While still trailing the US in nuclear weapons strength, experts say China is increasing its capability across the board. Credit: Handout.

It’s no big secret that the United States’ strategic deterrent will be tested in ways that it hasn’t been before over the coming years.

Specifically, China’s burgeoning military growth, on land, on the sea, and in the air is a big concern — but perhaps moreso, is its rapid progress on the nuclear front, according to a report by Yasmin Tadjdeh in National Defense.

“China is on a trajectory to be a strategic peer to us by the end of the decade,” said Adm. Charles Richard, who spoke at a virtual event hosted by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

“For the first time ever, the US is going to face two peer capable nuclear competitors … who you have to deter differently,” he said referring to China and Russia. “We have never faced that situation before.

“We need to be ready to answer that,” he said. “The threat is significant.”

Richard noted that Beijing is bolstering its atomic arsenal by investing in air-launched systems, a change in its approach from previous eras, National Defense reported.

“They are about to finish building out for the first time an actual triad by adding a strategic capability to their air leg.”

A nuclear triad consists of air-, ground- and sea-based weapons.

China so far has yet to deploy a formidable nuclear bomber force, according to the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, a bipartisan nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. The air-based leg of its triad has historically been a low priority, National Defense reported.

“China currently possesses a small number of air-based platforms for nuclear weapon delivery, but is expected to bring a new strategic bomber and air-launched ballistic missiles into operation,” according to a fact sheet produced by the center.

“That may include the development of a new nuclear-capable subsonic strategic stealth bomber, the Xian H-20, which could enter service as early as 2025.”

The H-20 will be similar to the B-2 bomber, according to the organization.

Richard said he could not go into great detail regarding China’s nuclear pursuits, but he warned that Beijing is expanding its capabilities across the board, National Defense reported.

“They have new command and control. They have new warning. They have better readiness,” he said. “While they espouse a minimum deterrent strategy, they have a number of capabilities that seem inconsistent with that.”

China is estimated to have about 300 nuclear weapons — a fraction of the 1,500 or so strategic warheads currently deployed by the US — and has espoused a strategy known as “minimum deterrence,” which seeks to ensure that a nation would have a sufficient second-strike capability if it were to suffer a nuclear attack, National Defense reported.

Unlike the US, China keeps its nuclear forces off-alert — its warheads are not mated to its missiles and its nuclear-armed submarines are not continuously at sea on armed patrols. This is consistent with a no first use policy.  

However, Beijing has the capability to execute any number of strategic employment strategies, not just a minimum deterrent, Richard said.

Meanwhile, the US is not standing idly by as China modernizes its forces.

The Pentagon is in the process of upgrading all three legs of its triad, to include a new B-21 stealth bomber, Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines, and air-launched cruise missiles known as the Long Range Stand Off weapon.