A formation of Dongfeng-17 missiles takes part in a military parade during the celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China at Tian'anmen Square in Beijing. (Xinhua/Mao Siqian)

“It is going to take us 10 to 15 years to modernize 400 silos that already exist. And China is basically building almost that many overnight.”
— Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs

China’s ability to build new weapons such as hypersonic missiles much more quickly than the US, combined with its recent construction of new ICBM silos, poses serious questions the US must address, said the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs during a talk at the Brookings Institution.

According to a report in Breaking Defense, the US risks falling behind China’s modernization, as the Pentagon faces warhead and other limitations due to the New Start Treaty, warned Gen. John Hyten.

Following revelations in a soon to be released book that China feared the US might attack amid US naval actions and the “mental decline” of outgoing President Trump, Hyten is pushing for broader and lower-level talks with the Peoples Liberation Army.

Hyten said “you always have to be concerned about the ‘Thucydides Trap,’” where a rising great power and an existing power inevitably come into conflict, leading to war.

“I know the president — President Biden — and President Xi have talked a couple times this year. That’s important, but I hope we can broaden that conversation all the way down to the military-to-military level as well,” the Air Force general said.

“We’re having strategic stability talks with Russia to make sure we understand where we are, not just in the nuclear realm, but in space as well. We need to have that conversation start with the Chinese, we really do.

“We need to be able to sit down, I need to be able to sit down — Secretary Austin, the political leadership, the State Department — and talk about these issues with China,” Hyten said.

“Because as different as we are, we do have a fundamental common goal, and that is to never go to war with each other.”

A satellite image shows what analysts believe is a field of ICBM missile silos being built near Yumen, China. Credit: Planet Labs Inc.

The former head of Strategic Command pointed to America’s program to modernize one part of its nuclear triad, the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, and how slowly America is moving relative to China.

“It is going to take us 10 to 15 years to modernize 400 silos that already exist. And China is basically building almost that many overnight. So the speed of difference in that threat is what really concerns me most,” he said.

“And when you look at that nuclear capability, and you look at China’s declared no-first-use policy, and what they have nuclear weapons for, you have to ask yourself, why are they building that enormous, enormous nuclear capability faster than anybody in the world. That’s what really concerns me.”

But until those strategic talks begin — if they ever do — the US risks falling behind China’s modernization, as the Pentagon faces warhead and other limitations due to the New Start Treaty.

The Federation of American Scientists, which tracks nuclear weapons programs, reported in July that China is building a second field of up to 250 more silos.

And last month, Adm. Charles Richard, the head of US Strategic Command, said China has launched six ballistic missile submarines and upgraded its bomber force to carry air-launched cruise missiles as part of a full-speed-ahead nuclear weapons modernization.

“It’s the almost unprecedented nuclear modernization that is now becoming public, even though, you know, at STRATCOM I certainly watched it happen, but it was, but it was in very classified channels and you couldn’t talk about it,” Hyten said.

“But now you see hundreds and hundreds of fixed silos coming in, you can see the commercial imagery that came out in the press over the last few months.

Vice Chairman off the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Air Force General John Hyten says it’s time to sit down at the table with China to discuss nuclear proliferation. Credit: DOD.

“It seems like every couple of weeks, new pictures of more silos were coming in, and, oh by the way, there’s no limits on what China can put in those silos,” Hyten said.

With China, “there’s no limit. They could put, you know 10 reentry vehicles on every one of those ICBMs if they wanted to; there’s nothing to limit that ability.”

Unlike the Soviet Union, where both powers maintained a nuclear deterrent and the US had NATO allies in Europe to keep the deterrent credible, Hyten said, “China is a very different competitor” because of its global economic power.

“We have to see who our partners are in the Pacific,” he said.

According to the book “Peril,” written by Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, fearful of President Trump’s irrational actions in his final weeks as president, America’s top military officer twice assured his Chinese counterpart that the two nations would not go to war.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley twice assured Gen. Li Zuocheng of the People’s Liberation Army that the US would not strike. 

Milley went so far as to promise Li that he would warn his counterpart in the event of a US attack, saying: “If we’re going to attack, I’m going to call you ahead of time. It’s not going to be a surprise.”

It’s also alleged he held a secret meeting in the Pentagon with senior officers from the National Military Command Center (a command and communications war room), to cut off the “manic” president from ordering a rogue nuclear attack.

The assembled officers were told in so many words to ignore any orders that didn’t involve him — period.

China’s Jin-class, nuclear-powered submarines feature a number of technological upgrades and enhancements including improved radar, sonar and torpedoes. Credit: Handout.

Those fears aside, Hyten revealed, “the technology has advanced” on directed energy, so it is a capability worth pursuing.

He said current missile defense systems, like the ground-based interceptors, remain effective against the North Korean threat, but are expensive weapons.

“Directed energy has the capability to change that … to take out a cruise missile coming in, a ballistic missile coming in,” Hyten said.

The vice chairman also sent a clear signal to Congress, which has rarely passed a regular defense appropriation bill, that it must change the way it does business.

Michael O’Hanlon, the Brookings defense expert, asked Hyten if the US could afford to spend about US$700 billion annually to meet the current threats America faces, instead of the 3% to 5% annual increases that the top defense leadership has told Congress is required.

Hyten’s response was clear: “Do you think anybody, any taxpayer in this country would believe that, for $700 billion a year, we can’t have a great defense? We should be able to! It’s crazy that we can’t. 

“We have to start doing business differently, which means that if there are capabilities that we’re operating that are no longer applicable to the fight. We have to stop paying for them.”

“My biggest concerns is not with today but tomorrow,” Hyten told the assembled media.

As an example of that, he cited the “thousands of miles of copper cable,” now over 50 years old, that underpins nuclear command and control that will have to be replaced. “It’s going to be digital” and it has to have ”built-in resilience.”

Source: Breaking Defense, Associated Press, USNI News, Gizmodo.com, The Washington Post, Federation of American Scientists