By Kingston Reif and Ulrika Grufman
Last week, Brett Stephens of the Wall Street Journal, published a one-sided piece about China’s ongoing nuclear force modernization, specifically its construction of 3,000 miles of underground tunnels. According to Stephens, these efforts suggest that:
1. There is good reason to believe that China has far more than the approximately 250 nuclear weapons most experts believe it possesses
2. China may be seeking the capability to “win” a nuclear exchange with the U.S.
3. The U.S. should be wary of further bilateral nuclear reductions with Russia
The Carnegie Endowment’s James Acton has already done an excellent job of exposing the tenuous assumptions that inform Stephens’ analysis and outlining the many ways in which Stephens’ fails to assess the motivations behind China’s nuclear modernization.
As Acton notes, the U.S., which possesses nearly 2,000 deployed strategic nuclear warheads and many more in reserve, would have little to fear even if China did have far more nuclear weapons than the approximately 250 warheads it is believed to possess. China on the other hand, does have understandable grounds for believing that the U.S. intention is to undermine the effectiveness of its nuclear deterrent, given that the U.S. is improving the lethality of its nuclear forces and refuses to categorically state that it does not seek to negate China’s arsenal.
The Monterey Institute’s Jeffrey Lewis offered a similar view in testimony at an October 14 hearing of the House Strategic Forces Subcommittee on the nuclear modernization programs of Russia and China:
I believe that the Chinese nuclear program is driven by a very straight desire to have the same technological capabilities, though not the same numbers as Russia and the United States. So they will try to have at least one of whatever we might have a thousand of. And I think further that both Russia and China — although this will sound very strange — do fundamentally fear the United States would use nuclear weapons first. [emphasis ours].
Acton also makes the important point that we should look at our own history before we judge China’s extensive network of underground tunnels. In the late 1970s the U.S. military evaluated over 40 suggestions for how to render the MX missile (the largest missile the U.S. ever built), invulnerable to a Soviet attack. According to a 2005 New York Times article, “The ideas included flying them around on C-5 cargo planes, shuttling them in railroad cars, trucking them down highways, and moving them through tunnels from one silo to another as in an elaborate shell game.”
The suggestion finally adopted by President Carter was a proposal to build 4600 silos for 200 MX missiles; in other words 23 silos for each missile. The plan was never adopted but as Acton reminds us, it doesn’t sound all that different from what the Chinese may be trying to achieve with their underground tunnel system.
Still another problem with Stephens’ article is that it fails to make a compelling connection between what is supposedly happening in China and how this should affect U.S. defence policy. Concerns over Chinese (and Russian) nuclear weapons modernization has been raised by other pro-nuclear weapons advocates, including House Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Michael Turner (R-OH). At the October 14 Strategic Forces Subcommittee hearing referred to above, Turner argued:
We need to understand the potential long-term consequences as Russia and China modernize their nuclear arsenal while we sit back and simply maintain our aging nuclear forces
While the U.S. should clearly be cognizant of and attempt to understand the motivations behind Russian and Chinese nuclear modernization programs, that doesn’t mean America should blindly follow the same path as Russia and China. As Kingston wrote in a 2009 article,
That Washington doesn’t follow the same approach to maintaining its forces as Russia, China, Britain, or France isn’t a sign of weakness or neglect. After all, constantly churning out new systems isn’t necessarily the mark of a more reliable, credible, or threatening force. In so far as the United States has pursued a different approach from other countries, it is because this approach has proven to be remarkably effective.
Moreover, worst case assumptions about Russian and Chinese modernization efforts could lead to ill-informed decisions about appropriate U.S. nuclear force levels and stockpile maintenance activities. Preventing the use of nuclear weapons by Russia or China “require[s] not “more” deterrence,” Jeffrey Lewis told Rep. Turner, “but continued attention from the United States to ensure that our overwhelming capacity to deter Russia and China is both effective and stable. “
Former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft was thinking on a related wavelength at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the New START treaty last summer:
Modernization for the sake of modernization, in light of the comments that Senator Lugar has made about the overall defense budget, is a separate question. Some things need to be modernized in order to be safe, secure and reliable. Other things don’t need to be. And I would not put modernization itself as a key to what we need to — we need to do.
Now that’s sound advice.