The gold standard in nuclear deterrence is the ability to execute a devastating “second strike.” In preparation for a nuclear attack, a country presumes their nuclear arsenals will be targeted first. A second strike capability guarantees that a country under attack would have enough nuclear weapons remaining to enact a powerful and aggressive nuclear retaliation. America has held a strong second-strike posture in relevance to the rest of the world since the 1940s. Recent events in China, however, have challenged America’s preeminence in this field. Here’s why:
Countries have different ways of producing a nuclear counterattack, including what’s often referred to as “the triad,” which balances air, land, and water-based missiles used for deploying nuclear weapons. Other, though less sobering, means of conducting a second strike falls in the hands of nuclear missileers who spend seven days a week in blast-proof chambers monitoring ICBMs which they are ordered to deploy if a nuclear attack ensues.
Though America’s nuclear arsenal and second strike capabilities are arguably the most powerful in the world, recent actions by China have left Washington worried. The Pentagon’s report on China’s growing military power, which now surpasses the United States in the fields of ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles, is a somber reminder that the world has entered into a second nuclear age.
The report forecasts that the People’s Liberation Army will double its nuclear stockpile from around 200 warheads to 400 in the next decade. Though only a mouse in comparison to America’s nuclear inventory of 5,800 and Russia’s 6,800, it signifies something much larger, for it’s only one part of a grand ambition to eventually achieve regional hegemony.
The PLA has commenced its first nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine, also known as “boomers” by the U.S. Navy. These are highly attractive means of deploying nuclear weapons because they are virtually undetectable once submerged. However, they have a significant margin for error as their deep dive into the sea means communication is incredibly difficult and is often limited to one- or two-worded messages. And even that is not guaranteed to be received. If the Cold War taught us any lesson, it is that mild mistakes made by nuclear-armed countries automatically turn into potentially life-altering actions.
China only has two of the three legs of the triad operational, though the PLA is working on developing air-launched ballistic missiles that can carry nuclear warheads, which would complete the triad.
Even more worrisome is the change in China’s strategic lexicon. Xi Jinping is edging away from its historic “no first use” posture towards a “launch on warning” policy. This is what former Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) called a “hair-trigger” approach, which essentially means, under this new policy, China would be prepared to attack with minimal stimulants.
Both the United States and Russia are trying to get China to join the New START Treaty, which is a bilateral arms reduction agreement. The intent is to prevent China from continuing to expand its nuclear capabilities and contain their regional ambitions.
China has no interest in joining this treaty as their arsenal is still in infancy, though considerable growth has been made in a short period of time. According to a senior Chinese diplomat, China would “happily” participate in a trilateral arms agreement if America agrees to reduce their arsenal down to that of China’s.
The New START Treaty will expire in less than five months. The Trump administration has been pushing back the negotiations partially as an attempt to add China as a signatory. This past July, I asked Secretary of State Michael Pompeo what we can expect from the Trump Administration to see this through:
I think they’re going to make a strategic decision based on their calculus about whether it’s in their own country’s best interest to participate in this strategic dialogue alongside us and the Russians … They set a condition for entry into the conversation with a pretty high bar. And we have responded to that. But our view is very clear. We have a set of historic arms control discussion and strategic dialogues that had, historically, in the ‘80s and in the ‘90s involved two nations: the United States and the Soviet Union, and then Russia. It is no longer the case that you can get a comprehensive strategic outcome that reduces risk of a nuclear confrontation absent a nation like China that has such a significant nuclear capability. …They ought to sit down and be part of this conversation about how it is we achieve a strategic outcome that reduces risk for the world that any nation would ever actually use their nuclear weapons.
Secretary of State, Michael R. Pompeo
…We have made it clear to the Russians that it is important that they, too, lend their hand in convincing the Chinese Communist Party that it is the Chinese Communist Party’s best interest to participate in these discussions. They are an important nuclear country and we need them to be part of this conversation.
10 July 2020
This is placing America in a difficult position of either risking a successful arms reduction with Russia, or failing to address the conjectures of China’s nuclear capabilities by moving forward with the treaty without Beijing.
Dr. Richard Haass, the President of the Council on Foreign Relations, also discussed with me his perspective on this issue, stating that the Trump administration needs to proceed with renewing the treaty. “Any US administration should extend the current New START agreement. The last thing we need is a new round of strategic nuclear competition with Russia. Extend it for several years,” stated Haass. “One of the conversations we should then have with Russia is over the adequacy of the previsions of the New START agreement.”
At the same time, Haass believes that America should come to an agreement with China in managing their arsenals in order to comprehensively address nuclear proliferation, as that is “what arms agreements are all about.”
Kingston Reif, the director for disarmament at the Arms Control Association, said that this fear should not be a crux for America to refuse extending New START. Nevertheless, America and Russia need to think quickly about ways to leverage their soft and hard power capabilities to prevent China from continuing on a slippery path of rapidly extending their arsenals in such a way that would prompt a modern arms race, one in which would be wrought with advents for mistakes.