The mystery of the Chinese nuclear horn: Daniel 7

Myths or Moving Targets? Continuity and Change in China’s Nuclear Forces

The nuclear arsenal of the People’s Republic of China and its plans to use it are in the middle of an unprecedented shift. Just over a decade ago, China’s long-range nuclear force structure consisted of a handful of inaccurate, silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that were kept at low readiness with nuclear warheads stored separately. Chinese posture was demonstrably one of retaliation, with a clearly articulated policy of “no-first-use” of nuclear weapons, while force readiness and command and control of those forces were both poorly suited for anything else.

In 2020, China’s nuclear posture and force structure has changed dramatically. Its arsenal has grown and diversified even as readiness and command and control have improved. By 2030, the country’s force structure and posture will be similar to America’s and Russia’s in many ways (albeit probably not at parity). Yet, in a recent article in these virtual pages, David Logan dismisses claims that China is reconsidering the fundamental role of nuclear weapons in its strategy as “dangerous myths.” He argues that China’s policy of no-first-use “is still intact” and dismisses as fiction the claim “that China has developed and deployed an array of nuclear war-fighting capabilities, including tactical nuclear weapons.”

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While the ultimate destination of China’s nuclear posture remains uncertain, the trajectory is clear. Changes to China’s nuclear war-fighting capabilities and policies are not myths. Instead, they are moving targets, evolving as Chinese leaders reflect on China’s role in the world and the requirements that role places on the country’s nuclear arsenal.

In this article, I review what is publicly known about these moving targets. First, it briefly traces the post-Cold War trajectory of China’s nuclear posture. Second, it addresses the role of the DF-26 intermediate range missile in Chinese posture for “tactical” nuclear weapons. Third, it reviews China’s no-first-use policy. Fourth, it presents evidence on the last time an authoritarian state declared a policy of no-first use — the Soviet Union in the 1980s. It concludes with observations on the possible consequences of change in Chinese nuclear posture for U.S. strategy and nuclear posture.

The Long March of China’s Nuclear Posture, 1990 to 2020

As Avery Goldstein has argued, China’s grand strategy has not fundamentally changed since the 1990s, but it has, under Xi Jinping, become bolder. China’s nuclear posture has followed this broader evolution, seeking to provide Chinese leaders with a nuclear arsenal to underpin the country’s global ambitions. Xi has noted this close connection, calling China’s missiles the “core of strategic deterrence, a strategic buttress to the country’s position as a major power and a cornerstone on which to build national security.” Xi has also called for “a great rise in strategic capabilities.”

China’s nuclear posture in 2020 is a product of decades-long planning and execution, as with most things in modern China. In 1989, Maj. Gen. Yang Huan, a former deputy commander of Chinese missile forces (then known as the Second Artillery Corps, now the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force), observed:

The research and development of our first generation of strategic nuclear weapons were a great success, but we must understand that there is still a great distance between the world’s advanced level of technology and our own. … Our Party Central Committee and the Central Military Committee have, according to scientific analysis of the international situation and in consideration of the actual conditions of our country, made decisions to change the strategic thinking that guides our military development. Under the current situation, the development of our strategic nuclear weapons should focus on long-term goals. We should develop advanced weapons that suit our national defense strategy, and at the same time we should improve current weapons to raise the quality and the comprehensive fighting capability. … We should work hard on the survival, fast reaction, accuracy, and break-through and high-command technologies for weapons systems.

Over the past three decades, China’s nuclear posture has responded to Yang’s admonition and the analysis of the Central Military Committee. In terms of survival, the deployment of mobile ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles has made a vast (though perhaps still imperfect) difference, substantially increasing its assessed survivable forces. In terms of fast reaction, the “nuclear and conventional PLARF [People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force] brigades conduct ‘combat readiness duty’ and ‘high alert duty’ which apparently includes assigning a missile battalion to be ready to launch, and rotating to standby positions as much as monthly for unspecified periods of time.” This means, contrary to Logan’s assertion that “China’s nuclear warheads are reportedly not mated to delivery vehicles,” some portion, possibly a substantial portion, of Chinese nuclear forces may have warheads that are mated routinely.

As for accuracy, according to the U.S. Defense Department, as of 2017, “China continues to have the most active and diverse ballistic missile development program in the world.” This program has led to substantial increases in accuracy across its missile force. The currently deployed silo-based DF-5B ICBM is reported to have substantially greater accuracy than its predecessor, the DF-5A, and carries multiple warheads. The next version, the DF-5C, is undergoing testing and will likely mark a further advance in accuracy. Medium- and intermediate-range missiles, such as the DF-21 and DF-26, are even more accurate.

Hot-Swapping for Precision Theater Nuclear Strike

The DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile underscores the growing importance of regional strike options in China’s nuclear posture. According to the Defense Department, in 2020, China:

is expanding its inventory of the multi-role DF-26, a mobile, ground-launched intermediate-range ballistic missile system capable of rapidly swapping conventional and nuclear warheads. … and is capable of conducting precision strikes in the Western Pacific, the Indian Ocean, and the South China Sea from mainland China.

Logan notes the existence of the DF-26, but does not explore its implications. According to Chinese media, the DF-26 reentry vehicle has a biconic shape with four flight control surfaces, allegedly allowing it to maneuver in flight toward a target. If true, this would support the contention that it is capable of striking moving targets (such as an aircraft carrier) or of very high accuracy against fixed targets. Further, as Joshua Pollack has described based on open sources, the DF-26’s capability for “rapidly swapping conventional and nuclear warheads” appears to mean “hot-swapping” warheads in the field.

Does this make the DF-26 a “tactical nuclear weapon” per Logan’s description? While the yield of the DF-26’s nuclear warhead is unknown, the Department of Defense has noted it “is China’s first nuclear-capable missile system that can conduct precision strikes, and therefore, is the most likely weapon system to field a lower-yield warhead in the near-term.” Yet, regardless of its yield, the DF-26 nuclear variant appears to meet Logan’s own definition of “tactical,” as it is clearly “intended for use against military targets on the battlefield or other high-value theater targets.” This was certainly the case for the analogous U.S. Pershing II, an intermediate-range mobile ballistic missile with a maneuvering reentry vehicle deployed in Europe in the 1980s. Pershing II was eliminated under the now-defunct Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, but China was never bound by that treaty and thus has been free to develop such a system.

The DF-26 thus gives China a highly accurate theater-range system that is not tied to either the conventional or nuclear role. This provides great operational flexibility — no unit is stuck playing one role or the other in times of crisis or conflict. The cost of this flexibility, as observers have noted, is increased pre-launch ambiguity and “entanglement” of conventional and nuclear forces. It remains to be seen whether the DF-26 will remain a unique capability in China’s forces or if it is just the first of an array of accurate, easily reconfigured, dual-capable systems. Regardless, it is not a myth.

No-First-Use Revisited?

The DF-26 highlights potential shifts in China’s no-first-use policy. Yet, Logan offers three reasons why China’s policy remains unchanged. The first, the lack of warhead mating in peacetime, no longer seems to be the case for some portion of Chinese forces, as described above. Moreover, warheads would presumably be mated in crisis or conflict, at which point first use would be eminently possible. The second reason Logan gives is that China’s nuclear forces conduct “exercises under conditions of nuclear attack, indicating that China’s nuclear missile forces plan to operate after an adversary’s nuclear strike.” This is important for ensuring retaliation, but has nothing to do with China’s policy of no-first-use. Beijing is clearly interested in assured retaliation. It may also believe it could have to shoot first in a hypothetical future crisis.

Assuring retaliation and willingness to use nuclear weapons first are not mutually exclusive. For example, according to press reports, the scenario for Russia’s 2019 annual nuclear forces readiness exercise was “a first strike by the strategic nuclear forces of an adversary (i.e. the United States and other nuclear-armed NATO powers) against Russia, which in response will launch retaliatory strikes.” Yet, despite preparing in exercises for retaliation, Russia does not have a no-first-use policy, as explicitly reiterated in a 2020 decree.

In fact, the Russian decree highlights potential reasons why China might reconsider its no-first-use policy. The decree notes four conditions under which Russian leaders would consider nuclear use. The first is reliable warning of a ballistic missile attack — in other words a “launch-on-warning” posture. In 2020, the Department of Defense publicly noted the possibility China is also moving to a launch-on-warning posture:

Increasing evidence emerged in 2019 indicates that China seeks to keep at least a portion of its force on a LOW [launch-on-warning] posture. This includes further investment in silo-based forces—while building more survivable mobile platforms—that China has previously assessed as having low survivability in the absence of a force-wide LOW posture and new developments in its early warning capabilities.

Russia’s decree also cites action directed at critical government or military facilities that would disrupt or neutralize the country’s nuclear retaliatory capability as possible grounds for nuclear use. This formulation is at least superficially similar to America’s declaratory policy in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review:

The United States would only consider the employment of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States, its allies, and partners. Extreme circumstances could include significant non-nuclear strategic attacks. Significant non-nuclear strategic attacks include, but are not limited to … attacks on U.S. or allied nuclear forces, their command and control, or warning and attack assessment capabilities.

It is entirely plausible that China has similar concerns about a non-nuclear attack on its nuclear command and control, and thus might, like Russia and the United States, potentially consider a nuclear response to such an attack. It is the possibility for such exceptions that the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, Adm. Charles Richard, likely had in mind when he testified, “I think I could drive a truck through that no first use policy.”

Yet, Logan takes comfort in the third reason he gives — that a variety of Chinese statements and texts indicate continued adherence to no-first-use. He places particular emphasis on the statement in the Department of Defense’s 2019 annual report on China that “[t]here has been no indication that national leaders are willing to attach such nuances and caveats to China’s existing NFU [no-first-use] policy.” Yet, the 2020 version of the report words the same statement differently: “There has been no indication that national leaders are willing to attach such nuances and caveats publicly to China’s existing NFU policy as affirmed by recent statements by the PRC [People’s Republic of China] Foreign Ministry” (emphasis added). The caveat “publicly” is important. It suggests that change is possible in the policy absent a change in China’s declaratory policy. This would not mark the first time that an authoritarian regime’s nuclear posture and declaratory policy diverged.

A Cardboard Castle? Soviet Nuclear Posture and Declaratory Policy, 1982 to 1992

The United States has encountered disconnects between a country’s nuclear posture and its declaratory policy before. When evaluating China’s contemporary no-first-use policy, it is useful to review the Cold War history of Soviet no-first-use policy. This history makes it clear that, in evaluating the nuclear policy of authoritarian regimes, nuclear posture is a better guide than declaratory policy.

Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev first mentioned the possibility of a Soviet no-first-use pledge in a speech in the city of Tula in 1977. But the offer was conditioned on NATO also making such a pledge. On June 16, 1982, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko read a message from Brezhnev to the United Nations General Assembly: “The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics assumes an obligation not to be the first to use nuclear weapons. This obligation shall become effective immediately, at the moment it is made public from the rostrum of the U.N. General Assembly.” The announcement of unilateral Soviet no-first-use was widely hailed by those present, and at least some outside observers.

The United States and its allies, in contrast, were deeply skeptical. Throughout the remainder of the 1980s, U.S. intelligence assessments noted that Soviet no-first-use pledges were, at best, highly conditional. A now-declassified 1983 assessment on Soviet theater nuclear planning flatly stated, “Classified writings and exercises clearly show that the Soviets would attempt to preempt NATO’s use of nuclear weapons to preclude a large strike on their forces.” A declassified assessment from 1985 was even blunter:

All Warsaw Pact planning, therefore, proceeds on the basis that nuclear operations could begin at any time. Once the Pact determined that NATO had obtained authorization for widespread use of nuclear weapons, it would attempt to preempt such use. The Soviets consider that the initial massed use of nuclear weapons would have a decisive impact on a NATO-Pact war.

While there was no doubt considerable uncertainty in the minds of Soviet nuclear planners as to how successful they would be in preemption, they had both human and signals intelligence sources that could provide them warning to make such preemption plausible. A former deputy chief of the Soviet General Staff claimed after the Cold War:

If we detected preparation by NATO to launch nuclear strikes, and we believed we would know when this was happening, we would want to strike NATO’s launch and control systems with nuclear strikes of our own. … We listened to the hourly circuit verification signal of your nuclear release communications systems and we believed we would recognize a release order.

However, Western intelligence had also been successful in gaining access to a variety of sources, which gave them high confidence in the assessments above. These sources included Ryszard Kuklinski, a Polish officer who was horrified at what he had learned about Warsaw Pact nuclear plans in the early 1970s. Prior to his escape from Poland to the West at the end of 1981 (a mere six months before Gromyko’s announcement at the United Nations), Kuklinski provided, among other things, Soviet plans for attacks on NATO. Post-Cold War revelations have publicly confirmed what Kuklinski provided and U.S. intelligence assessed — that the Soviets had plans to use nuclear weapons first and, under some circumstances, massively.

This does not mean, as some have claimed, that Brezhnev’s pledge was a sham (or “obvious Commie trick). The Soviet political leadership tightly controlled decisions about nuclear use and the fact that the military was prepared for first use did not mean Brezhnev would have authorized it. Yet, regardless of what he may have believed or been willing to do, Brezhnev died less than a year and half after Gromyko’s announcement. Yuri Andropov, who left his position as head of the KGB to succeed Brezhnev, was notably concerned with a U.S. attack and efforts to preempt it. Whatever Andropov and his successors believed, they made no change in the public pledge. Why would they, given the praise it had generated? They could always follow the military’s preemptive course in a conflict and, since the United States knew this, the Soviets still gained most of the deterrent benefit of potential first use. Only after the Soviet Union dissolved did Russian leaders publicly repudiate the policy.

China today is rather obviously not the Soviet Union of the 1980s. Yet, the tale of Soviet no-first-use is, nonetheless, instructive. Opaque, centralized authoritarian regimes can change policy essentially at will in peacetime, a crisis, or a conflict and with no public indication. Nuclear posture thus becomes the only observable indicator of merit for policy regarding nuclear first use. As China’s nuclear posture increasingly resembles that of Russia, it is hardly a “myth” that there may be exceptions to no-first-use, either now or in the future,  Further, these exceptions will likely never be made public by China — at least until a crisis or conflict erupts.

Implications for U.S. Strategy and Nuclear Posture

There are four principal implications of China’s evolving posture for U.S. strategy and nuclear posture. The first is the importance of China’s participation in strategic dialogue on nuclear issues, including joining arms control negotiations with Russia and the United States. Oriana Skylar Mastro has persuasively argued that China’s lack of transparency on military issues stems from concerns about its vulnerability as a rising power. While perhaps understandable, the evolution of its nuclear posture means China is qualitatively different than it was even a decade ago. Lack of transparency in the future will make China and the world less, rather than more, secure, as it increases the risk of misperception and miscalculation. It has been more than 50 years since China was involved in a major nuclear crisis. It is in the interests of all three countries to have a frank dialogue on how to avoid and manage future crises.

The second is the long shadow nuclear weapons cast over great-power competition. Any great-power competition in the 21st century is inevitably a nuclear competition and should be analyzed as such. U.S. nuclear posture is thus not merely a “backstop” to overall U.S. strategy. It is integral to it. One of the keys to ending the Cold War was the deliberate shaping of the nuclear competition between the Soviet Union and the United States in a way that favored the latter. As Brendan Rittenhouse Green has described, this shaping was accomplished through a variety of means, including intelligence operations, arms control, and U.S. nuclear posture.

The third implication is that the nuclear shadow extends from competition into conflict. China’s nuclear posture now makes it impossible to envision a great-power conflict that is not decisively influenced by nuclear weapons. Either one side or the other in the conflict will use nuclear weapons first, as was anticipated in a potential NATO-Warsaw Pact conflict, or the possibility of such escalation will dramatically affect the conduct and tempo of conventional operations in order to avoid escalation. Even limited nuclear first use would have a decisive effect by changing the stakes of the conflict, leading either to further escalation or to war termination. As the United States continues to implement its 2018 National Defense Strategy, including developing a modern joint warfighting concept, it must ensure it accounts fully for this long nuclear shadow.

Fourth, and finally, China’s changing posture confirms the importance of hedging against an uncertain future, one of the key roles for U.S. nuclear weapons identified in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review. In just 10 years, China’s nuclear posture has changed almost beyond recognition. U.S. strategy must account for and hedge against the possibility of further rapid change. As the Nuclear Posture Review describes, nuclear weapons “provide a necessary, unique, and currently irreplaceable contribution” to hedging and should remain the Department of Defense’s number one priority.

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Austin Long is vice deputy director for strategic stability in the Joint Staff J5 (strategy, plans, and policy). The views expressed here are his and do not represent the views or policy of the Joint Staff, the Department of Defense, or any other entity.

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