Fiona Cunningham is to be commended for her report “Nuclear Command, Control, and Communications Systems of the People’s Republic of China” (Nautilus July 18, 2019). Ms. Cunningham relies on unclassified sources to provide a well-researched summary of the mainstream view of academics, China scholars and even many military professionals of the PRC’s nuclear doctrine and C3 arrangements.
Unfortunately, this mainstream view is almost certainly wrong.
Western analysts consistently fail to understand that, for both Beijing and Moscow, nuclear war plans and C3 to execute those plans are national security “crown jewels” that they try to protect and conceal behind a bodyguard of lies and disinformation. Trusting open sources and commentary — especially when they are intended to cast nuclear doctrine and C3 in the most benign possible way — is a big mistake.
For example, during the Cold War the USSR went to extraordinary lengths to disinform Western policymakers and the public that Moscow had a nuclear “No First Use” doctrine. This was intended to conceal their real nuclear war plans — that we now know entailed a massive nuclear first strike early in a conflict. The NFU disinformation campaign was also intended to mobilize Western anti-nuclear activists, in and out of government, to constrain U.S. nuclear programs and operational plans.
China’s alleged nuclear NFU doctrine, like the USSR’s during the Cold War, is almost certainly disinformation.
NFU for China does not withstand the test of common sense. No conservative military planner would adopt NFU when, as Ms. Cunningham correctly observes, China lacks BMEWS and satellite early warning systems that would enable China to launch on tactical warning. NFU would doom China’s nuclear deterrent to certain destruction by a U.S. or Russian conventional or nuclear first strike, or to a nuclear first strike by India.
China’s nuclear posture, especially the lack of early warning radars and satellites, is “use it or lose it” which logically should drive PRC military planners toward nuclear first use — indeed toward surprise first use early in a crisis or conflict, based on strategic warning.
Regardless of the PRC’s declaratory NFU policy, it strains credulity Beijing’s political leaders would adhere to NFU if confronted with compelling political and military intelligence of an imminent U.S. attack. Such strategic warning was the basis for the former USSR’s secret plans for a disarming nuclear first strike under their VRYAN (Surprise Nuclear Missile Attack) intelligence program, that nearly resulted in a nuclear apocalypse during NATO’s theater nuclear exercise ABLE ARCHER-83.
Just as Ms. Cunningham’s report would have benefitted from greater skepticism about NFU, greater humility about what we know, and don’t know, about China’s nuclear posture is also advisable.
For example, do we really know that China’s nuclear warheads are in storage, not mounted on missiles? This would be a very grave vulnerability. China’s ICBMs and IRBMs are in cold launch cannisters — we cannot see if they are armed, or not.
Ms. Cunningham seriously proposes that China gives such high priority to safeguarding against unauthorized nuclear use that their very costly ballistic missile submarine fleet may, in peacetime, carry no SLBMs. Perhaps she means they would carry no SLBM nuclear warheads. In either case, this defies common sense as it would render useless China’s SSBN fleet as a deterrent against surprise attack. The SSBNs would also become an escalatory liability in a crisis or conflict, as the process of uploading missiles or warheads would be very lengthy, highly visible, and so provocative as to invite a disarming first strike.
Undoubtedly, China will operate its SSBNs in peacetime as they are being tested now — loaded for bear, with SLBMs armed with nuclear warheads aboard.
For decades, Western analysts have almost certainly grossly underestimated China’s number of nuclear weapons as about 300 (compared to about 1,500 operational strategic nuclear weapons for the U.S. and Russia, or five times as many). This seems based more on wishful thinking than a realistic appraisal of China’s nuclear capabilities.
Russian Gen. Viktor Yesin, former commander in chief of the Strategic Rocket Forces, provided a more realistic estimate of China’s nuclear capabilities in an article published seven years ago “Third After the United States and Russia: On China’s Nuclear Capabilities Without Understatement or Exaggeration” (April 30, 2012).
Gen. Yesin calculates China could have “10,000 nuclear munitions” based on the PRC’s estimated production of “up to 40 tons of weapons uranium” and “about 10 tons of weapons-grade plutonium” manufactured “as of 2011.”
However, based on China’s strategic and tactical delivery systems, Gen. Yesin concludes “there may be up to 1,800 warheads in China’s nuclear arsenal.”
Contrary to the title of Gen. Yesin’s article, this would make China, with 1,800 strategic and tactical nuclear weapons, the second most heavily armed nuclear power, after Russia (3,500 operational strategic and tactical nuclear weapons) but before the U.S. (1,700 strategic and tactical nuclear weapons).
“China’s nuclear capabilities are clearly underestimated…significantly higher than commonly believed in the Western expert community,” concludes Russian Gen. Yesin.
As the New Cold War heats up in the Pacific — the United States had better not bet its security on China’s “No First Use” pledge and a presumed five-to-one U.S. advantage in nuclear weapons.
• Peter Vincent Pry served as chief of staff of the congressional EMP Commission and in the CIA.