Living on the Fault Line
A major earthquake isn’t likely here, but if it comes, watch out.
Posted June 15, 2010 by Wayne J. Guglielmo
This chart shows the location of the Ramapo Fault System, the longest and one of the oldest systems of cracks in the earth’s crust in the Northeast. It also shows the location of all earthquakes of magnitude 2.5 or greater in New Jersey during the last 50 years. The circle in blue indicates the largest known Jersey quake.
The couple checked with Burns’s parents, who live in nearby Basking Ridge, and they, too, had heard and felt something, which they thought might have been an earthquake. A call by Burns some 20 minutes later to the Bernardsville Police Department—one of many curious and occasionally panicky inquiries that Sunday morning, according to the officer in charge, Sergeant John Remian—confirmed their suspicion: A magnitude 2.6 earthquake, its epicenter in Peapack/Gladstone, about seven miles from Bernardsville, had hit the area. A smaller aftershock followed about two and a half hours later.
After this year’s epic earthquakes in Haiti, Chile, Mexico, Indonesia, and China, the 2.6 quake and aftershock that shook parts of New Jersey in February may seem minor league, even to the Somerset County residents who experienced them. On the exponential Richter Scale, a magnitude 7.0 quake like the one that hit Haiti in January is almost 4 million times stronger than a quake of 2.6 magnitude. But comparisons of magnitude don’t tell the whole story.
Northern New Jersey straddles the Ramapo Fault, a significant ancient crack in the earth’s crust. The longest fault in the Northeast, it begins in Pennsylvania and moves into New Jersey, trending northeast through Hunterdon, Somerset, Morris, Passaic, and Bergen counties before terminating in New York’s Westchester County, not far from the Indian Point Energy Center, a nuclear power plant. And though scientists dispute how active this roughly 200 million-year-old fault really is, many earthquakes in the state’s surprisingly varied seismic history are believed to have occurred on or near it. The fault line is visible at ground level and likely extends as deep as nine miles below the surface.
During the past 230 years or so, New Jersey has been at the epicenter of nearly 170 earthquakes, according to data compiled by the New Jersey Geological Survey, part of the United States Department of Environmental Protection. The largest known quake struck in 1783, somewhere west of New York City, perhaps in Sussex County. It’s typically listed as 5.3 in magnitude, though that’s an estimate by seismologists who are quick to point out that the concept of magnitude—measuring the relative size of an earthquake—was not introduced until 1935 by Charles Richter and Beno Gutenberg. Still, for quakes prior to that, scientists are not just guessing.
“We can figure out the damage at the time by going back to old records and newspaper accounts,” says Won-Young Kim, a senior research scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York, directly across the New Jersey border. “Once the amount and extent of contemporary damage has been established,” Kim says, “we’re then able to gauge the pattern of ground shaking or intensity of the event—and from there extrapolate its probable magnitude.”
Other earthquakes of magnitude 5 or higher have been felt in New Jersey, although their epicenters laying near New York City. One—which took place in 1737 and was said to have been felt as far north as Boston and as far south as northern Delaware—was probably in the 5 to 5.5 range. In 1884, an earthquake of similar magnitude occurred off New York’s Rockaway Beach. This well-documented event pulled houses off their foundations and caused steeples to topple as far west as Rahway. The shock wave, scientists believe, was felt over 70,000 square miles, from Vermont to Maryland.
Among the largest sub-5 magnitude earthquakes with epicenters in New Jersey, two (a 3.8 and a 4.0) took place on the same day in 1938 in the Lakehurst area in Ocean County. On August 26, 2003, a 3.5 magnitude quake shook the Frenchtown/Milford area in Hunterdon County. On February 3 of last year, a 3.0 magnitude quake occurred in the Morris County town of Mendham. “A lot of people felt this one because of the intense shaking, although the area of intensity wasn’t very wide,” says Lamont-Doherty’s Kim, who visited the site after the event.
After examining the known historical and geological record, Kim and other seismologists have found no clear evidence that an earthquake of greater than 5.3 to 5.5 magnitude has taken place in this area going back to 1737. This doesn’t mean, of course, that one did not take place in the more remote past or that one will not occur in the future; it simply means that a very large quake is less likely to occur here than in other places in the east where the seismic hazard is greater, including areas in South Carolina and northeastern New York State.
But no area on the East Coast is as densely populated or as heavily built-up as parts of New Jersey and its neighbors. For this reason, scientists refer to the Greater New York City-Philadelphia area, which includes New Jersey’s biggest cities, as one of “low earthquake hazard but high vulnerability.” Put simply, the Big One isn’t likely here—but if it comes, especially in certain locations, watch out.
Given this low-hazard, high-vulnerability scenario, how far along are scientists in their efforts to predict larger magnitude earthquakes in the New Jersey area? The answer is complex, complicated by the state’s geographical position, its unique geological history, the state of seismology itself, and the continuing debate over the exact nature and activity of the Ramapo Fault.
Over millions of years, New Jersey developed four distinct physiographic provinces or regions, which divide the state into a series of diagonal slices, each with its own terrain, rock type, and geological landforms.
The northernmost slice is the Valley and Ridge, comprising major portions of Sussex and Warren counties. The southernmost slice is the Coastal Plain, a huge expanse that covers some three-fifths of the state, including all of the Shore counties. Dividing the rest of the state are the Highlands, an area for the most part of solid but brittle rock right below the Valley and Ridge, and the lower lands of the Piedmont, which occupy all of Essex, Hudson, and Union counties, most of Bergen, Hunterdon, and Somerset, and parts of Middlesex, Morris, and Passaic.
For earthquake monitors and scientists, the formation of these last two provinces—the Highlands and the Piedmont—are of special interest. To understand why, consider that prior to the appearance of the Atlantic Ocean, today’s Africa was snuggled cozily up against North America and surrounded by a single enormous ocean. “At that point, you could have had exits off the New Jersey Turnpike for Morocco,” says Alexander Gates, professor of geology and chair of the department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Rutgers-Newark.
Under the pressure of circulating material within the Earth’s super-hot middle layer, or mantle, what was once a single continent—one that is thought to have included today’s other continents as well—began to stretch and eventually break, producing numerous cracks or faults and ultimately separating to form what became the Atlantic Ocean. In our area, the longest and most active of these many cracks was the Ramapo Fault, which, through a process known as normal faulting, caused one side of the earth’s crust to slip lower—the Piedmont—relative to the other side—the Highlands. “All this occurred about 225 million years ago,” says Gates. “Back then, you were talking about thousands of feet between the Highlands and the Piedmont and a very active Ramapo Fault.”
The Earth’s crust, which is 20 to 25 miles thick, is not a single, solid shell, but is broken into seven vast tectonic plates, which drift atop the soft, underlying mantle. Although the northeast-trending Ramapo Fault neatly divides two of New Jersey’s four physiographic provinces, it does not form a so-called plate boundary, as does California’s infamous San Andreas Fault. As many Californians know all too well, this giant fault forms the boundary between two plates—to the west, the Pacific Plate, and to the east, the North American Plate; these rub up against each other, producing huge stresses and a regularly repeating pattern of larger earthquakes.
The Ramapo Fault sits on the North American Plate, which extends past the East Coast to the middle of the Atlantic, where it meets the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, an underwater mountain range in constant flux. The consequences of this intraplate setting are huge: First, as Gates points out, “The predictability of bigger earthquakes on…[such] settings is exceedingly poor, because they don’t occur very often.” Second, the intraplate setting makes it more difficult to link our earthquakes to a major cause or fault, as monitors in California can often do.
This second bit of uncertainty is especially troubling for some people, including some in the media who want a neat story. To get around it, they ignore the differences between plate settings and link all of New Jersey’s earthquakes, either directly or implicitly, to the Ramapo Fault. In effect, such people want the Ramapo Fault “to look like the San Andreas Fault,” says Gates. “They want to be able to point to one big fault that’s causing all of our earthquakes.”
Gates does not think that’s the case, and he has been working with colleagues for a number of years to prove it. “What we have found is that there are smaller faults that generally cut from east to west across the northeast-trending Ramapo Fault,” he explains. “These much smaller faults are all over the place, and they’re actually the ones that are the active faults in the area.”
But what mechanisms are responsible for the formation of these apparently active auxiliary faults? One such mechanism, say scientists, is the westward pressure the Atlantic Ocean exerts on the North American Plate, which for the most part resists any movement. “I think we are in an equilibrium state most of the time,” says Lamont-Doherty’s Kim.
Still, that continuous pressure on the plate we sit on causes stress, and when that stress builds up sufficiently, the earth’s crust has a tendency to break around any weak zones. In our area, the major weak zone is the Ramapo Fault—“an ancient zone of weakness,” as Kim calls it. That zone of weakness exacerbates the formation of auxiliary faults, and thereby the series of minor earthquakes the state has experienced over the years.
All this presupposes, of course, that any intraplate stress in this area will continue to be released gradually, in a series of relatively minor earthquakes or releases of energy. But what if that were not the case? What if the stress continued to build up, and the release of large amounts of energy came all at once? In crude terms, that’s part of the story behind the giant earthquakes that rocked what is now New Madrid, Missouri, between 1811 and 1812. Although estimates of their magnitude have been revised downward in recent years to less than magnitude 8, these earthquakes are generally regarded as among the largest intraplate events to have occurred in the continental United States.
For a number of reasons—including the relatively low odds that the kind of stored energy that unleashed the New Madrid events could ever build up here—earthquakes of plus-6 magnitude are probably not in our future. Still, says Kim, even a magnitude 6 earthquake in certain areas of the state could do considerable damage, especially if its intensity or ground shaking was of sufficient strength. In a state as geologically diverse and densely populated as New Jersey, this is a crucial wild card.
Part of the job of the experts at the New Jersey Geological Survey is to assess the seismic hazards in different parts of the state. To do this, they use a computer-simulation model developed under the direction of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, known as HAZUS, for Hazards US. To assess the amount of ground shaking likely to occur in a given county during events ranging in magnitude from 5 to 7 on the Richter Scale, NJGS scientists enter three features of a county’s surface geology into their computer model. Two of these features relate to the tendency of soil in a given area to lose strength, liquefy, or slide downhill when shaken. The third and most crucial feature has to do with the depth and density of the soil itself and the type of bedrock lying below it; this is a key component in determining a region’s susceptibility to ground shaking and, therefore, in estimating the amount of building and structural damage that’s likely to occur in that region. Estimates for the various counties—nine to date have been studied—are sent to the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management, which provided partial funding for the project.
To appreciate why this element of ground geology is so crucial to earthquake modelers, consider the following: An earthquake’s intensity—which is measured on something called the Modified Mercalli Scale—is related to a number of factors. The amount of energy released or the magnitude of an event is clearly a big factor. But two earthquakes of the same magnitude can have very different levels of intensity; in fact, it’s quite possible for a lower magnitude event to generate more ground shaking than a higher magnitude one.
In addition to magnitude, other factors that affect intensity are the distance of the observer or structure from the epicenter, where intensity is the greatest; the depth beneath the surface of the initial rupture, with shallower ruptures producing more ground shaking than deeper ones; and, most significantly, the ground geology or material that the shock wave generated by the earthquake must pass through.
As a rule, softer materials like sand and gravel shake much more intensely than harder materials, because the softer materials are comparatively inefficient energy conductors, so whatever energy is released by the quake tends to be trapped, dispersing much more slowly. (Think of a bowl of Jell-O on a table that’s shaking.)
In contrast, harder materials, like the solid rock found widely in the Highlands, are brittle and break under pressure, but conduct energy well, so that even big shock waves disperse much more rapidly through them, thereby weakening the amount of ground shaking. “If you’ve read any stories about the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, you know the most intense damage was in those flat, low areas by the Bay, where the soil is soft, and not in the hilly, rocky areas above,” says Karl Muessig, state geologist and NJGS head.
The map that accompanies the online version of the NJGS’s Earthquake Loss Estimation Study divides the state’s surface geology into five seismic soil classes, ranging from Class A, or hard rock, to Class E, or soft soil (state.nj.us/dep/njgs/enviroed/hazus.htm).
Although the weakest soils are scattered throughout the state, including the Highlands, which besides harder rock also contains areas of glacial lakes, clays, and wetlands, they are most evident in the Piedmont and the Coastal Plain. “The largest expanses of them are in coastal areas where you have salt marshes or large glacial lakes, as in parts of the Passaic River basin,” says Scott Stanford, a research scientist with NJGS and lead author of the estimate. Some of the very weakest soils, Stanford adds, are in areas of filled marshland, including places along the Hudson waterfront, around Newark Bay and the Meadowlands, and along the Arthur Kill.
Faults in these areas—and in the coastal plain generally—are far below the ground, perhaps several hundred to a thousand feet down, making identification difficult. “There are numerous faults upon which you might get earthquake movement that we can’t see, because they’re covered by younger sediments,” Stanford says.
This combination of hidden faults and weak soils worries scientists, who are all too aware that parts of the coastal plain and Piedmont are among the most densely populated and developed areas in the state. (The HAZUS computer model also has a “built environment” component, which summarizes, among other things, types of buildings in a given area.) For this reason, such areas would be in the most jeopardy in the event of a large earthquake.
“Any vulnerable structure on these weak soils would have a higher failure hazard,” Stanford says. And the scary truth is that many structures in New Jersey’s largest cities, not to mention New York City, would be vulnerable, since they’re older and built before anyone gave much thought to earthquake-related engineering and construction codes.
For example, in the study’s loss estimate for Essex County, which includes Newark, the state’s largest city, a magnitude 6 event would result in damage to 81,600 buildings, including almost 10,000 extensively or completely; 36,000 people either displaced from their homes or forced to seek short-term shelter; almost $9 million in economic losses from property damage and business interruption; and close to 3,300 injuries and 50 fatalities. (The New York City Area Consortium for Earthquake Loss Mitigation has conducted a similar assessment for New York City, at nycem.org.)
All of this suggests the central irony of New Jersey geology: The upland areas that are most prone to earthquakes—the counties in or around the Ramapo Fault, which has spawned a network of splays, or auxiliary faults—are much less densely populated and sit, for the most part, on good bedrock. These areas are not invulnerable, certainly, but, by almost all measures, they would not sustain very severe damage, even in the event of a higher magnitude earthquake. The same can’t be said for other parts of the state, where the earthquake hazard is lower but the vulnerability far greater. Here, the best we can do is to prepare—both in terms of better building codes and a constantly improving emergency response.
Meanwhile, scientists like Rutgers’s Gates struggle to understand the Earth’s quirky seismic timetable: “The big thing with earthquakes is that you can commonly predict where they are going to occur,” Gates says. “When they’re going to come, well, we’re nowhere near being able to figure that out.”
Planning for the Big One
For the men and women of the state police who manage and support the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management (OEM), the response to some events, like hurricanes, can be marshalled in advance. But an earthquake is what responders call a no-notice event.
In New Jersey, even minor earthquakes—like the one that shook parts of Somerset County in February—attract the notice of local, county, and OEM officials, who continuously monitor events around the state from their Regional Operations and Intelligence Center (The ROIC) in West Trenton, a multimillion dollar command-and-control facility that has been built to withstand 125 mph winds and a 5.5 magnitude earthquake. In the event of a very large earthquake, during which local and county resources are apt to become quickly overwhelmed, command and control authority would almost instantly pass to West Trenton.
Here, officials from the state police, representatives of a galaxy of other state agencies, and a variety of communications and other experts would assemble in the cavernous and ultra-high tech Emergency Operations Center to oversee the state’s response. “A high-level earthquake would definitely cause the governor to declare a state of emergency,” says OEM public information officer Nicholas J. Morici. “And once that takes place, our emergency operations plan would be put in motion.”
Emergency officials have modeled that plan—one that can be adapted to any no-notice event, including a terrorist attack—on response methodologies developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. At its core is a series of seventeen emergency support functions, ranging from transportation to firefighting, debris removal, search and rescue, public health, and medical services. A high-magnitude event would likely activate all of these functions, says Morici, along with the human and physical resources needed to carry them out—cranes and heavy trucks for debris removal, fire trucks and teams for firefighting, doctors and EMTs for medical services, buses and personnel carriers for transportation, and so on.
This is where an expert like Tom Rafferty comes in. Rafferty is a Geographic Information Systems Specialist attached to the OEM. His job during an emergency is to keep track electronically of which resources are where in the state, so they can be deployed quickly to where they are needed. “We have a massive database called the Resource Directory Database in which we have geolocated municipal, county, and state assets to a very detailed map of New Jersey,” Rafferty says. “That way, if there is an emergency like an earthquake going on in one area, the emergency managers can quickly say to me, for instance, ‘We have major debris and damage on this spot of the map. Show us the location of the nearest heavy hauler. Show us the next closest location,’ and so on.”
A very large quake, Rafferty says, “could overwhelm resources that we have as a state.” In that event, OEM has the authority to reach out to FEMA for additional resources and assistance. It can also call upon the private sector—the Resource Directory has been expanded to include non-government assets—and to a network of volunteers. “No one has ever said, ‘We don’t want to help,’” Rafferty says. New Jersey officials can also request assistance through the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC), an agreement among the states to help each other in times of extreme crisis.
“You always plan for the worst,” Rafferty says, “and that way when the worst doesn’t happen, you feel you can handle it if and when it does.”
Contributing editor Wayne J. Guglielmo lives in Mahwah, near the Ramapo Fault.
WFLA 8 On Your Side Staff
TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — The hyperactive hurricane season continues with forecasters watching a number of systems in the Atlantic Basin.
Tropical Storm Wilfred, Subtropical Storm Alpha and Tropical Storm Beta formed within hours of each other on Friday. Alpha and Beta are the first Atlantic storms named after Greek letters since 2005.
Meanwhile, Teddy remains a powerful Category 4 hurricane while Tropical Depression 22 churns in the Gulf of Mexico.
Here’s the latest on what we’re tracking in the tropics:
Tropical Storm Beta
Tropical Depression 22, which formed in the southwestern Gulf of Mexico Thursday night, strengthened to become Tropical Storm Beta on Friday evening.
The slow-moving storm is about 335 miles east-northeast of Tampico, Mexico and 280 miles east-southeast of the Mouth of the Rio Grande.
Maximum sustained winds increased to 40 mph at 5 p.m. ET Friday. The NHC said additional slow strengthening is expected throughout the weekend. Beta could be near hurricane strength by Sunday.
Beta is creating swells that could impact parts of Texas and the Gulf Coast of Mexico over the weekend, increasing the threat of surf and rip current conditions.
“There is an increasing risk of heavy rainfall and flooding along the northwest Gulf Coast Sunday through at least the middle of next week as Beta is forecast to move slowly toward and along or offshore of the coast through that time,” the NHC said Friday evening.
According to forecasters, it’s still too early to determine exactly what areas could see direct impacts from Beta but they are encouraging people along the western Gulf of Mexico to monitor the system. As of Friday, it looks like the Tampa Bay area will not see direct impacts.
Storm surge, tropical storm or hurricane watches could be issued as early as Friday night or Saturday.
Subtropical Storm Alpha
The first letter of the Greek alphabet was claimed Friday afternoon when Subtropical Storm Alpha formed near the coast of Portugal. Alpha is small and expected to dissipate by Saturday, but forecasters said it will bring heavy rain and winds to parts of Portugal.
This is only the second time in history a storm in the Atlantic has been named Alpha.
Tropical Storm Wilfred
Tropical Storm Wilfred formed in the eastern tropical Atlantic late Friday morning, claiming the last name on the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season storm names list.
As of 11 a.m. ET, Wilfred is about 630 miles west-southwest of the Cabo Verde Islands with maximum sustained winds of 40 mph.
Teddy is a Category 4 hurricane and is forecast to remain powerful as it moves through the Atlantic over the next few days.
Teddy is creating large swells that are forecast to spread across the western Atlantic, increasing the threat of rip currents in the Lesser Antilles and the northeastern coast of South America Friday morning. The swells are expected to spread westward to the Greater Antilles, the Bahamas, Bermuda and the east coast of the United States this weekend, forecasters said.
At 5 a.m. ET Friday, the storm had maximum sustained winds of 130 mph and was about 935 miles southeast of Bermuda, moving northwest at 12 mph.
“Interest in Bermuda should monitor the progress of Teddy,” forecasters said.
Forecasters said some fluctuations in strength are expected over the next day.
Other areas to watch
The NHC is keeping a close eye on other disturbances in the Atlantic Basin Friday morning.
Another tropical wave is forecast to move off the west coast of Africa by early Saturday. It has a low 20% chance of development in the next five days.
• Break out the Greek alphabet: Tropical Storm Wilfred claims final name on 2020 hurricane season list
• Alpha and Beta become first Greek letter storms in Atlantic since 2005
• Tracking the Tropics: Teddy becomes major hurricane, reaching Category 3 strength
• Tracking the Tropics: Sally weakens to depression, still soaking Alabama, Georgia with heavy rain
• Tracking the Tropics: Sally starting to bring rain north as ‘catastrophic’ flooding continues on Gulf Coast
BAGHDAD – An explosive device blew up late Thursday night inside the American Institute for English Learning in the holy city of Najaf, adding to concerns about an increase in such attacks in the country.
The blast damaged the facade of the institute without causing any casualties, Iraqi police said in a statement, noting that an investigation has been launched into the incident.
The American Institute is an educational centre that teaches English language. It is not formally affiliated with any institution in the US and all of its employees are Iraqis.
Security forces stand guard near site of the attack on the American Institute for English Learning in Najaf, Sept. 18, 2020. (AP)
Shia militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr warned against targeting cultural and diplomatic sites in Iraq, which he said could lead the country to a “dark tunnel” and into a “spiral of violence.”
“Whoever is behind the attack exposes Iraq and Iraqi to danger,” he added.
Iran-backed militias are suspected of targeting the US presence in Iraq.
Hours before the attack on the English-language site Thursday, a roadside bomb targeted an Iraqi convoy transporting equipment destined for the US-led coalition in the Babylon governorate without causing any casualties.
Over the past few weeks, attacks targeting the US presence and forces of other countries in the international coalition against ISIS have been on the rise.
Washington accuses armed Iraqi factions linked to Iran of being behind the attacks. Such factions have previously targeted the US embassy and military bases where American soldiers are deployed.
Security forces stand guard after the attack near the American Institute for English Learning in Najaf, Sept. 18. (AP)
Analysts see that these attacks as part of efforts to embarrass the US administration before the November presidential elections, while others see them as aimed at pressuring the Iraqi government to follow through with an earlier vote in parliament demanding the withdrawal of US forces.
Armed Shia militia, including the Iraqi Hezbollah Brigades, threatened to target American troops in the country if they did not withdraw, in compliance with the Iraqi parliament’s decision.
The United States now faces widespread opposition to imposing further international sanctions on Iran, even as the government in Tehran has progressively stepped up its nuclear activities in the past two years.
by Peter Suciu
There is little doubt that Beijing and Moscow would love to make Tehran a happy customer and sell the Islamic Republic of Iran all the weapons it could buy. However, on Tuesday Secretary of State Mike Pompeo vowed that Washington will absolutely not allow it to happen even as the end of the UN arms embargo against Tehran approaches.
Last month Pompeo addressed the fifteen member nations of the United Nations Security Council and said that the Trump administration would continue its maximum pressure campaign to rein in the Islamic State’s missile and nuclear weapons programs.
“I have not had a single world leader or one of my counterparts tell me that they think it makes any sense at all for the Iranians to be able to purchase and sell high-end weapons systems, which is what will happen on Oct. 18 of this year, absent the actions that we took at the United Nations yesterday,” Pompeo told CNBC in August.
Pompeo added that Iran has remained “the world’s largest state sponsor of terror,” and further suggested, “We’re not going to let them have a nuclear weapon, we’re not going to let them have hundreds of billions of dollars in wealth from selling weapons systems. Every leader around the world knows it’s a bad idea.”
The secretary of state doubled down on his vow this week and said that Washington would do all in its power to prevent Iran from purchasing Chinese tanks or Russian air defense systems as the embargo against Tehran is set to end. His stark message comes as the European Union and United Nations continues to disagree with the U.S. decision to withdraw from an international nuclear deal in 2018, which followed unilateral sanctions.
“We are going to act in a way—and we have acted in a way—that will prevent Iran from being able to purchase Chinese tanks and Russian air defense systems and resell weapons to Hezbollah to undermine the very efforts that (French) President (Emmanuel) Macron is ably trying to lead in Lebanon,” Pompeo said on Tuesday.
However, the United States now faces widespread opposition to imposing further international sanctions on Iran, even as the government in Tehran has progressively stepped up its nuclear activities in the past two years.
Very Strange Bedfellows
In recent years Iran has moved closer to Russia, but whether such a partnership could be long-lasting isn’t clear. Moscow and Tehran are historic enemies whose differences have re-emerged now that they have achieved their mutual objective of preventing a breakdown of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. Russia and Iran may even now see each other as competitors now that Assad’s regime is more secure.
Yet, Moscow has still seen Tehran as a potential customer for its weapons platforms, including the Rezonans-NE radar, which Iran claimed was used to successfully spot and track American F-35 fighter jets near its borders last winter.
It is more likely that Beijing could forge a stronger partnership with Tehran, especially as India’s investments in the Islamic Republic have become impacted by the Chinese. Indian companies have reportedly been dropped from Iranian transport and energy deals while China continues to invest heavily in those sectors. Beijing could drive India out of Iran, but this could move India closer to the United States.
Such a partnership between China and Iran won’t be welcome by the United States, but it could also put China at odds with Russia. However, it plays out Iran should still be seen as a regional pawn of the larger powers—and it could also be a pawn without the ability to reach the other side of the border at least in terms of getting the weapons it desires.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.
Early this summer, as American and Russian diplomats gathered in Vienna to discuss extending the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, much of the focus was on a country that was not represented at the summit: China. In the lead up to the meeting, Marshall Billingslea, the U.S. special presidential envoy for arms control, tweeted that “China just said it has no intention to participate in trilateral negotiations. It should reconsider … No more Great Wall of Secrecy on its nuclear build-up. Seat waiting for China in Vienna.” To highlight China’s absence, American negotiators placed Chinese flags in front of empty chairs, in what Beijing would later rebuke as “performance art.” Once talks began, American officials reportedly even delivered a classified briefing to their Russian counterparts outlining China’s modernization of its nuclear arsenal and the risks such forces pose.
As China’s growing nuclear forces have garnered new attention, so have some persistent myths about them. There are many legitimate concerns about China’s nuclear arsenal. China’s nuclear expansion and modernization is loosening longstanding technical constraints that have guided the country’s nuclear policies. The potential entanglement of Chinese conventional and nuclear forces raises the risks of misperception leading to nuclear first use in a crisis or conflict. And China’s opacity in the nuclear domain exacerbates dangerous misperceptions and misunderstandings between Washington and Beijing. Unfortunately, these real risks are frequently overshadowed by more dubious claims. Too many analysts have focused on the wrong problems when it comes to China’s nuclear forces, including claims that China is hiding a vast nuclear warhead stockpile, that its no-first-use policy is a sham, and that it has developed and fielded tactical nuclear weapons. The misguided focus on these claims can exacerbate distrust, heighten threat perceptions, and make it more difficult to address more genuine concerns. Three myths in particular deserve attention.
Three Persistent Myths About China’s Nukes
Since its first nuclear test in 1964, China’s approach to nuclear weapons has often diverged from that of the other nuclear-armed states, puzzling scholars and analysts alike. While nuclear-armed regional powers like France and Pakistan fielded asymmetric escalation postures consisting of high-alert tactical nuclear systems, China was slow to develop a limited arsenal of affixed, hulking liquid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missiles. While the Cold War superpowers engaged in arms racing, China committed to building a “lean and effective” force. Since obtaining a nuclear weapons capability, China has publicly claimed a categorical no-first-use policy and has asserted that “China does not engage in any nuclear arms race with any other country and keeps its nuclear capabilities at the minimum level required for national security.” Scholars have attributed China’s historically reserved nuclear strategy and policies to a range of factors, from leadership beliefs and domestic and organizational constraints to strategic culture and civil-military relations.
But whatever the sources of China’s nuclear doctrine, misperceptions about it continue to endure. These misperceptions are likely the byproduct of several factors, including confusion over the historical divergence between China’s nuclear policies and those of the United States, alarm at Beijing’s increasingly challenging behaviors in other security domains, and suspicion over the People’s Liberation Army’s troubling opacity in the nuclear realm. Together, these factors create a space for worst-case assumptions on the part of policy-makers, permitting the emergence and propagation of enduring and counterproductive myths.
The first myth is that China maintains a vast hidden arsenal of potentially thousands of nuclear warheads in the country’s underground tunnels. As the United States has called for a trilateral arms control agreement with both Russia and China, an op-ed contributor to The Wall Street Journal alleged that any reluctance on Beijing’s part only confirms the existence of this secret nuclear force. Writing in The Hill, two observers claimed that “Estimates of the size of the Chinese nuclear arsenal vary considerably, from fewer than 300 warheads to a significantly larger number” [emphasis added]. Indeed, claims of a wildly expansive Chinese nuclear arsenal are not new — similar claims were made in major American newspapers nearly a decade ago.
There is, however, little evidence to support these claims. The most credible estimates of China’s nuclear forces from both the U.S. government and independent experts attest to Beijing’s relatively limited — though increasingly sophisticated — nuclear forces. The Pentagon’s most recent annual report on the Chinese military estimates that China has roughly 100 intercontinental ballistic missiles and puts China’s nuclear warhead stockpile “in the low 200s,” even lower than many well-respected independent estimates.
Related to the myth of a vast secret warhead stockpile are ongoing concerns that China may attempt a so-called “sprint to parity” by quickly expanding its nuclear arsenal to the size of the American one. The U.S. government predicts that China will double its nuclear warhead stockpile over the next decade (though similar past predictions about growth in China’s nuclear arsenal have not come to pass). Given the current size of that stockpile, a doubling would amount to fewer than 500 weapons compared to the 1,550 deployed warhead limit established by the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.
However, and perhaps most significantly, China lacks the fissile material necessary to build a significantly larger nuclear arsenal. The International Panel on Fissile Materials reports that China stopped production of fissile material for weapons in the 1980s and that Beijing possesses relatively limited stocks of both uranium and plutonium. Additionally, Chinese warhead designs may be comparatively conservative, requiring more nuclear fuel than those of other states.
Some skeptics have fixated on the extensive system of underground tunnels China reportedly uses to shelter and move some of its missiles, arguing that the tunnels themselves are evidence of a vast nuclear stockpile. Why would China create such an elaborate underground network if its arsenal were truly so small? The answer: to shelter this vulnerable nuclear deterrent. Not surprisingly, China sought to protect its relatively modest deterrent force by hiding it. As one expert has argued, Beijing could have enhanced the survivability of its force by expanding its size. Beijing’s reliance on concealment enhanced the force’s survivability at lower cost and with the added benefit of not introducing arms race pressures.
The second myth about China’s nuclear forces is that Beijing’s no-first-use policy is a fraud. China claims to adhere to a no-first-use policy, meaning that it would use its nuclear weapons only in response to a nuclear strike by another country. This policy has been reaffirmed repeatedly over the decades, including in last year’s defense white paper.
However, American observers have a long tradition of doubting the sincerity of that policy. The 2006 version of the Defense Department’s annual report on the Chinese military, drawing in part on faulty translations of Chinese writings, implied that China might adjust its no-first-use policy in the future. At a congressional hearing this February the head of U.S. Strategic Command, Adm. Charles Richard, said that he could “drive a truck through that no first use policy.” One writer in the editorial pages of The Hill recently dismissed China’s declared no-first-use policy as a “disinformation campaign.”
But evidence from public and classified Chinese military texts reaffirming the no-first-use policy suggests that no-first-use is still intact. China’s nuclear warheads are reportedly not mated to delivery vehicles, a practice which would confound attempts at nuclear first-use. Chinese military reporting continues to describe People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force units conducting exercises under conditions of nuclear attack, indicating that China’s nuclear missile forces plan to operate after an adversary’s nuclear strike. The Pentagon’s 2019 report on the Chinese military, while acknowledging elements of concern in China’s nuclear forces and policies, is straightforward in its conclusion: “There has been no indication that national leaders are willing to attach such nuances and caveats to China’s existing NFU [no-first-use] policy.”
The third myth is that China has developed and deployed an array of nuclear war-fighting capabilities, including tactical nuclear weapons. While there is no strict definition of tactical nuclear weapon, they are usually defined as lower-yield warheads affixed to shorter-range delivery vehicles and intended for use against military targets on the battlefield or other high-value theater targets. Over the last year, several American media outlets have published claims that China is fielding or has already fielded an array of tactical nuclear weapons. But such claims lack merit.
China certainly has the industrial and technical base to produce tactical nuclear weapons if such a decision were made. There are scattered reports that Beijing may have initiated projects to develop such weapons during the Cultural Revolution. But those projects were ultimately canceled before deployment because they conflicted with China’s nuclear strategy. China conducted successful tests of a neutron bomb in the 1980s, though it’s unclear how readily those designs might translate into a modern nuclear war-fighting capability.
More than three decades ago, U.S. intelligence estimates were predicting that China would soon field these kinds of capabilities. But 35 years later, those predictions have yet to come true as Defense Department and independent assessments of China’s capabilities continue to make no mention of deployed tactical nuclear weapons.
Misplaced Attention: The Real Risks of Beijing’s Nukes
Although there is little evidence to support claims that China possesses a vast covert nuclear arsenal, that its no-first-use policy is a sham, or that it has developed an extensive array of tactical nuclear weapons, there are still several reasons to be concerned about China’s nuclear forces. Unlike the above myths, which often focus on China’s force modernization and potential arms racing dynamics, these legitimate concerns often relate to actual nuclear use.
First, China’s nuclear expansion and modernization, though modest in comparison to the much larger and sophisticated arsenals of the United States and Russia, ease the technical constraints that have influenced its nuclear policies, making it easier for Beijing to shift to a more alerted posture if the country’s leadership ever decides to do so. China is deploying more and increasingly sophisticated solid-fueled and road-mobile land-based missiles, fielding a fleet of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, and has reassigned a nuclear role to its air force.
The development of more accurate, mobile, and survivable missiles, and the realization of a complete nuclear triad of land-, air-, and sea-based delivery systems will expand Beijing’s nuclear policy options. More accurate missiles improve the potential value of using nuclear weapons on the battlefield against opposing military units. Calls by some within China’s military to raise the alert status of its nuclear forces raise questions about the long-term trajectory of China’s nuclear policies. China is reportedly working on a space-based early warning system which could support a move to a launch-on-warning posture, if such a decision were made in the future. Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that his country would assist China in developing an early warning capability. In fact, the 2020 Department of Defense report on the Chinese military claims that “China intends to increase the peacetime readiness of its nuclear forces by moving to a launch-on-warning posture with an expanded silo-based force.” Some developments, like the deployment of a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine fleet, may create new pressures for mating warheads in peacetime or pre-delegating launch authority in certain situations. China’s expanding fissile material production capabilities, though intended for commercial purposes, could be used to support a larger expansion of its nuclear weapons arsenal. Recent reports have suggested increased activity at China’s nuclear weapons labs and testing site.
Together, these developments either create new opportunities for China to use its nuclear forces or introduce new pressures on longstanding nuclear weapons policies and practices. They also, in part, drive American skepticism of Chinese nuclear policies. In the past, the operational and technical characteristics of China’s nuclear arsenal lent inherent credibility to Beijing’s claims of maintaining only a retaliatory capability. China may have pursued these new capabilities primarily to ensure the survivability of its nuclear deterrent. But today, thanks to those modernization efforts, China’s nuclear forces may nonetheless be capable of more than simply retaliation. This has occurred against the backdrop of growing U.S.-Chinese strategic competition and mutual suspicion, further heightening threat perceptions.
Second, experts have increasingly warned that the possible entanglement of China’s conventional and nuclear forces could introduce dangerous escalation risks in a crisis or conflict. China fields the world’s largest and most sophisticated array of conventional and nuclear ground-based ballistic missiles. All of these missiles are under the control of the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force. Some of these missiles, such as the DF-21, feature both conventional- and nuclear-armed variants. One missile system, the DF-26, appears technologically capable of switching between either a conventional or nuclear payload and Chinese military reporting describes DF-26 units rapidly transitioning from conventional strikes to nuclear ones. The mobility of these systems increases the possibility of nuclear and conventional units operating far from home garrisons and within proximity of one another. This organizational, technological, and geographic overlap may make it difficult for the United States to determine which systems are nuclear and which are conventional.
In a crisis or a conflict, U.S. strikes against China’s conventional capabilities might inadvertently degrade Beijing’s nuclear deterrent, introducing dangerous escalation pressures. U.S. efforts to locate and track Chinese conventional missiles could be misinterpreted in Beijing as preparations for a disarming first strike against its nuclear forces. Similarly, the United States might mistake the launch of a conventional Chinese missile as a nuclear attack. These risks stemming from entanglement are more pronounced given evidence that the United States misperceives the drivers of Chinese entanglement. Several American analysts have suggested that Beijing may have deliberately entangled its conventional and nuclear forces in order to increase the risks of nuclear use and deter the United States. While the logic is compelling and some Chinese strategists may have come to appreciate the potential deterrent benefits of entanglement, the evidence suggests that Chinese entanglement, to the degree it exists, developed from more parochial organizational dynamics (i.e., saving costs by using similar systems), not a desire to manipulate risk. This mismatch between what Americans and Chinese analysts perceive to be the drivers of entanglement could exacerbate escalation dynamics, with U.S. officials falsely believing that China is well prepared for the risks of entanglement and Chinese officials falsely believing that U.S. actions (inadvertently) targeting China’s nuclear weapons are part of a campaign to erode China’s nuclear deterrent. Together, this entanglement could increase pressures on China to use its nuclear weapons or for the United States to target them, raising the likelihood of a dangerous escalation spiral.
Third, China’s longstanding opacity about its nuclear forces and policies is risky, especially given the evidence of misperceptions and misunderstandings between Beijing and Washington. China and the United States appear to have dangerously different views of escalation dynamics and the ability of countries to control the scope and intensity of a conflict. For one, while American experts frequently highlight potential escalation pathways in a crisis or conflict, Chinese strategists appear overly sanguine about the escalatory potential of steps China might take with its nuclear forces to signal resolve. This mismatch in perceptions could lead each side to misjudge the actions or intentions of the other. For example, Chinese military texts describe potentially escalatory signaling practices for demonstrating resolve in a crisis, including broadcasting operations involving its strategic forces and even launching an intercontinental ballistic missile armed with a conventional warhead against an adversary’s territory. Though there is no indication that China ever deployed conventionally armed intercontinental ballistic missiles, such future actions could be easily mistaken for preparations of an actual nuclear strike. American skepticism about China’s nuclear policies, including its no-first-use pledge, exacerbates these risks.
Similarly, although skepticism about China’s no-first-use policy may be overblown, it would be dangerous to assume that it is inviolable in all possible circumstances. In a crisis or a conflict, plans can change. There are occasional reports of Chinese strategists and military officers debating the merits of the no-first-use policy, including expressing concerns about potential adversary efforts to exploit China’s no-first-use policy by mounting a conventional first strike against China’s nuclear forces. Versions of this debate have been going on for decades and there is no hard evidence that China’s no-first-use policy has changed (indeed, the existence of the debate is itself evidence that the policy is still in place). But that should not lead U.S. military planners to assume that there is no risk in non-nuclear operations intended to degrade Chinese warfighting capabilities or impose costs on China.
Addressing the Risks
These myths can exacerbate dangerous nuclear dynamics between China and the United States. The belief that China’s no-first-use policy is a sham increases the risk of Washington misidentifying a Chinese signal of resolve as preparations for a nuclear strike. Increased distrust can lead Beijing to wrongly believe that American reconnaissance of its missile forces signals an impending strike against Beijing’s nuclear deterrent. Similarly, the belief that Beijing has hidden away an arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons can increase U.S. anxieties about a possible Chinese nuclear strike.
The myths can also hobble efforts to address more legitimate risks. Many of these risks, particularly those rooted in different perceptions, could be mitigated through formal dialogue. Beijing and Washington can share and refine understandings about escalation dynamics or their aims in a crisis or conflict. But misperception and miscommunication, sometimes rooted in the very myths discussed above, can make it difficult carry out such dialogues. For example, some of these dynamics can be seen in previous Track-1.5 and Track-2 dialogues, where skeptical American participants have presented imaginative hypotheticals to their Chinese counterparts in efforts to determine the bounds of Beijing’s no-first-use policy. Chinese participants may view these hypotheticals not as illustrative thought experiments, but as potential threats, derailing attempts at more substantive discussions.
Perhaps most significantly, a misguided focus on the myths could, perversely, make those myths realities. American concerns about China’s current and future nuclear policies (both real and imagined) can drive the United States to adopt policies which hedge against an uncertain nuclear future, such as developing more robust ballistic missile defenses or fielding more sophisticated counterforce targeting capabilities. Those American actions, in turn, can raise China’s concerns about the survivability of its own nuclear deterrent, making Beijing more likely to adopt the kind of practices the United States fears: fielding a larger and more diverse arsenal, adopting a higher alert status, and adjusting its no-first-use policy.
Observers have rightly criticized China’s dismissive response to U.S. arms control overtures, however insincere or misguided those overtures might be viewed in Beijing. But fixating on poorly sourced or unfounded claims makes any dialogue both less likely to occur and less effective if it does happen. There are enough real concerns about China’s nuclear modernization that need to be addressed without being distracted by myths.
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David C. Logan is a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University’s School of Public and International Affairs and an expert consultant at the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs, which is part of the National Defense University’s Institute of National Strategic Studies. The views expressed are his own, not those of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
Image: Official Twitter Account of U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Arms Control Marshall S. Billingslea
Wednesday 16th Sep 2020
Israeli police inspect the damage at the site hit by a rocket fired by Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip in the southern city of Ashdod
THE Israeli military struck Gaza early today in response to a rocket fired by Hamas the previous night, as Israel lit up Tel Aviv City Hall with the word “peace.”
Two Israelis were wounded by a rocket fired from Gaza on Tuesday, just as a ceremony in Washington was getting underway to formalise recognition agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, seen by Palestinians as a betrayal.
The Israeli military said that in response it struck about 10 targets it alleged included a weapons and explosives manufacturing factory, underground infrastructure and a military training compound.
The exchange offered a reminder that the festivities in the US would do little to change the conflict.
Neither US President Donald Trump nor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu mentioned Palestine in the signing ceremony, but both Arab foreign ministers spoke of the importance of a Palestinian state.
The attacks came just after Tel Aviv City Hall lit up with the words for peace in Hebrew, Arabic and English in honour of the recognition agreement.
Tel Aviv, once called Jaffa, was taken violently from the Palestinians in 1949 and residents were forced to flee to the nearby Gaza Strip, taking their keys with them to symbolise the hope to return.
In Jerusalem, authorities projected the flags of the US, Israel, UAE and Bahrain on the walls of the Old City where Palestinians are being illegally evicted from their homes.
Saudi Arabia may possess uranium ore reserves of more than 90,000 tonnes, enough to successfully produce its own nuclear fuel, The Guardian newspaper reported on Thursday.
The news outlet cites survey reports by Chinese geologists, helping Riyadh to identify its uranium reserves, per the nuclear energy cooperation agreement between the two countries.
According to the documents, the geologists have identified three major deposits in the central and northwestern areas capable of producing more than 90,000 tonnes of uranium.
It added that these were inferred deposits and that further exploration is needed.
Nevertheless, the survey does suggest it is possible that they could provide Saudi Arabia with both fuel for reactors and enough surplus to export.
In August, Saudi Arabia was reported to have constructed an undisclosed facility for processing uranium into so-called yellowcake, which is used in producing nuclear weapons.
Saudi authorities categorically deny such reports.
Meanwhile, The German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, said The U.S. disengagement from Afghanistan and Africa affects the security and defence policy of the EU, which will require the latter to improve its set of tools to deal with regional conflicts.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to lead to even greater instability in our region.
“We are dealing with destabilising actors in a number of countries – just think of Ukraine, Syria or Libya.
“The U.S. is withdrawing not only from Afghanistan but also from Africa.’’
“For the EU, this can only mean one thing: we need a set of tools to resolve conflicts in neighbouring countries.
“And this toolbox, ladies and gentlemen, is our common security and defence policy,’’ Maas said at the opening of the European Centre of Excellence for Civilian Crisis Management in Berlin.
According to the minister, during its presidency in the EU Council, Germany wants to make the coordination of the EU countries in the field of security and defence more effective and permanent.
“To achieve sustainable peace, we need an ‘integrated approach’.
“Consequently, civil crisis management should be at the centre of European foreign and security policy,’’ Maas added.
The Centre of Excellence for Civilian Crisis Management was established in February at Germany’s initiative.
The institution will serve as a centre of knowledge for gathering and sharing national models as well as experiences.
It will also draw up concrete proposals on how European civilian crisis management can be further developed in terms of concept and practice.
On Tuesday, Tehran relayed its concern about alleged secret nuclear-related activities by the Saudis to the International Atomic Energy Agency. (Sputnik/Streetjournal