Congress should reconsider proposed cuts to U.S. nuclear weapons spending in light of uncertainties about China’s nuclear weapons program, some lawmakers and security analysts are arguing.
Other analysts, however, have said there is little evidence to support some of the more threatening scenarios.
The modernization of China’s and Russia’s nuclear arsenals and delivery systems was the subject of a House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee hearing on Oct. 14. The hearing took place in the context of a recent debate over proposed budget reductions to U.S. nuclear weapons modernization efforts, which the subcommittee chairman, Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), denounced in his opening remarks as tantamount to “unilateral disarmament.”
The purpose of the hearing was to highlight what Turner and others have characterized as the potentially ominous long-term implications of simply maintaining the United States’ existing nuclear forces while China and Russia continue to modernize. With the U.S. government slated to cut defense spending by more than $450 billion over the next decade, proposed reductions for funding nuclear modernization have gained traction in Congress. However, opponents of these cuts increasingly have pointed to the opacity of China’s nuclear weapons program and the growing threat the program could represent.
In his testimony at the hearing, Mark Schneider, senior analyst for the National Institute for Public Policy, shared Turner’s misgivings. “The Russians and the Chinese are modernizing every element of their strategic triad,” he told the subcommittee, referring to the three methods for delivering nuclear warheads: ballistic missile submarines, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and bombers.
However, Jeffrey Lewis, director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies’ East Asia Nonproliferation Program, said that every nuclear-weapon state, including the United States, continues to upgrade its nuclear warhead delivery platforms. Lewis also told the committee that although China and Russia have focused on modernizing their means of delivering nuclear weapons, neither country has attempted to create new nuclear devices.
“Now is not the time to be reducing American nuclear and conventional deterrent capabilities, especially in Asia,” Richard Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center told the subcommittee. Citing China’s policy during the Vietnam and Korean wars, Fisher concluded that any “perceived weakness in the United States” will “embolden [China] to take risks.”
Recent concerns have arisen in the wake of the Pentagon’s latest report on Chinese military capabilities, which described a 5,000 kilometer-long series of underground tunnels used by China’s Second Artillery Corps to house China’s nuclear weapons. The Chinese military has used tunneling as a defensive technique for decades, however, so the existence of such an underground network is “hardly surpris[ing],” Jonathan Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said in a Nov. 14 interview, although he expressed skepticism about the facility’s estimated size.
During the hearing, Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) said the tunnels might be a “very destabilizing factor” in the nuclear world order, citing concerns that China might use the underground network to increase the size of its nuclear stockpile without being detected. His questions appeared to reflect a position held by some U.S. security analysts that Beijing is secretly planning to race to nuclear parity with Russia and the United States as Moscow and Washington decrease the number of operationally deployed strategic warheads in accordance with the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.
Although it is impossible to make definitive claims about Beijing’s nuclear ambitions, such a scenario is “not very probable,” said Robert Hathaway, director of the Asia program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “I don’t think the Chinese believe they need a numerical parity with the U.S. or Russia,” Hathaway said. “Once you reach a certain level,…everything else is simply redundant,” he said. China now is at that level in number of warheads and “very shortly” will have the capability to deliver those warheads, he said. Pollack agreed, saying that nuclear parity with the United States is “not in [China’s] aspirational set.”
Policymakers such as Turner also have expressed concerns that Beijing is modernizing its nuclear delivery systems, most notably its ballistic missile submarines. According to the Pentagon report, however, the Chinese navy has built and deployed up to five operational ballistic missile nuclear submarines, but the submarine-launched ballistic missiles to be loaded in them are not yet operational.
In contrast, the United States “relies hugely” on sea-based nuclear warheads to secure its second-strike capability, Pollack said. Beijing’s decision to pursue a similar deterrent is not necessarily threatening, but would “represent a qualitative change” in China’s nuclear capabilities, he said.