JUST IN: Chinese Nuclear Advancements Stoke Pentagon Fears of New 'Peer' Threat
China is making inroads in developing a robust nuclear triad that could put it on par with the United States, said the head of Strategic Command July 30.
A nuclear triad consists of air-, ground- and sea-based weapons.
“China is on a trajectory to be a strategic peer to us by the end of the decade,” said Adm. Charles Richard. “For the first time ever, the U.S. is going to face two peer capable nuclear competitors … who you have to deter differently," he said referring to China and Russia. "We have never faced that situation before."
The 2018 National Defense Strategy identified both Beijing and Moscow as great power competitors.
The United States’ strategic deterrent in coming years will be tested in ways that it hasn’t been before, Richard said during remarks at a virtual event hosted by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
“We need to be ready to answer that,” he said. “The threat is significant.”
Richard noted that Beijing is bolstering its atomic arsenal by investing in air-launched systems, a change in its approach from previous eras, Richard said. “They are about to finish building out for the first time an actual triad by adding a strategic capability to their air leg.”
China so far has yet to deploy a formidable nuclear bomber force, according to the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a bipartisan nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. The air-based leg of its triad has historically been a low priority for the country, it noted.
“China currently possesses a small number of air-based platforms for nuclear weapon delivery, but is expected to bring a new strategic bomber and air-launched ballistic missiles into operation,” according to a fact sheet produced by the center. “That may include the development of a new nuclear-capable subsonic strategic stealth bomber, the Xian H-20, which could enter service as early as 2025.”
The H-20 will be similar to the U.S. B-2 bomber, according to the organization.
Richard said he could not go into great detail regarding China’s nuclear pursuits, but he warned that Beijing is expanding its capabilities across the board.
“They have new command and control. They have new warning. They have better readiness,” he said. “While they espouse a minimum deterrent strategy, they have a number of capabilities that seem inconsistent with that.”
China is estimated to have about 300 nuclear weapons — a fraction of the 1,500 or so strategic warheads currently deployed by the U.S. military — and has previously espoused a a strategy known as "minimum deterrence," which seeks to ensure that a nation would have a sufficient second-strike capability if it were to suffer a nuclear attack.
However, Beijing has the capability to execute any number of strategic employment strategies, not just a minimum deterrent, Richard said.
The United States is not standing idly by as China modernizes its forces. The Pentagon is in the process of upgrading all three legs of its triad, to include a new B-21 stealth bomber, Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines, and air-launched cruise missiles known as the Long Range Stand Off weapon.
U.S. defense officials tout the benefits of each leg of the triad. Bombers are flexible because they can be recalled and can be used for signalling adversaries; submarines are the most survivable because of their stealthiness; and ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles are the most responsive to a surprise attack, advocates say.
Meanwhile, some observers in the United States are wary of the high price tag associated with modernizing, operating and maintaining the triad, which is estimated to cost more than $1 trillion over the next 30 years. Some lawmakers and others have called for scaling back or eliminating the ground-based leg of the arsenal, although the idea has yet to gain significant political traction in Washington, D.C., in recent years.