NOTICE: Over the past three decades, the Chinese military has undertaken a systematic modernization of the People’s Liberation Army. While modernizations of conventional forces have attracted most of the attention, recent revelations of a major Chinese missile silo-building effort in the west indicate that the PLA’s nuclear component has also fallen. modernized.
The range of nuclear and conventional missiles in the Chinese inventory has continued to expand. In addition to about twenty DF-31 ICBMs, the Chinese have added the DF-41, a mobile system that should align the first Chinese MIRVs (multiple independent re-entry vehicles). This will dramatically increase the number of warheads Beijing has directed against US targets, while also making it harder for the US to target them.
Add to this the recent discovery of a hundred silos in the Chinese province of Gansu and a hundred silos in Xinjiang. China’s construction of some 250 missile silos would be consistent with the overall expansion of PLARF, which includes increasing the number of MRBMs, IRBMs and ICBMs. At the same time, that would mark at least an order of magnitude of expansion of China’s intercontinental warheads, from perhaps two dozen to over 250 (which would not include mobile DF-41s). If China decides to place MIRVs on these various new missiles, the Chinese could start approaching the numbers of Russian and American warheads (each is allowed to deploy 1,500 warheads).
Change Chinese nuclear doctrine?
This huge expansion of the Chinese ICBM force, coupled with the construction of additional guided-missile submarines and reports of a new Chinese intercontinental bomber, suggests that China is moving away from its presumed position of minimal nuclear deterrence. That is, China’s nuclear forces are supposed to target primarily opposing population centers, as the primary deterrent to aggression – the definition of “minimal deterrence.”
This posture is presumed, in part because Beijing has chosen not to build a larger nuclear force since it detonated its first fission and fusion devices in the 1960s. Like France and the UK, China has only deployed a sufficient number of nuclear weapons to seriously damage an attacker (enough to “tear an arm from the bear”, as some have described French nuclear deterrence) by attacking their cities , but not to engage in nuclear war, including the conduct of counter-force strikes.
With the development of the DF-41 and a more effective maritime deterrent, some have speculated that Beijing could move from a minimal deterrent to a “limited deterrent”. A limited deterrent would provide sufficient forces to potentially engage in counter-force strikes or limited small-scale attacks in the face of conventional attacks (just as NATO planning included options for a nuclear response to a Soviet attack on West Germany). This would result in some increase in China’s nuclear forces, but would leave Beijing significantly behind the United States and Russia.
The scale of China’s nuclear expansion, however, calls into question Beijing’s interest in deploying limited deterrence. The combination of a modern long-range bomber (the H-20) and an expanded maritime ballistic missile force, along with this massive inflation of the land component of the ICBM, make China’s nuclear forces look much more like to their “hegemonic”. counterparts in Russia and the United States as minimal or limited deterrence presented by French or British nuclear forces.
Indeed, it is notable that Beijing is placing so many of its new nuclear eggs in the Earth’s ICBM basket. Given the ongoing construction of the Class 094 Jin-class ballistic missile submarine and the apparent success of the submarine-launched ballistic missile JL-2, China is already deploying a secure second strike force through a maritime deterrence. In addition, the DF-41 (and the DF-31A variant) is itself mobile, and therefore capable of deploying from a garrison through a country the size of a continent with valleys, gorges, areas woodlands and other places of concealment.
The silo-building model raises further questions about Chinese strategic thinking. Missile silos somewhat resemble the “dense pack” deployment advocated by some for the US MX missile in the 1980s. As the accuracy of Soviet ICBMs increased, the potential vulnerability of US silos became a growing concern. By building several silos in close proximity to each other, it was calculated that any incoming Soviet strike was likely to suffer from “fratricide”, as the first explosive warhead would create a massive cloud of supercharged particles, dust and debris which would then destroy any additional warhead following closely.
If the Chinese place ICBMs in these silos, perhaps they hope to deter any prospect of a successful disarmament strike against them due to the fratricidal effects of nearby detonations. But this, in turn, suggests that PLA planners are less confident in the ability of mobile ICBMs to survive. Are there fundamental flaws in China’s defenses and deception techniques that concern them?
China’s nuclear expansion should make it clear that its previous limited numbers were not the result of physical duress (eg, insufficient amount of fissile material), but rather was a political choice. Given Xi Jinping’s broader rejection of Deng Xiaoping’s advice to “hide its abilities, bide its time,” it may well be that this growth is part of Xi’s “Chinese dream” of a stronger, capable Chinese army. to operate openly on the world stage. .
If so, it is important to recognize that the PRC’s point of view on the stability of the nuclear crisis is not the same as that of the United States or Russia. During the Cold War, it became a kind of shibboleth that nuclear weapon states did not fight each other directly. The potential for escalation in the event of such a confrontation was considered too high, especially after the Cuban Missile Crisis. This “lesson”, however, ignored the Sino-Soviet border clashes of 1969, battles precipitated by deliberate Chinese provocations. Both sides possessed nuclear weapons.
More worrying are the recent Chinese forays through the actual line of control at the Sino-Indian border. Chinese military units have repeatedly entered India-controlled areas since 2013; in some cases they stayed for several days and were even restocked. In the 2020 clashes, several Indian and Chinese soldiers died when the two sides clashed in the Galway Valley. Unlike their American and Russian counterparts, China’s military and political leaders seem much less concerned about the potential for inadvertent escalation, at least with their Indian counterparts.
This raises questions about how the Chinese leadership would act if they had a significantly more robust and diverse nuclear force. Xi Jinping’s recent speeches, the rise of “wolf warrior” diplomats, and the behavior of PLA forces in the South and East China Seas, all indicate a declining tolerance for external “pressures” and a growing will. to push back to defend the Chinese. “Fundamental interests”, including territorial sovereignty. Would greater nuclear capacity embolden the Chinese leadership further?
At the same time, Beijing shows little interest in participating in nuclear weapons control efforts. It was very reasonable when China’s nuclear forces were considerably smaller than the American and Russian forces; it is much less clear that it is in Washington or Moscow’s interest not to include Beijing in future negotiations, given the growing number of Chinese nuclear power plants.
Perhaps it is time to reconsider the broader landscape of nuclear deterrence, as Washington, Beijing, and Moscow all become roughly comparable. A tripolar nuclear equilibrium is a very different proposition from a bipolar equilibrium, especially when two of the actors are relatively closely aligned against the third. The discovery of the silo fields in western China indicates that it is high time to start reexamining the foundations of American thinking on nuclear deterrence.
Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation is one of the best experts on the People’s Republic of China and its military.