The Pentagon Is Sounding The Alarm On China’s Massive Nuclear Build-Out, But Experts Disagree About How To Respond

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Micaela Burrow Investigative Reporter, Defense
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  • The U.S. has failed to upgrade or enlarge its nuclear arsenal to keep pace with China’s “ambitious” nuclear expansion, experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation after a Pentagon report showed China on track to own 1,500 nuclear warheads by 2035.
  • U.S. nuclear inferiority may weaken its ability to deter adversaries from launching a first strike or behaving more aggressively, the researchers said.
  • However, some experts believe that working toward an agreement with China capping the number of nuclear weapons allowed on both sides is the best way to manage China’s nuclear buildup and avoid a costly arms race.
  • Beijing is already racing, and the only thing worse than engaging in an arms race is losing one,” Bradley Bowman of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told the DCNF.

The Department of Defense (DOD) confirmed China’s “ambitious” acceleration of its nuclear program in a report Tuesday, but experts disagree whether the development presents a growing threat to the U.S. as the Pentagon struggles to update and expand its own aging arsenal.

China’s current nuclear stockpile has exceeded 400 warheads is on track to reach 1,500 warheads by 2035, signaling a push from Beijing to achieve nuclear superiority over the U.S., the Department of Defense (DOD) warned in an annual report on China’s military and security threat to the U.S. released Tuesday. The United States’ nuclear arsenal has grown older in the meantime and smaller relative to those of its peer adversaries, leaving experts wondering how much change is needed to dissuade China from further aggression, experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

Beijing is already racing, and the only thing worse than engaging in an arms race is losing one,” Bradley Bowman, director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the DCNF. (RELATED: EXCLUSIVE: Pentagon Funded Former Chinese Government Employee, CCP Member’s Nuclear Warfare Research)

China “probably” intends to construct new warheads and missiles that “at least equal the effectiveness, reliability” and resilience of those belonging to the U.S., the report stated. However, China denies taking part in an arms race, instead accusing the U.S. of boosting the “China threat” narrative as a convenient excuse for enhancing its nuclear arsenal and pursuing global military dominance, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.

Satellite imagery from 2021, depicting 300 missile silos under construction in north-central China that could potentially house nuclear weapons, suggested otherwise, according to researchers from the Federation of American Scientists. Earlier that year, Beijing surprised Washington when it apparently conducted a successful test of a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile.

China’s accumulation of nuclear power in recent years represents a “dramatic acceleration” from the mid-2000s, a senior military official told Politico.

However, the United States’ firm rejection of a “no first use” policy and commitment to protect allies under its nuclear umbrella could frighten China into supersizing its own arsenal, Lyle Goldstein, director of the Asia Engagement program at Defense Priorities, told the DCNF

“China is doing a response to what we are doing,” he said.

Washington has recently begun to upgrade the technology on existing nuclear weapons; while the Pentagon positioned the U.S. nuclear force to manage only a Russian threat in the 20th century, it has changed little since, experts told the DCNF.

“We are decidedly behind,” in both quantity and diversity of nuclear capabilities, Tom DiNanno, a Hudson Institute fellow and former arms control official in the State Department, told the DCNF. “Our nuclear force has not been not been modernized, problem one,” while China and Russia have both modernized theirs, he added.

The U.S. has agreed to limit nuclear buildup under the stipulations of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia; the U.S. currently owns roughly 5,500 warheads, of which 1600 are deployed and 1,700 are retired.

To combat the perceived threat from China, the U.S. not only needs newer weaponry, but more nuclear weapons with a variety of characteristics to support an array of deterrence purposes, Patty-Jane Geller, a researcher at the Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense, told the DCNF.

“We have the number of nuclear weapons to deter only Russia as a large nuclear threat,” Geller said. “Now that China is second, we won’t have enough to maintain strong nuclear deterrence.”

“Our focus is both undersized and has qualitative issues. We have no hypersonic capability,” DiNanno said.

For example, long-range missiles deployed in the 1970’s are still deployed, even though the Pentagon intended them to last just 10 years, The Associated Press reported.

The Biden administration also plans to retire the United States’ most powerful nuclear weapon, the B83 gravity bomb, over unsustainable operations and maintenance costs, but has not stated how it plans to replace the bomb with an equivalent capability that access well-protected targets, Geller said, a sentiment echoed by Republican congressmembers.

“In order to convince an adversary it’s not a good idea to launch a nuclear weapon, we want to threaten what they value” — their nuclear weapons — “and we also want to be able to limit damage in a nuclear war,” Geller continued. Should America’s adversaries achieve nuclear superiority, “it would allow them to take greater risk in their aggression.”

Some experts questioned whether China’s buildup matters at all. China has long surpassed a threshold of nuclear weapons needed to “credibly threaten to destroy dozens of American cities,” Goldstein told the DCNF, so any increase in the number of weapons China holds in absolute terms is “irrelevant.”

China has abandoned its historically minimalist strategy, which advocated holding the smallest possible number of nuclear weapons to ensure China’s national security, in favor of an “ambitious” nuclear buildup regime, the defense official said, according to Politico.

The U.S. should focus on quality over quantity, he argued, while attempting the difficult task of getting China to agree to arms control measures, thus avoiding a costly arms race.

While China has pledged never to launch a first nuclear strike, it has demanded nuclear parity with peer countries who hope to welcome China into an international arms control system, The Washington Post reported. China’s hesitance to agree to nonproliferation terms could further upset the global balance of power and provide China with an enhanced array of options for “deterrence signaling,” exercises of power meant to contain U.S. action, the defense official said.

“The more proliferation there is, the more concerning it is — the more deeply destabilizing to the region it is,” Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen Pat Ryder said in a statement Tuesday.

China could mimic Russia’s fielding of nuclear weapons over Ukraine in a Taiwan contingency, frightening the U.S. into stifling support for a key ally, Geller explained to the DCNF.

However, if the U.S. were to scale back its commitments, a scenario where China and the U.S. have trained tactical warheads on one another could be avoided, Goldstein said.

“The pace and opaque nature of Beijing’s ‘strategic breakout,’ combined with its refusal to engage in substantive nuclear arms talks with the United States, risk miscalculation and force the Pentagon to assume the worst,” Bowman told the DCNF. 

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