Superiority Complex

Why America’s growing nuclear supremacy may make war with China more likely

In the coming years, as China’s economy booms and its armed forces grow, the United States will seek to curb Chinese military power and influence. The U.S.-China rivalry is poised to become the world’s most dangerous strategic relationship. Optimists might contend that the pacifying effects of economic integration will forestall outright hostility and conflict between Washington and Beijing. Others would argue that the strategic competition itself augurs peace and stability between the superpowers, because each country’s arsenal of nuclear weapons constitutes a security blanket: Just as the danger of mutual nuclear annihilation—or mutual assured destruction (MAD), as it was labeled then—helped prevent war between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, so too will nuclear deterrence cool tensions between the United States and China.

But little about the emerging nuclear balance between the United States and China should lead anyone to assume a similar stabilizing effect. The United States is pursuing capabilities that are rendering MAD obsolete, and the resulting nuclear imbalance of power could dramatically exacerbate America’s rivalry with China.

In the 1990s, with the Cold War receding, nuclear weapons appeared to be relics. Russian and Chinese leaders apparently thought so. Russia allowed its arsenal to decline precipitously, and China showed little interest in modernizing its nuclear weapons. The small strategic force that China built and deployed in the 1970s and early 1980s is essentially the same one it has today.

But meanwhile, the United States steadily improved its “counterforce” capabilities—those nuclear weapons most effective at targeting an enemy’s nuclear arsenal. Even as it reduced the number of weapons in its nuclear arsenal, the U.S. made its remaining weapons more lethal and accurate. The result today is a global nuclear imbalance unseen in 50 years. And nowhere is U.S. nuclear primacy clearer—or potentially more important—than in the Sino-U.S. relationship.

China has approximately 80 operationally deployed nuclear warheads, but only a few of them—those assigned to single-warhead DF-5 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs)—can reach the continental United States. (There is no definitive, unclassified count of China’s DF-5 ICBMs, but official U.S. statements have put the number at 18.) China has neither modern nuclear ballistic-missile submarines nor long-range nuclear bombers. Moreover, China’s ICBMs can’t be quickly launched; the warheads are stored separately, and the missiles are kept unfueled. (Unlike the solid fuel used in U.S. missiles, the liquid fuel used to propel Chinese ICBMs is highly corrosive.) Finally, China lacks an advanced early-warning system that would give Beijing reliable notice of an incoming attack.

This small arsenal fulfilled China’s strategic requirements in the 20th century, but it is now obsolete. The current Chinese force was designed for a different era:when China was a poor nation with a limited role on the world stage, and when U.S. and Soviet missiles were too inaccurate to carry out a disarming strike—even against Beijing’s small force. But China’s international presence is expanding, and America’s counterforce capabilities have soared. Moreover, one of the biggest constraints that would deter American leaders from contemplating a disarming strike is fading away. In the past, a U.S. preemptive attack would have generated horrific civilian casualties, but that may soon cease to be the case.

How the United States achieved nuclear dominance after the Soviet Union collapsed is an open secret. The Navy refitted its entire fleet of nuclear-armed submarines with new, highly accurate Trident II missiles and replaced many of the 100-kiloton W76 warheads on these missiles with 455-kiloton W88 warheads. (One kiloton is the explosive energy released by 1,000 tons of TNT.) The result is an unprecedented combination of accuracy and destructive power, essential for an attack on hardened silos. The Navy also recently tested a GPS guidance system that would dramatically boost the accuracy, and thus lethality, of the submarine missile arsenal.

For its part, the Air Force has improved the guidance systems of land-based Minuteman III missiles. Many of these missiles are also being “retipped” with more-powerful warheads—and more-accurate reentry vehicles—taken from recently retired MX (“Peacekeeper”) missiles. The Air Force has also upgraded the avionics on B-2 bombers. These nuclear-mission-capable bombers are already “stealthy,” but the upgrades improve the planes’ ability to penetrate enemy airspace secretly, by flying very low and using the terrain to shield them from radar.

Perhaps as important, the United States is pursuing a slew of nonnuclear weapons that will provide officials options they may find more palatable if they decide to attack an adversary’s nuclear arsenal. These include precision “bunker buster” conventional bombs, high-speed long-range cruise missiles, and conventionally armed ballistic missiles—each of which could be used to destroy enemy missile silos. Furthermore, Washington is undertaking initiatives—including advances in antisatellite warfare and in wide-area remote sensing, designed to find “relocatable” mobile missile launchers—that will make China’s nuclear forces vulnerable. Even a missile-defense system substantially boosts U.S. offensive counterforce capabilities. Critics of this system are right in claiming that it could not shield America from even a modest nuclear attack (e.g., 25 warheads), because it would be easily overwhelmed by decoy warheads and the “penetration aids” that would accompany an adversary’s missiles. But it could enhance offensive nuclear capabilities, by “mopping up” a small number of incoming warheads that survived a U.S. first strike.

America’s growing counterforce power reflects its concern about China’s emergence as what Pentagon planners call a “peer competitor.” In 2006, the Pentagon warned: “Of the major and emerging powers, China has the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States.” Not surprisingly, the U.S. is pursuing dominance over China across the military spectrum—building up its conventional-warfare, space-warfare, and information- warfare capabilities, as well as its missile-defense and offensive nuclear-strike systems.

Changes in war plans and shifts in the location of nuclear forces confirm that American nuclear upgrades are linked to the perception that China may become a threat. In 1997, the Clinton administration made the first major change in presidential guidance for nuclear-war plans since the early 1980s, broadening the spectrum of Chinese targets. Leaked excerpts from the Pentagon’s 2001 Nuclear Posture Review called for the United States to be prepared to use nuclear weapons against China. And the head of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, Lieutenant General Henry A. Obering III, acknowledged that his agency’s plans are not entirely focused on “rogue states” or the “axis of evil.” In fact, the Missile Defense Agency also plans for Chinese contingencies. Perhaps the most concrete sign of the increased prominence of China in U.S. nuclear-war plans is the transfer of five nuclear-armed submarines from their Atlantic base at Kings Bay, Georgia, to the Pacific base at Bangor, Washington; two-thirds of the U.S. strategic submarine fleet is now based in the Pacific. Finally, in May 2006, it was reported that the Pentagon had adopted a new war plan to defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack by striking Chinese targets, potentially with nuclear weapons. Of course, it’s difficult to ascertain Washington’s intentions, but as a 2003 Rand report on the future U.S. nuclear arsenal concluded, “What the planned force appears best suited to provide beyond the needs of traditional deterrence is a preemptive counterforce capability against Russia and China. Otherwise, the numbers and the operating procedures simply do not add up” (emphasis in original).

These changes do not mean that the United States is adopting a nuclear first-strike strategy—it strongly prefers to fight any future wars without resorting to nuclear weapons. Rather, the United States is honing its nuclear capabilities for three broad purposes: to deter conventional or nuclear attacks, to strengthen its leverage against nuclear-armed adversaries during high-stakes crises or wars, and to give itself better nuclear options in dire circumstances.

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