nuclear weapons.

“I caution about a comparison of stockpiles. A nation’s stockpile is a crude measure, as you need delivery systems and range as well,” Richard explained.

This being said, Richard did also mention the crucial significance of arsenal size and capacity, saying that although the U.S. now has more ICBMs than China, that margin of difference is rapidly diminishing. The Pentagon’s 2020 China Military Report, for example, specifies that China will likely double the size of its nuclear stockpile over the next decade.

“Mass matters or quantity has a quality all of its own. Does not matter if our stuff is better, if you don’t have enough of them you still lose,” Richard said.

Richard made his comments in the context of deterrence theory and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s call for “integrated deterrence.”

“To achieve integration every domain must be considered,” Richard said.

Finally, Richard concluded his remarks with an interesting reference to what could be called an enduring paradox of deterrence, essentially ensuring massive, devastating destruction with nuclear weapons for the explicit and clear purpose of maintaining peace.

“Nuclear weapons systems are the only weapons for which you don’t have to pull the trigger for them to be used effectively,” Richard said.

Chinese shipbuilders are adding new aircraft carriers, amphibs and destroyers at an alarming pace. Chinese armored vehicle engineers are fast-adding new infantry carriers and mobile artillery platforms. Chinese weapons developers are adding large numbers of new drones and attack robots. But the largest and potentially most alarming element of all of this, according to many senior U.S. leaders, is the staggering pace at which China is adding nuclear weapons.

“A troubling revelation has been about the trajectory of the Chinese nuclear program. The Chinese have plans to at least double their arsenal by the end of the decade. They are departing from what has been known as a minimalist theory,” Gen. Timothy Ray, Commander, Air Force Global Strike Command, told reporters at the 2021 Air Force Association Symposium.

Much like Richard’s comments, Ray’s concern about the fast-growing Chinese nuclear arsenal aligns with and builds upon the Pentagon’s Pentagon’s 2020 China Military Report, which states that the number of warheads arming Beijing’s intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of threatening America will likely grow to 200 in the next five years. As an element of this expansion, China is increasing its inventory of long-range land-fired DF-26 Anti-Ship missiles able to fire both conventional and nuclear missiles.

Ray cited a hope that China might be willing to consider joining various ongoing arms treaty discussions, but did not appear extremely optimistic about the possibility given China’s approach to nuclear weapons modernization.

“I think the need to have China in a conversation about arms control is important,” Ray says.

“Combined with a near-complete lack of transparency regarding their (China’s) strategic intent and the perceived need for a much larger, more diverse nuclear force, these developments pose a significant concern for the United States,” the 2020 Pentagon report explains.

The reality of the threat circumstance with China seemed to be one of several reasons why Ray stressed the importance of maintaining and adding to the U.S. nuclear triad, particularly in the Asian theater.

There continues to be successful U.S. and allied Bomber Task Force Patrols, including ongoing work with B-1s in India and integrated flights with nuclear-capable B-2s and B-52s. Ray said the Air Force is working vigorously to expand allied collaboration with Bomber Task Forces beyond its current scope.

“We have the highest bomber aircrew readiness in the history of the command,” he said.

Alongside an effort to emphasize the growing importance of allied operations in the Pacific, Ray stressed a need for the U.S. to maintain its strategic deterrence posture with a modernized nuclear triad.

Gen. Timothy Ray

Gen. Timothy Ray takes command of Air Force Global Strike Command

“There are no allied bombers and no allied ICBMs. These two components are the cornerstone of the security structure of a free world,” Ray said.

What much of this contributes to, Ray explained, is the importance of continuing the current Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent program, a now underway effort to build a new arsenal of 400 U.S. ICBMs.

War With China

When it comes to the seriousness or potential urgency of any kind of Russian or Chinese threat, issues which unquestionably “rule the day” when it comes to current thinking and discussion, much of the emphasis is on deterrence, and rightly so.

How can forces and capability be massed, deployed or demonstrated to ensure that either Russia or China simply won’t want to consider the consequence of U.S. response to any kind of first strike.

However, what about what happens if there actually is a ? Who wins? Could a Chinese invasion of Taiwan be stopped?

Perhaps currently unanswerable questions might quickly be resolved should, for instance, China attempt an amphibious assault upon Taiwan. Success or failure might hang to a large extent upon who establishes air superiority, something which could easily be decided quickly.

An amphibious attack would have little to no chance of success without air superiority or at least a serious ability to rival and minimize air resistance. Otherwise, large numbers of U.S. 5th-Gen fighters, should they get there in time, might simply decimate an attacking surface force from the air.

Air Force

Arriving on time is something quite likely given the number of forward stationed aircraft and the precision and range of surveillance technology which would see an amphibious approach long before it was able to approach shore.

Should an F-35, for example, prove itself far more capable than a Chinese J-20 or J-31 when it comes to air combat, China might have a massively diminished opportunity to fight for air superiority. The result would likely depend upon the results to questions which are now unknown, even surrounded by an element of mystery.


The F-35A Conventional Takeoff and Landing

A J-20 or J-31 could, for instance, mirror or even seek to replicate the external configuration of a U.S. 5th-generation stealth aircraft, but does that mean it would preval in air war? Not at all.

Chinese J-20

The victor in any kind of 5th-generation air confrontation, it would seem, might be determined by simple questions such as ..which aircraft has longer-range and more precise targeting sensors? Who can see who first? Which force is better meshed or networked with information regarding a sensor-to-shooter cycle.

The victor in any kind of 5th-generation air confrontation, it would seem, might be determined by simple questions such as ..which aircraft has longer-range and more precise targeting sensors? Who can see who first? Which force is better meshed or networked with information regarding a sensor-to-shooter cycle.

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Should an F-35’s long-range sensors, coupled with its computer enabled Mission Data Files able to instantly identify or confirm threats at long ranges, be able to “see” a group of Chinese aircraft before they are themselves seen .. they might prevail quickly, especially if instantly networked to other attack assets or armed with long-range precision-guided air-to-air weapons which now exist.

This scenario has actually already happened in an Air Force wargame, wherein an F-35 was able to see and destroy a large group of enemy fighters while remaining undetectable itself. A single aircraft was able to destroy multiple enemy fighters.

Information dominance, therefore, could quickly determine a victor in any fight taking place in today’s technological environment, particularly when it comes to air supremacy. Perhaps this is why the sensor to shooter loop, enabled by AI, threat identification and fast computer processing is most likely to decide who sees who .. and who kills who… first.

Once information dominance were established, particularly in the air, it seems it might be nearly impossible to overcome. Should an attacking force simply not have an ability to find or target its enemy fast enough, it would seem to have little chance. So what is the actual state of technology when it comes to Chinese targeting, AI-enabled threat identification or long-range air strike ability? Therein lies your answer. Once force is likely to be technologically superior when it comes to finding and attacking the other, creating a deficit which might simply be too great to overcome. Should China fail to establish any kind of sufficient air support, why would the country keep fighting?

Conversely, should a Chinese 5th-Generation fighter be equipped with sensors and long range weapons somehow superior to U.S. 5th Gen, air support for an amphibious attack might be established. That is something which could prove nearly impossible to defend, as ground-fired anti-ship and anti-aircraft weapons could quickly be destroyed from the air, and a defending Taiwanese land force might be tasked with the seemingly insurmountable task of repelling a massive Chinese amphibious assault landing upon its shore.


China's J-31

There are other factors which could also determine a rapid victory.

Hypersonic Missiles & Air Support

For example, should China have operational, long-range, precision-guided hypersonic missiles …. In a war in which the U.S. did not have either equal ability to fire them or at least be able to defend against them .. dominance could for instance be achieved quickly. The pace of attack might simply be too fast.

Shore defenses could be overwhelmed without substantial defenses against missile attacks approaching at 5 times the speed of sound. However, going back to air support, an attacking force armed with hypersonics would still need information dominance in the air, meaning they could need hypersonic weapons able to target and destroy U.S. 5th Generation aircraft, and in order to do that, they would need information dominance at range.

The weapons and sensor ranges, coupled with high-speed information processing and target, data networking, would likely enable uncontested 5th-Gen aircraft to simply obliterate a Chinese surface Naval force.

For example, the F-35 will soon be armed with a Stormbreaker air-dropped weapon able to track moving targets from distances up to 40 nautical miles in all weather conditions, the Air Force is making rapid progress with collaborative in-flight bomb-to-bomb-to aircraft autonomous targeting adjustment, and F-22 AIM-120D and AIM-9X upgrades have engineered the weapons with new anti-jam technologies, targeting precision and range.

Essentially, something which cannot be seen or targeted simply cannot be attacked, and space based sensors might be unable to track a 5th-Generation aircraft or even networking tracking details to some kind of air or ground shooter. Without air support or an ability to defend against U.S. air attacks, a massive amphibious attack would have little prospect of success. Ship mounted anti-aircraft guns won’t stop an F-22, simply put.

U.S. Air Force F-22

F-22 deploys flares

A similar parallel could be made when it comes to the undersea domain.

U.S. Navy

Should a Virginia-class submarine’s Large Aperture Bow sonar array, or new generations of Unmanned Underwater Vehicles help establish information dominance beneath the ocean, an advancing amphibious force might have trouble surviving any kind of surface approach as they would face a massive torpedo attack from undersea, likely coming from depths less detectable from ship-towed sonar or coming from armed unmanned undersea vehicles able to closely approach with little risk.

Virginia-class submarines are increasingly being engineered for reconnaissance as much as attack, given that they are now equipped with newer kinds of quieting technology and undersea sensors. However, should U.S. undersea dominance remain contested, attacking surface ships might succeed against any kind of surface Navy resistance, but that still would not remove the need for air superiority.

Given the reliance upon information, range, targeting and precision, information superiority could easily be achieved quickly, making it nonsensical for the inferior force to keep fighting.

So while there is always a chance that something could become protracted, it seems equally if not more likely that a massive engagement or great power could end quickly. That would certainly be the U.S. hope, however there are many as of yet completely unanswered question, and U.S. air superiority is far from a certainty given the pace of Chinese technological advances.

The range and precision of Chinese 5th-Gen jet weapons and sensors may simply not be known. A key question to get an answer to, it would seem

As part of its in depth description of the maritime threats posed by China, the strategy raises the significant point that China has a particular mass or concentration of large Naval forces in the Pacific, something quite larger than the U.S. presence in the region. While China is of course well known for having expansionist global ambitions to include Africa, and The Middle East, among others, its forces do operate in large concentrated numbers in the Pacific, creating a disproportionate advantage in the region.

South China Sea Militarization

It is perhaps with this in mind that the strategy details several aggressive Chinese efforts to include “militarizing” the South China Sea, asserting what the U.S. and its allies regard as “unlawful claims” to disputed territory in the area. The document also says China is “stealing” resources from other nations and building the world’s largest missile arsenal capable of threatening U.S. and allied forces in Guam and other areas throughout SouthEast Asia.

“Whereas U.S. naval forces are globally dispersed, supporting U.S. interests and deterring aggression from multiple threats, China’s numerically larger forces are primarily concentrated in the Western Pacific,” the strategy states. At the same time, the strategy makes a key point to emphasize Chinese expansionist aims in areas such as the Indian Ocean, Arctic and even the Atlantic Ocean.

Citing China’s “multi-layered” fleet, the strategy and growing arsenal of ballistic, nuclear and hypersonic missiles, the strategy seems to recognize that, when it comes to maritime warfare, China is by far the most serious and significant threat to the U.S. As part of this, China’s rapid military modernization, particularly its Naval forces, are now amid a massive expansion, as the country deploys new Type 075 amphibs, stealthy Type 055 destroyers and multiple new aircraft carriers bearing a resemblance to the U.S. Ford-class carriers.

U.SA Navy USS Ford (CVN 78) Shock Trials

 USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) Completes First Full Ship Shock Trial Event

Carrier-Launched Stealth Fighters and Submarines

Added to the maritime threat equation is that China is known to be engineering a carrier-launched variant of its 5th-Gen J-31 stealth fighter in a clear attempt to rival the U.S. amphib-launched F-35B or carrier-launched F-35C. Undersea, China continues to build new Jin-class ballistic missile submarines, soon to be armed with JL-3 nuclear-armed missiles able to travel 4,000 nautical miles to a target.

When discussing the nature of the fast-growing Chinese Naval threat, the strategy calls upon the U.S. Navy to “act with urgency.”

“China’s aggressive actions are undermining the international rules-based order, while its growing military capacity and capabilities are eroding U.S. military advantages at an alarming rate. The Naval Service must act with urgency, clarity, and vision to take the bold steps required to reverse these trends,” the strategy states.

If the Chinese Navy is already larger than the U.S. Navy, and on track to reach as many as 500 ships by 2030, without even counting its militarized Coast Guard vessels …. could the U.S. Navy find itself spread too thin in the event that concentrated Chinese maritime forces in the Pacific were to mount some kind of offensive or aggressive military action?

U.S. Navy Outnumbered & Outgunned?

The U.S. Navy places a massive priority upon operating forward in vital hotspots throughout the world, and while the Pentagon has been increasing its number of Naval assets in the Pacific, its forces are dispersed throughout the world to include the Baltic Sea, Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea, Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf. Perhaps by virtue of being so wide spanning and global in scope, the U.S. Navy could find itself outnumbered and outgunned in certain concentrated areas by a larger Chinese Naval force should conflict erupt in the Pacific.

The Navy’s new tri-service maritime warfare strategy, called Advantage at Sea: Prevailing With Integrated All Domain Naval Power,” entertains and seeks to counter this risk by maintaining “forward-deployed, combat-credible forces” to “deter potential adversaries from escalating into conflict by making that fight unwinnable for them.”

Are there circumstances wherein an adversary might think it could launch a “winnable” fight in a particular area given the absence of a large scale Naval force of heavy warships? This may be part of why, at least as of the end of last year, the Navy still envisioned a 500-ship Navy as an aim point or goal toward which to strive. This would include a heavy mix of manned and unmanned vessels able to disperse yet network effectively and rely upon long-range sensors and weapons to exact any kind of needed warfare operations.

However, will the Navy maintain its plan to expand to 500 or more ships as quickly as possible, to keep pace with or at least rival China’s intent to hit that number within a decade? Perhaps the Biden administration will adjust the aim point to a smaller size as was the case during the Obama years. If so, could the Navy find itself spread way too thin to respond effectively in the event that larger numbers of concentrated enemy forces moved decisively to launch large-scale attacks or take over an area.

The Tri-service strategy does say that, while China of course has well known expansionist global ambitions, PLA Navy forces are very concentrated in the Pacific, a circumstance which presents the risk of U.S. forces being largely outnumbered in any kind of maritime engagement.

However, if properly fortified by a large, multi-domain network of meshed combat nodes such as surveillance planes, submarines, aerial, surface and undersea drones, could a smaller, more dispersed U.S. Naval force succeed in deterring or stopping any kind of Chinese offensive in the Pacific?

There may be a case to be made, when one considers that weapons range, networking capabilities and multi-domain operational capability could potentially compensate for having a numerically smaller force. Perhaps weapons effectiveness and an ability to instantly share targeting specifics with fighter jets, surface ships, drones, submarines, or even ground-weapons along a coastline might prove much more decisive in warfare than simply having a certain number of ships?

“As existing elements of our force structure continue to provide combat-credible power and strategic deterrence, increased integration will enable us to do more with the forces we already have,” the strategy writes.

-- Kris Osborn is the President of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

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.

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President