While the United States negotiates with Russia on dismantling America’s nuclear arsenal, China has become the world’s busiest builder of nuclear weapons. If America’s allies, especially in Asia, lose confidence in the U.S. nuclear deterrent, the Obama administration’s vaunted “pivot to the Pacific” will become irrelevant.
National security columnist Bill Gertz has just finished a series of reports about what the Pentagon will not tell the American people: China has just completed a series of intercontinental missile tests that mark the start of a new era for China’s nuclear forces, one in which they deploy missiles with multiple warheads and penetration aids (MIRVs). Two apparently successful tests of the JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile signal that the two new operational Type-94 (Jin class) nuclear missile submarines (of a fleet of five) may soon start strategic patrols. On land, China’s new DF-41 mobile ICBMs are soon expected to demonstrate MIRV capabilities and are estimated by some to be able to carry up to 10 warheads.
For about two decades, American intelligence has been watching China’s development of MIRV warheads and has been commenting publicly on it since the 2002 issue of the Pentagon’s annual report to Congress on China’s military power. An expected near-term deployment of MIRVs would add to already existing anxiety caused by the disparities between published U.S. estimates of China’s arsenal — “several hundred” nuclear weapons, according to the U.S. Strategic Forces commander, Gen. C. Robert Kelher, and 1,600 to 1,800, according to retired former Russian strategic forces commander, Gen. Alexander Yesin.
Adding further suspicion to the Pentagon’s official public estimates of China’s arsenal was a late 2011 report by the Georgetown University Center for Arms Control, which documented China’s history of strategic use of underground tunnels and estimated that China has up to 3,000 miles of tunnels that can be used to store and move missiles and other weapons undetected. The sheer vastness of China’s strategic tunnel networks suggests they hide more than just a few hundred launchers.
But there is something else that the Obama administration hasn’t been telling taxpayers — or Congress — about the nuclear balance. WikiLeaked documents reflect growing U.S. and European anxieties about China’s nuclear weapons. During secret NATO meetings in February 2008, an American undersecretary of state noted with alarm that the American nuclear stockpile had been cut by three-quarters since 1968. “Meanwhile, China is building up its nuclear arsenal” and opposing the fissile materials cutoff treaty.
At another secret session in November 2008 (also courtesy of WikiLeaks), which took place in Paris, the British Foreign Office’s Director General for Defense and Intelligence Mariot Leslie wondered if “China could be somewhat vulnerable to public pressure if we expose the fact that China is building more weapons while others are reducing their levels.”
Ms. Leslie observed that “the Chinese goal seems to be to ‘catch up’ with the U.S. in weapons capabilities to avoid American strategic dominance in Asia, seeing the ‘Pax Americana’ as a blip in world history.”
In June of 2008 (again WikiLeaks), American diplomats pleaded with Chinese counterparts in Beijing to understand that “the United States has not built any nuclear weapons since the early 1990s and therefore has the oldest arsenal in the world,” and “underscored that the United States is the only P5 [one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council] country without the capability to produce a nuclear weapon.”
This is common knowledge among strategists in Washington, who only recently have awakened to the realization that the United States is rapidly and involuntarily disarming. The Washington Post recently devoted four full pages to this story.
Three years ago, Washington Post reporter Walter Pincus revealed that the United States had ceased to produce “fogbank,” likely the code name for an aerogel-suspended neutron booster, which is a critical component in miniaturizing Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missile warheads. After decades of neglect, the United States is losing the facilities infrastructure, raw materials and — most important — the trained nuclear weapons workforce necessary to sustain a nuclear arsenal. Without “fogbank,” it is likely that the half-life of America’s remaining and dwindling stock of nuclear weapons is about 12 years. As the fog lifts, the world can look forward to a Pax Sinica, a Chinese nuclear pre-eminence in East Asia and the Pacific that will supplant a Pax Americana. It makes one wonder if the Obama administration has thought through its nuclear disarmament ideology.
As Rep. Michael R. Turner, chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces, counsels, “China’s unprecedented military buildup requires that we, as prudent national security thinkers, must plan for the worst, hope for the best and determine how to make clear to China where our interests lie. China need not be a threat, but if our history proves one thing, it is that American timidity encourages aggression.”
John J. Tkacik Jr. is senior fellow and director of the Future Asia Project at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Alexandria.