by Francis P. Sempa
The Defense Department just released its annual report on China’s military power, and the report undermines those in the Biden administration who are promoting nuclear arms reductions with Russia and the adoption of a policy of “no first use” of nuclear weapons — a policy that is opposed by most of America’s allies.
The Pentagon’s report could not be clearer: “Over the next decade, the PRC aims to modernize, diversify, and expand its nuclear forces.” It is “expanding the number of its land-, sea-, and air-based nuclear delivery platforms and constructing the infrastructure necessary to support this major expansion of its nuclear forces.” This includes the construction of “fast breeder reactors and reprocessing facilities” that will enable China to “produce and separate plutonium.”
The report projects that the PRC will have up to 700 deliverable nuclear warheads by 2027, and perhaps 1,000 by 2030, significantly more than the Pentagon projected in last year’s report. China has what the report calls a “nascent ‘nuclear triad,’” with the capability to launch nuclear missiles from land, sea, and air platforms. It has expanded its silo-based force and moved to a “launch-on-warning” posture. Last year, the PLA “launched more than 250 ballistic missiles for testing and training,” a number greater then the rest of the world combined. It is growing its inventory of DF-26 intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and those missiles are capable of launching multiple independent warheads — known as MIRV capabilities. The CCP has ordered the construction of “hundreds of new ICBM silos” and is “doubling the number of launchers in some ICBM units.” China’s CSS-10 Mod 2 ICBM has a range of 11,000 kilometers, which makes it capable or reaching most targets within the continental United States. China is also investing in space and counterspace capabilities, including kinetic-kill missiles, orbiting space robots, and ground-based lasers.
The Pentagon report, at nearly 200 pages, places the PRC’s nuclear modernization in the context of the overall strategic outlook of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The report’s review of Chinese military and political writings show that “the modernization of the armed forces is an indispensable element of the Party’s national strategy to modernize the country” and an integral part of President Xi Jinping’s “China Dream.” Part of that strategy, the report concludes, is for China to develop a military that “is equal to — or in some cases superior to — the U.S. military, and that of any other great power that Beijing views as a threat to its sovereignty, security, and development interests.”
Although China has publicly declared a “no first use” of nuclear weapons policy, the Pentagon report notes that there is “some ambiguity about conditions where” that policy would no longer apply. “Some PLA officers,” the report notes, “have discussed the PRC using nuclear weapons first” in some scenarios.
Meanwhile, the Financial Times reports that America’s allies are worried that the Biden administration is moving toward a “no first use” of nuclear weapons policy — an approach that may undermine America’s extended nuclear deterrent capability at the same time that China’s nuclear forces are growing. In 2020 in an article in Foreign Affairs, then-candidate Joe Biden wrote: “I believe that the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be deterring — and, if necessary, retaliating against — a nuclear attack.” The ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recently expressed concern that the Biden administration might declare “no first use” as part of its Nuclear Posture Review.
We have been here before. During Lyndon Johnson’s presidency under the guidance of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, the United States adopted a nuclear policy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), meaning that regardless of how many missiles and warheads the Soviet Union fielded, the United States only required a sufficient survivable nuclear force to enable it to retaliate against a Soviet first-strike. This was a dramatic break from the Eisenhower administration’s policy of “massive retaliation,” and resulted in the U.S. surrendering its nuclear superiority and enabling the Soviet Union to achieve a theoretical “first-strike” capability that if successful would confront an American president with the choice of suicide or surrender. It was President Jimmy Carter’s Defense Secretary Harold Brown who succinctly explained our loss of strategic superiority in the 1960s and 1970s: “When we build, they build; when we cut, they build.”
Confronted by the loss of U.S. nuclear superiority, President Ronald Reagan implemented a nuclear build-up — both here and in Western Europe. And the Left both here and abroad went crazy. Millions took to the streets to protest Reagan’s build-up. Reagan, it was said, was moving the world closer to nuclear Armageddon. And four members of the U.S. foreign policy establishment — George Kennan, McGeorge Bundy, Gerard Smith, and the aforementioned Robert McNamara — writing in Foreign Affairs, called for the Reagan administration to adopt a “no first use” policy. They were soon joined by the American Catholic Bishops, prompting the great nuclear theorist Albert Wohlstetter to respond in a brilliant article in Commentary that respectfully showed the strategic folly of Kennan, Bundy, Smith, McNamara, and the bishops.
Events soon proved that Reagan and Wohlstetter were right. Reagan’s strategic nuclear build-up and his decision to place IRBMs in Western Europe to counter the Soviet SS-20 missiles, along with his promotion of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), were factors that helped bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.
China’s saber rattling in the South China Sea, its massive peacetime military build-up — including the growth of its nuclear forces outlined in the Pentagon report — and its political ambitions to replace the United States as the leading world power should give the Biden administration pause before embarking on a “no first use” policy. Instead, it should carefully read the Pentagon’s report and recognize that with China, as with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, we must continue to operate under what Wohlstetter called “the delicate balance of terror.”
– – –
Francis P. Sempa is the author of “Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century and America’s Global Role.” His work has appeared in Strategic Review, the Diplomat, Joint Force Quarterly, the Claremont Review of Books, the Asian Review of Books, the South China Morning Post, the National Interest, and other publications.