China’s worrisome edge toward a ‘launch-on-warning’ nuclear posture

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The Pentagon’s latest annual report on Chinese military power serves a reminder that the world has embarked on a second nuclear age, following the first one that began at Hiroshima and Nagasaki 75 years ago. The good news is that arms-control accords slashed the number of weapons built for the Cold War. The bad news is that the nuclear club now includes far more countries than before. New members come in many shapes and sizes, with varying economic and military potential. Some border one or more potential antagonists. Some newcomers are building up their inventories while old-timers from the first nuclear age cut back or hold them steady. 

In other words, the new order features less destructive power but more complexity and instability than during the Cold War, when more or less symmetrical alliances faced off for 40 years.

There is no guarantee atomic deterrence will hold in this brave new world. 

That’s why the China report makes for troubling reading. The report’s authors forecast that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will at least double its stockpile of nuclear arms over the coming decade. That means China’s doomsday arsenal will expand from 200 warheads or thereabouts to 400 or more. The PLA is diversifying its inventory, for instance by putting to sea its first working class of nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs). These “boomers,” as they’re known colloquially in the U.S. Navy, constitute an invulnerable second-strike capability. That is, they can vanish into the depths and strike back at a foe with nuclear-tipped missiles even if China suffers a disarming first strike against its ground-based forces. 

The ability to reply with a devastating counterstrike is the gold standard for nuclear deterrence, which is why U.S. Navy grandees sound so adamant about replacing the navy’s fleet of Ohio-class boats in the coming years. Constructed to wage the Cold War, the Ohios are swiftly aging out of their service lives. Without the dozen new SSBNs of the Columbia class, for which shipbuilders first cut steel last year, the United States would lose its own second-strike capability. These are hulls the navy cannot do without.

The raw numbers from the China report aren’t that worrisome in themselves. Even if the PLA does double the warhead count, it will still field only a fraction of what the U.S. and Russian inventories hold. The New START arms-control treaty limits Washington and Moscow to 1,550 deployed warheads apiece, carried aboard 700 deployed missiles and bombers. What is worrisome is the report’s conjecture that Beijing is edging away from its longstanding “no-first-use” policy toward a “launch-on-warning” posture. That’s what former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), a longtime arms-control stalwart, calls a “hair-trigger” approach to releasing nuclear weapons.

That would be a dramatic departure. China’s leadership long contended itself with a “minimal deterrent” force composed of a few land-based ballistic missiles. It accepted a “striking” degree of vulnerability to superpower coercion while forswearing first use of nuclear arms. By contrast, a contender that embraces a launch-on-warning policy reserves the right to cut loose with nuclear counterstrikes before an incoming raid hits home. It refuses to take the first punch before retaliating.

A launch-on-warning posture raises a host of problems. It compresses the time available to frame and deliver a response. The potential for error is immense. Early-warning radars may give false indications of a strike. People may misinterpret the data under extreme stress. Worse, data are oftentimes ambiguous. Weapons are black boxes to outside observers. It’s hard to tell from a blip on a radar scope whether a ballistic or cruise missile is tipped with a conventional or nuclear warhead. Furthermore, defense manufacturers have made a habit of designing weapons to carry either type of munition. Ambiguity only compounds the retaliatory dilemma. Small wonder launch-on-warning proved controversial among U.S. defense officials in the 1970s and 1980s, when they were debating the proper stance for releasing ground-based Minuteman ballistic missiles.

Needless to say, the repercussions could be dire when two nuclear-armed adversaries that possess hard-to-decipher weapons and put themselves on hair-trigger alert square-off.

Strictly speaking, China isn’t a new entrant to the nuclear club. It exploded its first atomic device in 1964 and is one of five nuclear-weapon states officially acknowledged in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968. But China’s nuclear strategy is undergoing a metamorphosis not unlike that of a nuclear newcomer. If the Pentagon has it right, the PLA is multiplying its arsenal by twentyfold or more, constructing a “triad” of sea-based, land-based and air-delivered armaments, and radically modifying its alert stance. Studying its evolution hints at the quandaries endemic to the second nuclear age.

What should U.S. leaders do about China’s shift of stance? Well, there’s only so much they can do. Keeping the U.S. deterrent strong is an obvious step. Navy leaders are not wrong to stress the importance of building Columbia-class SSBNs. A measure of empathy with Beijing also would be helpful. For example, eliminating ambiguity from U.S. weapons would ease the stress on Chinese decision-makers in times of crisis, bolstering the likelihood of sound strategic choices. That might mean designating each type of missile solely for nuclear or solely for conventional payloads and conveying that to PLA commanders.

And lastly, regular consultation is a must. Beijing may be hostile, but it is not irrational. It accepts the logic of mutual assured destruction — the cornerstone of deterrence. Because Xi Jinping & Co. are rational, they may prove receptive to relaxing the PLA’s alert posture if persuaded that Washington and Moscow will do likewise.

And relaxation would be an improvement.

James R. Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and contributing co-editor of “Strategy in the Second Nuclear Age” (Georgetown, 2012). The views voiced here are his alone.

Tags Ballistic missile submarine China Nuclear weapons People's Liberation Army Pre-emptive nuclear strike Xi Jinping

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