The US Pentagon has released its Annual Report to Congress, a 173-page paper titled “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2020.”

The report says China is ahead of the US in three specific areas: shipbuilding, land-based conventional and cruise missiles, and integrated air defenses. Air defense is the US Achilles’ heel, according to the report.

Because the Pentagon’s paper does not focus on the US military’s posture, the claims in the report – and there are many – are largely unchallenged in their portrayal of China’s military modernization and growth.

For example, China has significantly more ships and submarines than the US – 350 versus 293 – but the report does not consider the quality or capability of China’s navy, or its vulnerability to US and other forces in the area. 

Nor does the report explain why the US does not have land-based cruise missiles. That’s because the US relies on ship, submarine and air-launched cruise missiles, since territorially the US has no particular need for land-based cruise missiles. 

Finally, the report claims China is ahead of the US in integrated air defenses, which is not saying much because the US does not have any real continental air defenses, integrated or not. 

The report also fails to explain the locations and values of China’s air defense system that relies primarily on the Russian S-300 and S-400. 

There is growing evidence that neither the S-300 or S-400 system offers protection against US-made stealth jet fighters – the F-22 or F-35 – stealth enhanced cruise missiles, strategic bombers like the B-2, the forthcoming B-21 and soon to be introduced hypersonic missiles. 

A US Airforce Northrop Grumman Spirit B-2 Stealth Bomber. Photo: AFP/Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

One of the tip-offs that these systems are not as optimal as Russian publicity claims is that Moscow has not been able to furnish China with longer-range interceptor missiles (the 40N6) for the S-400, surface-to-air projectiles China wants to expand their protection well outside the mainland and to counter in particular stealth fighters and bombers. 

Some Russian analysts think the 40N6 does not work. Another indicator is that the Russians are moving rapidly to introduce a new air defense system, the S-500 Prometey. If the S-400 really offered the protections claimed, the S-500 arguably would not be needed.

Perhaps the most important finding in the Pentagon’s report is that China is likely to “at least” double its stockpile of nuclear warheads from its current “low 200s” stockpile.  

The Center for Arms Control and Proliferation describes the US nuclear arsenal as follows: “The United States’ total nuclear inventory is 5,800, with around 3,800 active warheads in the stockpile and another 2,000 retired warheads awaiting dismantlement.

Under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the United States is allowed 1,550 nuclear warheads on 800 strategic launchers, only 700 of which can be deployed.” 

Clearly whatever China decides to do is hardly a challenge to the US’ nuclear dominance.

United States detonating an atomic bomb at Bikini Atoll in Micronesia for the first underwater test of the device in 1946. World History Archive

Neither China nor the US has ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CNTBT). In the US’ case, the Senate balked at ratification. 

The Brookings Institution think tank says that “the Senate did not approve the treaty in 1999, mainly due to two reasons: It was unclear whether the United States could maintain a reliable nuclear arsenal without testing, and there were doubts about the ability to detect cheating.” 

China was an early signatory to the treaty, but also did not ratify it – although its reasons for not doing so are less clear. The Pentagon’s 2020 report draws on the US State Department’s April 2020 paper on “Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments.”

In that report, the State Department said “China’s possible preparation to operate its Lop Nur test site year-round, its use of explosive containment chambers, extensive excavation activities at Lop Nur, and lack of transparency on its nuclear testing activities – which has included frequently blocking the flow of data from its International Monitoring System (IMS) stations to the International Data Center operated by the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty Organization – raise concerns regarding its adherence to the ‘zero yield’ standard adhered to by the United States, United Kingdom, and France in their respective nuclear weapons testing moratoria.” 

The US previously claimed that China violated the “zero yield” rule. China claims it is adhering to the “zero yield” testing standard, but the rapid development of new Chinese nuclear weapons, especially low yield types as described in the Pentagon’s Annual Report, means that to have workable weapons China will have to test them in some manner. 

Relying on computer simulations to emulate tests is far from proof the weapons are safe, reliable and effective. The same is true in the US, where pressure is growing to test warheads to make sure they work, especially as these weapons age. 

US adherence to the “zero yield” standard, and the US decision not to test in line with the CNTBT, is entirely voluntary. China also voluntarily supports the CNTBT “zero yield” requirement.

A US Patriot missile defense system during a joint Israeli-US military exercise. Photo: AFP/Jack Guez

Likely US response

The Pentagon’s report does not weigh or offer any US response to China’s increasing military capability. But a response is clearly already underway.

The US Navy is acquiring new long-range anti-ship missiles to challenge China’s growing naval fleet. The US is also stepping up its strategic air capabilities and is in the process of adding new weapons to maintain air superiority in the western Pacific.  

The US simply does not have layered missile defenses. South Korea has the US Patriot, as does Japan. Both US allies have Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC)-2 and PAC-3. Taiwan has PAC-3, which is now being recertified. But the Patriot air defense system has proven to be problematic against Houthi-fired ballistic missiles sourced from Iran. 

Japan has rejected the US’ Aegis Onshore as a system to protect against North Korean and Chinese ballistic and cruise missile threats. While the US has Aegis on ships, it cannot provide full-time protection to the US fleet and certainly not sufficient protection for Japan or South Korea. 

The US also has a THAAD battery in South Korea, but it is limited in how much protection it can provide with tests showing it to be terribly unreliable.

The 2020 Pentagon Report may finally trigger a US effort to change the status quo by developing credible air defenses and standoff missiles that can penetrate the Chinese mainland with dual payload capabilities. Whether the Pentagon or Congress will take the initiative is still unclear.