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By Kris Osborn, President, Center for Military Modernization

(Washington D.C.)  China's nuclear ambitions are indeed well known and, not surprisingly, the subject of much Pentagon attention, as evidenced by the recently published Nuclear Posture Review and a steady flow of DoD reports specifying the China threat. 

The People's Republic of China-Army, according to numerous reports, is planning to double the size of its arsenal of nuclear warheads in coming years and is making specific and visible efforts to engineer ground silos for new land-fired ICBMs. 

Meanwhile, alongside this well known Chinese effort to simply expand the size and scope of its nuclear arsenal, the PRC is also exploring new, dual-use applications of its conventional weapons to introduce new nuclear weapons attack possibilities. 

For instance, the 2021 Pentagon report on China’s military raised 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. The report also cites the emergence of Chinese long-range JL-3 submarine launched nuclear missiles

These emerging nuclear weapons possibilities clearly present new threat dimensions given the range and scope of these weapons. The DF-26, for instance, is widely reported to be capable of hitting large Navy surface platforms with precision guidance from ranges up to 2,000 miles.

DF-26 Missile

“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 2018 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.  At the same time, the Pentagon has in recent years scaled back its plans for a low-yield, nuclear-armed Submarine-Launched Cruise Missile but still called for full funding of its new Sentinel ICBM.  

The Pentagon's recently released 2022 Nuclear Posture Review specifies the intended scope of weaponry intended to support US strategic deterrence, stating...."to deter large-scale attacks, we will field a modern, resilient nuclear Triad."  The new Biden Administration nuclear review cites a number of key nuclear weapons innovations and applications such as a dual-capable F-35A stealth fighter armed with a B61-12 bomb and the evolving nuclear armed cruise missile called the Long-Range Standoff weapon. 

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"These flexible, tailorable capabilities are key to ensuring that Russia’s leadership does not miscalculate regarding the consequences of nuclear use on any scale, thereby reducing their confidence in both initiating conventional war against NATO and considering the employment of non-strategic nuclear weapons in such a conflict," the Pentagon's 2022 Nuclear Posture Review states. 

Several years ago, former Defense Secretary James Mattis explained the intent of low-yield weapons as a way 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 2021 report on China 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.

China's New Nuclear-Armed JL-3 Sub-Launched Missiles

This thinking appears to be reinforced by China's continued nuclear weapons modernization. For instance, the Pentagon's 2021 China report says Chinese submarines are fast developing new abilities to hold the continental U.S. at risk of catastrophic nuclear attack from submarines. 

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China already operates six Jin-class SSBNs, or nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines, armed with JL-2 missiles, yet the People’s Liberation Army is preparing to produce a far more lethal, longer-range JL-3 nuclear armed ballistic missile variant.

Could Chinese submarine-fired, nuclear armed ballistic missiles outgun or outrange their U.S. equivalents? That may likely remain an open question given that the Pentagon’s life extension plan upgrades to the Trident II D5 increase reliability and performance. Furthermore, the U.S. plans to operate as many as 12 new nuclear-missile armed Columbia-class submarines. This clearly expands the geographical scope of where they can quietly and secretly operate to hold major high-interest targets at risk.

JL-3 and JL-2 Missiles

“As the PRC fields newer, more capable, and longer ranged SLBMs such as the JL-3, the PLAN will gain the ability to target the continental United States from littoral waters, and thus may consider bastion operations to enhance the survivability of its sea-based deterrent,” DoD’s 2021 “Report on Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China” states.

Unlike the JL-2 which fires at more limited ranges, the now-in-development JL-3 will reportedly operate with an ability to travel as far as 5,600 miles. This means Jin-class submarines will not need to operate closer to shore to hold the continental U.S. at risk.

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“The current range limitations of the JL-2 will require the JIN to operate in areas north and east of Hawaii if the PRC seeks to target the east coast of the United States,” the Pentagon report states. The JL-3 changes this substantially.

The PRC now operates six JIN SSBNs, equipped to carry up to 12 JL-2 missiles, yet the range of these weapons restricts or limits the operational envelope should the boat seek to hold specific high-value U.S. targets at risk. This means Chinese commanders have less geographical flexibility and might operate with a higher chance of being detected.

JL-3

This range extension with the JL-3 is quite significant because, should its reported range of 5,600 miles be accurate, the newer Chinese submarine-launched nuclear missiles may outrange the U.S. Trident II D5s reported to operate at ranges up to 4,000 miles. A quick look at a map shows inland portions of mainland China as being roughly 10,000kms or so from the California coast. Simply looking at the math, the JL-3 missiles will likely bring an ability for Chinese nuclear-armed submarines to attack California or other parts of the U.S. from almost anywhere in the Pacific Ocean. In recent years, the Pentagon has been finalizing a Life-Extension Program for the weapon which will ensure its reliability and use well into the 2040s.

“The W76-1 LEP was completed under budget and ahead of schedule, strengthening the Nation’s safety and security by extending the warhead’s service life from 20 years to 60 years,” The Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration 2021 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan – Biennial Plan Summary stated.

In service for decades, often tested and repeatedly upgraded, the three-stage Trident II D5 ballistic missile can travel a nominal range of 4,000 nautical miles and carry multiple independently targeted reentry bodies, according to Navy and Lockheed information.

In recent years, the Navy has been working with Lockheed on a number of key technical upgrades to both modernize and sustain the nuclear weapon. Some of these are ongoing, and others have made sufficient progress, laying the foundation for next-stage sustainment efforts, Navy officials have told Warrior. These have included work on the weapon’s electronic modules and refinements of the missile’s Mk-6 guidance system.

Trident II

Trident II

Hans Kristensen, Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, told Warrior as far back as several years ago that the D5LE variant increases precision and targeting by using two stars for navigation - instead of one. “This provides more flexibility with regard to the submarine’s precise position.”

At some point in the coming decades, the Trident II D5 will need to be replaced with a new weapon, yet this service extension program for the existing missile will help afford developers the necessary time and developmental trajectory to explore the question. Certainly, the aim is to ensure that a credible, potentially catastrophic, second strike threat exists to prevent any kind of major nuclear attack on the U.S. U.S. Navy ballistic missile submarines, armed with Tridents, quietly and secretly patrol the dark depths of the undersea to hold potential adversaries at risk, operating within potential striking range of high-threat targets such as major cities to guarantee a massively destructive response in the event of nuclear attack.

Launch on Warning

China is now implementing a more aggressive “Launch on Warning” nuclear weapons posture which could authorize the use of nuclear weapons as a counterstrike before an incoming first strike attack can detonate, a Pentagon report on China says.

The Launch on Warning posture, called “early warning counterstrike” by the Pentagon’s annual report on the Chinese military, could lower the threshold of possibility when it comes to the likelihood of contemplating the actual use of a nuclear weapon.

“PLA writings suggest multiple manned C2 (Command and Control) organs are involved in this process, warned by space and ground based sensors, and that this posture is broadly similar to the U.S. and Russian LOW posture,” DoD’s 2021 “Report on Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China” states.

The Pentagon report goes on to speculate that China likely plans to keep a certain segment of its nuclear arsenal on a LOW posture.

“Since 2017, the PLARF has conducted exercises involving early warning of a nuclear strike and launch on warning responses,” the Pentagon China report explains.

China’s LOW posture speaks to an ongoing and serious debate within the U.S. about dual-use weapons that are both conventional and nuclear-capable. The principle concern with this emerges from a concern that a conventional strike could all too easily be misinterpreted as a nuclear attack, thus prompting a catastrophic nuclear weapons engagement.

Escalate to De-escalate

“The PRC has also made advances in early warning needed to support a LOW posture. China already has several ground-based large phase array radars – similar in appearance to U.S. PAVE PAWS radars – that could support a missile early warning role,” the 2021 Pentagon report states.

Could China be moving much closer to mirroring Russia’s well known “escalate to de-escalate” nuclear strategy? Perhaps, but perhaps the Chinese leadership is simply attempting to provoke U.S. weapons developers with a hope that they might curb or influence the U.S. development of dual-use weapons.

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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.