Experts Dial Back Expectations of New Nuclear Arms Race

By Jon Harper

Defense Dept. photo

Pentagon officials and other observers are sounding the alarm about the accelerating pace of China’s expansion of its nuclear capabilities. Will Washington respond by changing its plans for its atomic arsenal? Not necessarily, experts say.

In its latest annual report on “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” released in November, the Defense Department said the nation has started building at least three new fields of intercontinental ballistic missile silos which could contain hundreds of new ICBMs.

“Over the next decade, the PRC aims to modernize, diversify and expand its nuclear forces. The PRC is investing in, and expanding, the number of its land-, sea- and air-based nuclear delivery platforms and constructing the infrastructure necessary to support this major expansion,” the report said.

“The PRC likely intends to have at least 1,000 warheads by 2030, exceeding the pace and size the DoD projected in 2020,” it added.

In the next five years, China’s arsenal of ICBM-based nuclear warheads capable of threatening the United States is expected to grow to roughly 200, according to the study.

In July, China also tested a long-range missile that U.S. officials say circled the Earth and deployed a hypersonic glide vehicle, an event which some observers have called a “Sputnik moment.”

Hypersonic weapons — which could potentially carry nuclear warheads — can fly faster than Mach 5 and are highly maneuverable, which makes it difficult for traditional missile defense systems to track and destroy them.

Former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Hyten has said China could be pursuing a first-strike capability against the United States.

However, Michael O’Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution, told National Defense he doesn’t anticipate that recent revelations about Beijing’s capabilities will lead to a ramp-up in investments in U.S. nuclear forces beyond what was already called for in long-standing plans for strategic modernization, which have largely been in place since the Obama administration.

To replace legacy systems, the Pentagon has already been pursuing next-generation ICBMs, long-range bombers, ballistic missile submarines and air-launched cruise missiles, among other capabilities. The Congressional Budget Office in April 2021 estimated that U.S. nuclear forces would cost a total of $634 billion over the next decade, an average of over $60 billion annually.

“I think the China news will shore up folks’ commitment to the existing plan” rather than something more expansive and expensive, O’Hanlon said.

President Joe Biden’s fiscal year 2022 defense budget request suggested he will stay the course, although as a candidate he said the nation could have a less costly strategic force.

A clearer picture could emerge when the Biden administration releases its highly anticipated Nuclear Posture Review, which is expected in early 2022.

Rose Gottemoeller, former undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said observers of China’s nuclear modernization shouldn’t freak out.

“There tends, I think, to be a bit of panic in some of the discussions I’ve heard among experts on these issues,” she said during a panel hosted by the Arms Control Association.

The United States currently has over 4,000 warheads in its arsenal, 1,550 of which are operationally deployed under the limits of the New START Treaty, she noted.

“Even if the Chinese do quadruple their nuclear warhead force, they will end up with an estimated 1,000 warheads,” Gottemoeller said. “They have a long way to go to catch up with the United States.”

Washington and Beijing should avoid repeating what happened during the Cold War, when the United States and Soviet Union each built tens of thousands of new atomic weapons, she cautioned.

“We have time for a serious discussion of nuclear stability issues, and we should use that time to understand each other’s nuclear strategy and force posture and to avoid a nuclear arms race,” she said.

During the Cold War “we created a nuclear impasse that was expensive and … almost ended in a nuclear holocaust during the Cuban Missile Crisis,” she added. “Now, with new technologies driving the risk of escalation, we could end up in a worse situation with China if we are not careful.”

Topics: Strategic Weapons

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