NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
Senior Republicans on the House and Senate Armed Services committees disclosed this week that China‘s rapidly expanding nuclear forces now exceed the number of U.S. intercontinental-ballistic missile launchers, with little indication that Beijing plans to slow the buildup of its strategic forces.
“The head of U.S. Strategic Command has informed us that China has surpassed the U.S. in the number of ICBM launchers — this should serve as a wake-up call for the United States,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers of Alabama and Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado, chairman of that panel’s strategic forces subcommittee.
The joint statement also was issued along with Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer, ranking Republican member of the strategic forces subcommittee.
“It is not an understatement to say that the Chinese nuclear modernization program is advancing faster than most believed possible,” the four lawmakers said. “We have no time to waste in adjusting our nuclear force posture to deter both Russia and China. This will have to mean higher numbers and new capabilities.”
Air Force Gen. Anthony Cotton, commander of the Strategic Command, stated in a Jan. 23 letter to the four lawmakers that as of October 2022, “the number of land-based fixed and mobile ICBM launchers in China exceeds the number of ICBM launchers in the United States.”
The notification followed a back-and-forth exchange between Republican lawmakers and the Strategic Command regarding a provision of the fiscal 2022 defense authorization law requiring formal notification of Congress when China’s nuclear forces exceed those of the United States in one of three designated areas.
While exceeding the U.S. in the number of ICBM launchers, China’s nuclear forces overall remain smaller than those of the United States in the number of active long-range missiles and in the number of missile warheads, Gen. Cotton said.
Strategic Command officials first notified the Armed Services panels in a secret response on Nov. 8 that China had had breached one of three categories of nuclear missile expansion, but declined to specify which category. Gen. Cotton said the command is committed to working with the intelligence community and the Biden administration to maximize the amount of information that could be shared about China‘s nuclear programs.
No further details were provided on the Chinese ICBM launchers in the unclassified version.
Last year, however, then-Strategic Command commander Adm. Charles Richard declared China in “nuclear breakout,” what he termed a rapid buildup of missiles, bombers and submarines that requires an immediate response from the Pentagon to preserve deterrence. The Pentagon so far has not indicated whether it is speeding up its nuclear modernization plan to deploy replacement missiles, bombers and submarines, now scheduled for later in the decade.
China’s large number of ICBM launchers is believed to be the result of deployment of new DF-31 and DF-41 multi-warhead missile launchers.
U.S. intelligence agencies recently discovered three large missile fields under construction in western China that the Strategic Command has said will hold up to 320 land-based ICBMs.
In addition to the missile silos, China also has large numbers of both road-mobile and rail-mobile ICBM launchers that likely are factored into the recent notification.
The U.S. military has no mobile missiles, and efforts to develop them were thwarted in the past by anti-nuclear weapons activists in Congress.
The current land-based U.S. missile force consists of 400 single-warhead Minuteman III ICBMs deployed at three bases in the western United States.
The recent Chinese surveillance balloon that transited the United States before being shot down over the Atlantic passed over Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana, where 150 Minuteman III ICBMs are deployed.
The Biden administration has stated in its national security strategy that it seeks to reduce the role of nuclear weapons and will seek arms control as a main element of its polices.
But arms control efforts have so far been unsuccessful. China for the past several years refused to engage in arms talks with the United States. The State Department recently announced Russia is violating the last major arms treaty, the New START accord, by not allowing mandatory on-site inspections called for in the treaty.
Military-to-military program with China questioned
A failed attempt by the Pentagon to reach senior Chinese defense and military officials in the midst of recent tensions over the Chinese surveillance balloon highlights a key failure of the Defense Department’s multi-decade effort of seeking to build trust with the Chinese military through meetings and exchanges.
Since the 1980s, the Pentagon has placed a high priority on its “military-to-military” program with the People’s Liberation Army. But Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin this week was unable to reach his nominal Chinese counterpart, Defense Minister Wei Fenghe, to discuss the shootdown of a Chinese surveillance balloon by an F-22 off the South Carolina coast.
China reacted harshly to the shootdown, calling the use of military force against what Beijing insists was an errant weather balloon an excessive response.
The Pentagon acknowledged Monday that said U.S. officials over the weekend asked the Chinese to arrange a secure telephone call between Mr. Austin and Mr. Wei, but they were denied.
“Unfortunately, the PRC has declined our request,” the statement said, using the acronym for People’s Republic of China. “Our commitment to open lines of communication will continue.”
The Pentagon statement said maintaining open lines of communication is important “in order to responsibly manage the relationship,” and that “lines between our militaries are particularly important in moments like this.”
U.S. critics of the idea of building trust with the PLA through exchanges and talks say it is based on a misunderstanding of the Chinese military. Unlike the U.S. military, the PLA is not a national army but one devoted primarily to defending the interests of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
“No surprise here. This is how engagement with the Chinese Communist Party works,” said Kerry K. Kershaneck, a retired Marine and expert on Chinese political warfare of Beijing‘s refusal to take Mr. Austin’s call.
The attempt to reach out to the Chinese military over the balloon shootdown is not the first time the Pentagon tried unsuccessfully to reach senior Chinese defense officials at a time of increased tensions. The PLA snubbed the Pentagon and U.S. military officials during the crisis in April 2001 over a Chinese jet fighter that crashed into a U.S. EP-3 surveillance aircraft flying in international airspace off the southern Chinese coast.
The Chinese pilot was killed after his J-8 jet crashed into the South China Sea. The EP-3 made an emergency landing at a Chinese air base on Hainan Island in the South China Sea, where the 24 U.S. military crew members were detained and interrogated for 10 days.
They were released only after the U.S. government issued a statement of regret. The Chinese forced the EP-3 to be dismantled and shipped back on a transport plane.
In the tense final days of the Trump administration, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, contacted his Chinese counterpart, Gen Li Zuocheng, in an attempt to assure him that the United States was “stable” and not preparing an attack.
Gen. Milley also told Gen. Li that he would provide him with advance warning of any U.S. attack, which prompted criticism and calls from Republicans that the chairman resign. Gen. Milley said the calls in October 2020 and January 2021 were in response to intelligence indicating China feared a U.S. attack.
Senior Trump administration officials, including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, however, said they were unaware of any intelligence suggesting the Chinese military feared the U.S. was planning an attack.
Chinese messaging shifts on balloon
Chinese state media engaged in verbal contortions over the past week in responding to the shootdown of its surveillance balloon by the U.S. military.
A review of official Chinese-language media, including the flagship outlet People’s Daily, showed that initially Chinese reports universally denied the balloon came from China and suggested the U.S. government was racist for claiming the Chinese were behind it.
Instead, propaganda outlets falsely suggested that the entire affair was a U.S. provocation aimed at derailing the planned visit to China by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who canceled his trip over the incident.
After the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement of regret and asserted the balloon was a Chinese civilian weather balloon that was blown off course, state media trumpeted the claim. At the same time, some propaganda organs again subtly suggested the United States was racist against China for claiming the balloon was a spy airship and not a civilian weather balloon.
State media also dropped any mention of the Blinken visit, and some propaganda outlets said the visit was never even officially confirmed.
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter @BillGertz.