Many China experts in government and academia, and anti-nuclear activists such as the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Federation of American Scientists, appear not to be worried by China’s rapidly growing nuclear capabilities, because Beijing’s official policy promises that China will not be the first to employ nuclear weapons in a conflict. Beijing promises that its nuclear forces are for deterrence and retaliation only, not for aggression.
Western analysts consistently fail to understand that, for both Beijing and Moscow, nuclear war plans are national security “crown jewels” that they try to protect and conceal behind a bodyguard of lies and disinformation. Trusting open sources and commentary — especially when they are intended to cast nuclear doctrine in the most benign possible way — is a big mistake.
For example, during the Cold War the USSR went to extraordinary lengths to misinform Western policymakers and the public that Moscow had a nuclear “no first use” doctrine. This was intended to conceal its real nuclear war plans — that we now know entailed a massive nuclear first strike early in a conflict. The “no first use” disinformation campaign also was intended to mobilize Western anti-nuclear activists, in and out of government, to constrain U.S. nuclear programs and operational plans.
China’s alleged nuclear “no first use” doctrine, like the USSR’s during the Cold War, is almost certainly disinformation. “No first use” for China does not withstand the test of common sense.
No conservative military planner would adopt “no first use” when China lacks ballistic missile early warning system (BMEWS) radars and satellite early warning systems that would enable China to launch on tactical warning. “No first use” would doom China’s nuclear deterrent to certain destruction by a U.S. or Russian conventional or nuclear first strike, or to a nuclear first strike by India. China’s nuclear posture, especially the lack of early warning radars and satellites, is “use it or lose it,” which logically should drive Chinese military planners toward nuclear first use — indeed, toward surprise first use early in a crisis or conflict, based on strategic warning.
Regardless of China’s “no first use” declaration, it strains credulity that Beijing’s political leaders would adhere to such a policy if confronted with compelling political and military intelligence of an imminent U.S. attack. Such strategic warning was the basis for the former USSR’s secret plans for a disarming nuclear first strike under their VRYAN (surprise nuclear missile attack) intelligence program, that nearly resulted in a nuclear apocalypse during NATO’s theater nuclear exercise Able Archer 83.
Fortunately, at least some U.S. military leaders are not as naïve as academics about China’s “no first use” pledge. Adm. Charles Richard, chief of U.S. Strategic Command, testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee in February that he could “drive a truck through China’s ‘no first use’ policy.”
China’s unprecedented rapid expansion of its nuclear and missile capabilities is not consistent with a belief in “minimum deterrence” and “no first use.” It looks imitative of Russia’s policy seeking escalation dominance for nuclear diplomacy and nuclear warfighting.
Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, warned in May 2019: “China is likely to at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile in the course of implementing the most rapid expansion and diversification of its nuclear arsenal in China’s history. … China launched more ballistic missiles for testing and training than the rest of the world combined.”
China’s political and military leaders often have threatened nuclear war. In 2011, columnist Gordon Chang reported: “Former Chinese general Xu Guangyu … suggested China was planning a surprise missile attack on the American homeland.”
The People’s Liberation Army Second Artillery Corps — now the PLA Rocket Force, equivalent to U.S. Strategic Command — leaked a planning document, “Lowering the Threshold of Nuclear Threats,” that stipulated some conditions under which, in response to U.S. conventional attacks, China would launch a nuclear first strike. For example: “Targets that could draw such a response include any of China’s leading urban centers or its atomic or hydroelectric power facilities.”
China’s military doctrine — including numerous examples of using nuclear EMP attack to win on the battlefield, defeat U.S. aircraft carriers, and achieve against the U.S. homeland a surprise “Pearl Harbor” writ large — is replete with technical and operational planning consistent with a nuclear first strike. Indeed, China’s classification of nuclear EMP attack in military doctrine as “electronic warfare” or “information warfare” indicates that EMP is not even considered a form of nuclear attack, but would be equivalent to non-nuclear EMP weapons and cyber warfare.
In March, a panel of China’s military experts threatened to punish U.S. Navy ships for challenging China’s illegal annexation of the South China Sea by making an EMP attack — one of the options they considered least provocative because the crew would be unharmed, but most effective because the ship would be disabled. Like other evidence, this, too, suggests Beijing considers EMP attack as something short of nuclear or even kinetic conflict, akin to “gray zone” threats such as electronic and cyber warfare.
Dr. Peter Vincent Pry was chief of staff of the Congressional EMP Commission and served on the staff of the House Armed Services Committee and at the CIA. He is the author of several books, including “The Power And The Light: The Congressional EMP Commission’s War To Save America 2001-2020” (2020).