For decades, it appeared that China was not investing in a massive nuclear buildup because its political leaders believed that the country had other more important priorities —especially at a time when China perceived no immediate external threat.
With President Xi Jinping at the helm, that era is gone now.
The evidence of China’s nuclear “breakout” is both impressive and terrifying.
Six new ballistic missile submarines, air-launched cruise missiles, an improved nuclear command and control system, delivery systems for different domains, upgraded missile defense systems and changed doctrine for the use of these weapons.
And unlike the United States and Russia, China not constrained by treaties regarding its nuclear forces.
According to US Strategic Command’s (STRATCOM) top officer, Adm. Charles Richard, China is rapidly fielding a range of strategic weapons, USNI News reported.
Speaking at a Hudson Institute online forum, Richard said China’s recent full-speed-ahead breakout in nuclear forces, space and cyber efforts, and hypersonic systems adds new urgency to America’s need to ensure its deterrence systems are holding.
The United States has never before “faced two peer opponents” with extensive nuclear weapons arsenals and high-technology systems capable of operating across multiple domains, Richard said.
“What I am focused on is totality” that not only changes what the Chinese are capable of doing as it builds new missile silo fields and launches ballistic missile submarines, but “what is the next thing we’re going to find.”
He said some of the new silos being constructed in the Gobi desert could be a “shell game” to create doubt in analysts’ minds.
American researchers have discovered a huge stretch of land in China that is believed to have the potential to hold up to 110 nuclear silos, RepublicWorld.com reported.
The plot is reportedly in the Gobi desert, near the city of Hami in Xinjiang. It has 14 completed silos with the ground further cleared to plant another 19 silos, researchers at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) said.
By looking at the outline of the entire complex, the desert could easily accommodate 110 nuclear silos, according to an FAS blog post.
The field in the Xinjiang province spans about 300 sq miles – the size of New York City’s land mass – and is similar to yet another silo site discovered last month in Yumen, a neighbouring province in Gansu.
According to researchers, if China was to load all the silos with missiles, it would potentially “carry more than 875 warheads assuming three warheads per missile when the Yumen and Hami missile silo fields are completed” up from its existing number of 185.
China is the third-largest nuclear power after Russia and the US. Russia has about 6,225 warheads, while the USA has about 5,550. France has about 300. The UK also harbours an enormous power with about 225 warheads, of which up to 120 are operationally available for deployment.
This expansion is poised to change China’s traditionally small and mostly land-based arsenal across the board.
Besides silo-based ICBMs, China also is building more road-mobile ICBMs and strategic nuclear submarines, even as it introduces air-based nuclear capabilities, The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace reported.
The open-ended nature of this expansion, the abrupt departure from China’s long-standing minimalist nuclear policy, and the lack of any official Chinese confirmation or explanation have all contributed to confusion and suspicions about Beijing’s intentions.
At the same time, Richard said “Russia still remains the near-term pacing threat.”
Moscow has continued to modernize is strategic forces – especially nuclear weapons that the Kremlin said are not covered by agreements. He mentioned Moscow’s development of nuclear-tipped missile defense systems as fitting in that category.
The fact is: both Russia and China can “go [to] any level of violence” in a crisis, including using nuclear weapons with their “unique destructive capability,” he said.
Meanwhile, as the STRATCOM chief spoke, the Navy announced it had successfully tested the second stage solid rocket motor for its premiere hypersonic weapon program, a “critical milestone” on the way to the fielding a common missile for both the Navy and Army.
According to a report in Breaking Defense, The test took place on Wednesday in Promontory, Utah, as part of development for the Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike program and the Army’s Long Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW); it was coordinated by the Navy’s Strategic Systems Programs office.
“This test marked the successful testing of both stages of the newly developed missile booster, as well as a thrust vector control system on the SRM [solid rocket motor],” the Navy said in a statement.
“These tests are a vital step in the development of a Navy-designed common hypersonic missile that will be fielded by both the Navy and Army.”
The motor is part of a new missile booster being incorporated into the Pentagon’s efforts to create a common hypersonic missile. Both the Navy and Army will take the common weapon and adapt it to be launched from sea or land.
Another critical element to the program, the Common Hypersonic Glide Body, was successfully tested in March 2020. The Navy has the lead on designing CHGB while the Army will take point on its production.
The Pentagon, through the Conventional Prompt Strike (CPS) program, has been eyeing development of a hypersonic weapon — a missile capable of flying at speeds of Mach 5 and giving commanders the ability to strike targets globally in a matter of minutes — since the early 2000s.
In addition to CPS and the Army’s LRHW program, the Air Force is looking to leverage work done by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to create the AGM-183 Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon, according to an Aug. 25 Congressional Research Service report.
Sources: USNI News, Breaking Defense, RepublicWorld.com, The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Federation of American Scientists