- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 14, 2022

China’s defense minister this week confirmed that the People’s Liberation Army is expanding its nuclear arsenal, but played down the development that a U.S. nuclear commander called a “strategic breakout” comparable to the Soviet Union of the 1960s.

PLA Gen. Wei Fenghe is the first Chinese official to address reports that Beijing is rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal, long dwarfed by those of the U.S. and Russia, including the deployment of an estimated 350 multi-warhead DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missiles in western China. Despite U.S. concerns about the build-up, Gen. Wei said the nuclear expansion was normal.

China is developing nuclear capabilities at a moderate and appropriate level,” he told reporters Sunday in Singapore. “That means being able to protect our nation’s security so that we can avoid the catastrophe of a war, especially the catastrophe of a nuclear war.”

The commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, Adm. Charles Richard, has sounded the alarm on what he termed an explosive Chinese nuclear buildup. In August 2021, he said Beijing was seeking a “strategic breakout” — an unusually large and speedy expansion of nuclear forces.

Last month, the admiral told a Senate hearing that China is expanding its nuclear forces so rapidly that U.S. intelligence agencies are unable to keep up.

“The bottom line, what I’ve directed my staff at Stratcom to do … whatever the intelligence community tells you about what China‘s going to do, divide it by two in time, and you’ll probably be closer to what happens,” he said.

Two years ago, the debate among U.S. intelligence agencies involved a debate over whether the PLA would double its stockpile of nuclear warheads by the end of the decade.

“That’s already happened while I’ve been commander of U.S. Strategic Command,” he said.

Adm. Richard said the “biggest and most visible” expansion of Chinese nuclear forces is the construction of at least 360 new intercontinental ballistic missile silos in western China just in the last few years.

But Gen. Wei, a former commander of missile forces, said China‘s nuclear forces are purely for defensive purposes and repeated China’s long-held nuclear policy of not being the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict. He did not discuss the new silos.

A 2019 military parade in Beijing showcased the new DF-41 ICBM, which is capable of landing nuclear warheads throughout the United States.

China has developed its capabilities for over five decades. It’s fair to say there has been impressive progress,” Gen. Wei said, insisting that Beijing‘s nuclear policies have been “consistent.”

“We use it for self-defense. We will not be the first to use nuclear [weapons]. … We developed nuclear capabilities to protect the hard work of the Chinese people and protect our people from the scourge of nuclear warfare.”

After long maintaining an arsenal of around 200 strategic warheads, China is working to build and deploy at least 1,000 nuclear ICBMs. Based on Adm. Richard’s assessment of at least 360 DF-41s in the new missile silos, that ICBM is said to be capable of carrying up to 10 warheads on each missile, for a total strategic warhead stockpile for solely silo-based ICBMs of at least 3,600.

The PLA also has developed an array of short-, medium- and intermediate-range missiles that can be armed with conventional or nuclear warheads.

Adm. Richard told the Senate Armed Services Committee on May 4 that, in addition to the new ICBM silos, the Chinese military has doubled the number of its hard-to-track road-mobile missiles.

The PLA also now has deployed “a true air leg” of nuclear-capable H-6N bombers that are capable of launching a unique air-launched ballistic missile, Adm. Richard said, while China’s Jin-class ballistic missile submarines can now conduct continuous at-sea patrols from protected bastions in the South China Sea.

“And more are coming,” Adm. Richard said of the missile submarines.

Launch on warning

Contradicting Gen. Wei’s comments in Singapore on the regime’s nuclear policy, Adm. Richard said Beijing is building an early warning system that will allow nuclear forces to conduct launch-on-warning and launch-under-attack strikes.

Chinese nuclear forces, which in the past separated warheads for missiles, in recent years have increased the readiness of nuclear forces.

“They’re changing their command and control, and this is before we even get into the novel weapon systems,” Adm. Richard said, noting the July 2021 flight test of a fractional orbital bombardment system.

The FBOS is a nuclear strike weapon that orbits the poles and “has an unlimited range, can attack from any azimuth, and comes down in a hypersonic glide vehicle with great performance,” Adm. Richard said.

“No nation in history has ever demonstrated that capability,” he said, describing the PLA buildup as “easily the biggest expansion in China‘s history and rivals the biggest expansion of any nation in history, including us and the Soviet Union back in the early ‘60s.”

Gen. Wei met for the first time with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at the annual conference known as the Shangri-La dialogue, a gathering of senior defense and military officials.

The Chinese defense minister repeated past comments about Beijing’s determination to take over the self-ruled and democratic state of Taiwan which China regards as its territory. By contrast, Mr. Austin sounded a conciliatory tone regarding the meeting, according to a Pentagon statement on the meeting.

Describing Chinese actions in Asia as increasingly aggressive, Mr. Austin appeared to play down the threat posed by China that he instead has referred to repeatedly as a “pacing challenge.”

Mr. Austin “discussed the need to responsibly manage competition and maintain open lines of communication,” the statement said. “The secretary underscored the importance of the People’s Liberation Army engaging in substantive dialogue on improving crisis communications and reducing strategic risk.”

The Pentagon for decades has sought to develop closer communications with the PLA, a military under the control of the Chinese Communist Party.

However, such efforts repeatedly failed.

For example, in 2001 after a Chinese interceptor jet collided with a U.S. EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft, Chinese military leaders refused to accept calls for U.S. defense and military leaders.

Gen. Wei, on Sunday, said U.S. efforts to develop a four-nation alliance with Japan, Australia and India in the Pacific could lead to a U.S.-China confrontation. He also said China is not providing weapons to Russia for its war in Ukraine.

Thomas D. Grant, a former State Department arms control official, said the Chinese nuclear buildup will be used for geopolitical coercion rather than strategic deterrence.

China plans to use its nuclear arsenal to overturn the geopolitical status quo, he said.

“The United States and its allies long have relied on our nuclear arsenals to stabilize international relations, calibrating our weapons holdings to deter both nuclear war and conventional armed aggression,” Mr. Grant stated in a recent report published by the National Institute for Public Policy, a think tank.

China, by contrast, seeks a new state of nuclear affairs, not for safeguarding global stability, but, instead, to give China license to pursue its own increasingly forceful agenda against its immediate neighbors and farther afield.”

• Bill Gertz can be reached at bgertz@washingtontimes.com.

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