- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 8, 2023

The Pentagon expressed concern Wednesday that Russia is supplying uranium for Chinese reactors that are producing plutonium for warheads as part of Beijing large-scale nuclear build-up.

John F. Plumb, assistant defense secretary for space policy, also told a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing that nuclear threats to the U.S. homeland are increasing, including from high-altitude surveillance balloons and nuclear-tipped hypersonic missiles.

The Pentagon shot down a Chinese surveillance balloon off the South Carolina coast last month after the balloon floated across Alaska and the continental U.S. in what the Biden administration said was a spy mission by Beijing.

Mr. Plumb said the increasing Sino-Russian cooperation is helping Beijing build new warheads.

“It’s very troubling to see Russia and China cooperating on this,” the Pentagon official told the House Armed Services’ strategic forces subcommittee. Both nations have issued “talking points” on the issue of the Russian state nuclear agency Rosatom providing highly enriched uranium for China’s fast-breeder reactors, he said.

“But there’s no getting around the fact that breeder reactors are for plutonium, and plutonium is for weapons,” Mr. Plumb said.

Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Doug Lamborn said he hoped the Biden administration would take steps to halt the Rosatom uranium transfers.

“I’m hopeful that we will see a comprehensive strategy from the administration to break this relationship — and ideally shatter Rosatom,” the Colorado Republican said.

The chairman also disclosed that despite Moscow’s suspension of the New START arms treaty, the Biden administration is still providing treaty-required nuclear information to Russia.

“It is curious that we provide Russia with this benefit under the treaty when Russia is no longer reciprocating,” he said.

Details of the Russia-China nuclear exchanges were first reported Feb. 28 by Bloomberg News. Rosatom engineers reportedly supplied 14,279 pounds of uranium to the state-owned China National Nuclear Corp. on Dec. 12, Bloomberg reported.
The Biden administration protested the shipment, but a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman rejected the American concerns, saying China strictly abides by its nuclear nonproliferation obligations.

China during the 1980s provided Pakistan with nuclear weapons technology that helped Islamabad develop its nuclear arsenal.      

Few sanctions or actions were taken by the United States for China’s violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

The latest Chinese reactor is estimated to be fully operational this year and will produce weapons-grade plutonium for nuclear warheads.

Air Force Gen. Anthony Cotton, commander of the Strategic Command, told the subcommittee hearing that China is engaged in a “nuclear breakout” — a large-scale, unanticipated nuclear forces buildup that goes far beyond past Beijing’s claims that it is seeking only a minimal deterrent force.

Key to the buildup are three large intercontinental ballistic missile fields in western China that will host up to 360 new DF-41 multiple-warhead missiles, along with new bombers and missiles on submarines.

Gen. Cotton said in written testimony that China’s fast-breeder reactors and reprocessing facilities “allow the swift expansion of its warhead manufacturing capacity.”

Matching and surpassing

The four-star general said Beijing is on track to “match, or in some areas surpass, quantitative and qualitative parity with the United States in terms of nuclear weapons.”

Gen. Cotton also said he recently informed Congress, as required under legislation, that China had exceeded the U.S. in the number of land-based and fixed mobile ICBM launchers, another indicator of its rapidly expanding nuclear force.

Another weapon tested by China in 2021 was a fractional orbital bombardment system, or FOBS, that is a hypersonic missile warhead that orbits earth before reentering the atmospheric and striking surface targets.

These missiles undermine strategic stability and “represent a more challenging threat because their non-ballistic trajectories complicate missile detection and tracking and degrade the target country’s ability to characterize the scale of an attack,” Gen. Cotton stated.

The general also disclosed that Russia’s new SARMAT ICBM will be deployed this year and includes development of a similar orbiting strike capability as China’s FOBS.
Both Gen. Cotton and Mr. Plumb warned that the expanding Chinese and Russian nuclear forces represent the first time the United States faces strategic threats from two world powers. North Korea is also expanding its nuclear arsenal, developing hypersonic weapons and multiple-warhead missiles such as the new Hwasong-17 ICBM.
The U.S. is also moving ahead with a nuclear modernization program, including new strategic systems such as the Sentinel ICBM, the B-21 bomber and the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine. Gen. Cotton also provided new details on plans to modernize the Pentagon‘s nuclear command and control systems.
The military also hopes to deploy the first U.S. hypersonic missile before the end of the year, the Army’s Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon, Gen. Cotton said. Unlike the rival Chinese and Russian models, none of the three hypersonic systems currently in development will be armed with nuclear warheads.

But the U.S. military is also facing problems modernizing its nuclear infrastructure.

The Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration “identified critical capability gaps” in modernizing the strategic stockpile, Gen. Cotton said.

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

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