How Russia is Helping the China Nuclear Horn (Daniel 7)

Trouble: Russia Is Helping China Build Its First Nuclear-Powered Aircraft Carrier

A new alliance?

Key point: Both China and Russia are eager to match the United States’ nuclear powered fleet.

It appears that China is relying on Russian know-how and experience to develop the reactor for its first nuclear aircraft carrier. As the South China Morning Post reports, China appears to be studying the nuclear reactors on Russia’s largest icebreakers, an approach that the Soviet Union also took when it planned to build nuclear carriers in the 1980s. Specifically, Russia has invited China to bid on the construction of a new class of nuclear icebreaker, necessarily requiring the development of surface-ship based reactors. This approach stands in contrast to how the United States and France developed nuclear reactors for their largest carriers, but probably represents the best choice for China at this point.


To appreciate what’s at stake in China’s pursuit of nuclear-powered surface warships, it’s important to review the experience of the United States and the USSR. After the successful development of the USS Nautilus and the Skate class nuclear attack submarines (as well as the merchant ship NS Savannah) provided proof-of-concept regarding nuclear propulsion, the USN began to evaluate nuclear power for surface warships. The first USN nuclear surface warship was the cruiser USS Long Beach, commissioned in 1961. Long Beach was powered by 2 C1WS reactors, generating around 120 MW, enough power to produce a speed of 30 knots for the 17,000-ton cruiser hull. The USN rapidly followed up with USS Enterprise, powered by 8 A2W reactors, each quite similar in construction and output to the C1W. Those reactors generated 120 MW each, translating to 280,000 SHP, driving the 100,000-ton Enterprise at up to 33 knots.

A few other nuclear cruisers and destroyers followed, but the advantages of nuclear power in surface warfare ships was limited by cost. Aircraft carriers were a different story. The Nimitz class, which began to enter service in 1975, use two A4W reactors, each rated at 550 MW. The recently commissioned USS Gerald R. Ford carries two A1B reactors, capable of generating 700 MW. The extra power generation capacity of the Fords has little to do with speed. Rather, the power provides a surplus usable for a variety of different systems, including EMALS and highly sophisticated sensors. Down the road, the extra energy may power point-defense lasers and similar equipment. Overall, the reactors open up space to modernize and modify the Ford-class vessels, keeping them effective for their decades of project life.

The Soviet Experience:

The Soviet experience was somewhat different. While the Soviets enjoyed considerable success in developing nuclear reactors for submarines, they approached the question of surface warships much more carefully. The first nuclear powered Soviet ship was the icebreaker Lenin, commissioned in 1959 with three OK-150 reactors (90 MW each). Between 1975 and 1990, the Soviets would commission nine more nuclear icebreakers of the Arktika and Taymyr classes, generally displacing between 20,000 and 25,000 tons and carrying two OK-900 reactors, capable of 150 MW.

These ships provided valuable experience, but the Soviets were slow to make the leap to nuclear-powered surface combatants, in part because Soviet warships were expected to operate closer to home than their U.S. counterparts. In 1974, however, the Soviets began building the first of four ships of the Kirov class, 26,000-ton battlecruisers with both nuclear and conventional propulsion. Reports differ on the power capacity of the two KN-3 reactors, with a range from 150 MW to 300 MW. These reactors would also have powered the Ulyanovsk class supercarriers, a class of ships that was canceled upon the collapse of the USSR.

What China Wants:

The Chinese are undoubtedly thinking along lines similar to those of the late Soviets. Expectations for Carrier 004 (003 will be a conventional CATOBAR carrier) suggest a ship roughly the size and sophistication of the Ford-class, which of course would require immense power-generation capabilities. Like the United States, China wants excess power generation in order to field a suite of future weapons and sensors. For this purpose, China needs reactors more powerful than those that it currently uses on its submarines, and building icebreakers for Russia may provide the necessary experience.

This approach stands in contrast to that of the French Navy, which decided to upscale based on experience building nuclear reactors for submarines. While France has enjoyed success with nuclear subs, the Charles De Gaulle is widely believed to be underpowered relative to other fleet carriers. Charles de Gaulle uses two Areva K15 reactors, the same type as employed on French submarines. These reactors provide 150 MW each, but only drive the 43,000-ton carrier some 27 knots. It’s worth noting that India considered, but wisely rejected, the idea of building INS Vishal as a nuclear carrier, largely because of the technical challenges of developing a powerful enough reactor.

Parting Thoughts:

The idea of using Russian technical data and nuclear know-how certainly makes sense from the perspective of the People’s Liberation Army Navy. The PLAN doesn’t have the luxury of the incremental approach adopted by the United States, and has good reason to find the French approach insufficient to its needs. That the Russians seem okay with letting the Chinese study their icebreakers suggests, once again, that Moscow and Beijing currently see cooperation as in their long-term interests. Of course, nothing will be certain until China’s first nuclear carrier actually enters service, perhaps sometime around 2030.

Robert Farley is a frequent contributor to TNI. This first appeared in July 2019 and is being republished due to reader’s interest.

Image: Reuters

The Rising of the Chinese Nuclear Horn (Daniel 7)

See This Strange Picture? This Is How China Is Stepping Up Its Nuclear Weapons Game

Key point: China’s nuclear weapons arsenal is small, but growing larger.

Welcome to the newest U.S.-China arms race: giant machines that test nuclear weapons.

China is building a device that’s equivalent to America’s Z Machine, a device that reproduces the conditions of a nuclear bomb – but in the controlled safety of the laboratory. Except that China says that it’s machine will be bigger than America’s.

The Z Pulsed Power Facility “is the world’s most powerful and efficient laboratory radiation source,” according to the Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “It uses high magnetic fields associated with high electrical currents to produce high temperatures, high pressures, and powerful X-rays for research in high energy density science.”

“The Z machine creates conditions found nowhere else on Earth,” Sandia claims.

But those conditions may soon be found in the city of Mianyang, in southwest China, where the Chinese Academy of Engineering Physics develops nuclear weapons.

China’s Z machine is “designed to produce about 60 million joules of energy in an instant – roughly 22 times the 2.7 million joules generated at the Sandia facility,” according to the South China Morning Post. “It does this by firing powerful electrical pulses at a target about the size of a spool of thread consisting of hundreds of tungsten wires, each thinner than a human hair. When the pulses pass through the wires, the tungsten explodes, evaporates and creates a plasma with a magnetic field so strong that the exploded particles are forced inward. The particles collide, producing intense radiation – mostly X-rays – and creating conditions that more accurately reflect a real nuclear explosion.”

“With so much energy, we can heat a target to more than 100 million degrees Celsius,” boasted one Chinese nuclear physicist. “It will dwarf the machine in Sandia.”

The National Interest contacted the Sandia laboratory; a spokesman replied that while U.S. researchers were aware of the Chinese project, they could not comment on it.

Building facilities to develop better nuclear bombs comes as tensions are rising between the U.S. and China. President Trump has threatened to pull out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, or INF, treaty between the U.S. and Soviet Union. The treaty banned most medium- and short-range nuclear missiles. Trump accuses Russia of violating the treaty by deploying new missiles: Russian President Vladimir Putin has threatened to retaliate by building more nuclear weapons.

These developments haven’t been lost on Beijing. “China Youth Daily reported in May that the academy [of Engineering Physics] aimed to beat the US in nuclear weapon development,” noted the South China Morning Post. “’Must surpass the US’ has become a motto for scientists and engineers working in the top-secret research facilities, the official newspaper of the Communist Youth League said.

Even if China’s machine is bigger than America’s, as with so much of the nuclear arms race, it is not clear how much advantage Beijing would derive. The U.S. has almost 7,000 nuclear warheads to destroy China and Russia as functioning societies: Russia has a similar number to return the favor to America. With an estimated 300 nuclear warheads, China’s arsenal is distinctly smaller, but not small enough that it couldn’t severely damage the U.S.

More efficient nuclear bombs may kill more people, but they won’t change the underlying equation of mutually assured destruction.

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook. This article first appeared in 2018.

Image: Sandia Labs.

China’s Deadly Nuclear Horn (Daniel 7)

China’s Missile Program Is Deadly Serious

Key point: America couldn’t stay in the INF Treaty while China built lots of missiles that Washington wasn’t allowed to have.

Paramount leader Xi Jinping just presided over the largest, most impressive military parade in the history of the world. The occasion: to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which just exceeded the Soviet Union’s lifespan by one year. The parade indeed showcased numerous military technological accomplishments far exceeding previous Soviet efforts. Showing ironclad resolve, Xi emphasized that China “continue to strive forward [with] the complete unification of our country.”

The bottom line: Missiles, missiles, and more missiles. For coercion, coercion, and coercion. Paraded, ironically, down Beijing’s “Avenue of Eternal Peace” (长安大街). Tradition holds that all systems displayed are already deployed for service in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). For specialists, this just underscores a long-running PRC effort at missile-centric deterrence. For other observers, the sheer scope and scale of hardware displayed—much of it conveniently labeled with large English letters—may well offer a revelation concerning Beijing’s military might and assertiveness.

Robust Rocket Rollouts:

In true PRC fashion, for this national-level effort nothing was left to chance. China’s Military Parade (中国阅兵) was patriotically narrated in confident detail on China Central Television. Since 2015, preparations had been underway at facilities designed to mimic the Beijing setting. And the entire pageant was wrapped in redolent rhetoric along the lines of “strong country dream, strong military dream” (强国梦, 强军梦). But this was not a case of style and symbolism over substance: the sheer array of real strategic systems on display was simply staggering, and shows real strength.

Arguably today’s biggest single statement for foreign consumption—literally backstopping the entire parade—was China’s debut of the DF-41 solid-fueled road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). China’s newest, most powerful, and arguably most advanced nuclear weapons system, the DF-41 has clearly been designed and deployed with deterring the United States in mind. It is described as “a cornerstone of China’s nuclear [weapons] power” (我国核力量重要支撑). This is part of Beijing’s comprehensive, missile-centric effort at nuclear and conventional deterrence.

Other missiles displayed for the first time ever in the parade marked China at the cutting-edge of frontier military technologies. These included the little-known DF-100/CJ-100 “supersonic cruise missile,” described as “the newest in the Changjian series,” and the prominently-displayed DF-17 conventional missile with its sleek hypersonic glide vehicle.

Other ballistic missiles on parade included the well-known DF-5B ICBM whose multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) greatly complicate defenses against it, the DF-31AG mobile ICBM with its “high survivability,” the JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile, and the DF-26 nuclear/conventional intermediate-range ballistic missile capable of striking land and sea targets. The HQ surface-to-air missile series was well-represented, with -6A, -9B, -12A, -16, and -22 variants. Other cruise missiles included the YJ-12B and YJ-18 supersonic anti-ship weapons.

Aircraft soaring overhead included the  Y-20, -9, and -8 transports; the KJ-2000 airborne warning and control (AWACs) system; the J-20 low-observable fighter; Jst-15 carrier-based multirole fighters representing the “peaks” (高峰) from the aircraft carrier Liaoning; the J-16 and J-10B fighters; the H-6N bomber and H-6U tanker variants; and a swarm of Z-8B, -9, -10, -15, -19, and -20 helicopters. Multiple unmanned aerial vehicles paraded below included the GJ-11 low-observable attack drone. Meanwhile, far removed from their likely natural element in the South China Sea were a pair of HSU001 truck-borne underwater drones.

Marching in exact, increasingly joint formations were all major types of Chinese armed forces personnel. Notably, with Xi having stated that the central government would “maintain long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong and Macau,” the People’s Armed Police was showcased as “an important apparatus for social stability” (社会稳定的重要装备), the Strategic Support Force made its lockstep debut, and PLA Rocket Force personnel were hailed for their strength and importance.

But the biggest single theme was the sheer number and variety of conventional missiles.

Chinese Lesson for America: Avoid Unequal Treaties

So what does this mean for U.S. policy? Most importantly, Beijing’s massive missile buildup underscores a major reason why the Trump Administration was right to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty: to free Washington to deter aggression with missiles of its own.

It’s common sense that an agreement can’t work if only one party honors it. Unfortunately, that’s precisely what unraveled INF. In formally withdrawing on August 2, 2019, Washington bluntly acknowledged that this increasingly antiquated accord had no future. First, the treaty’s sole cosignatory, Moscow, had been flouting INF rules for years. President Obama himself considered terminating it for precisely that reason. Second, this unilateral American constraint had become particularly costly: during the INF’s 32-year lifespan China developed the world’s foremost conventional missile force precisely within ranges that INF prohibited (ground-launched nuclear and conventional cruise and ballistic missiles of 500-5,500 km). Much of which was on prominent display today.

Yet Beijing wouldn’t join INF—the one way the treaty might have been rejuvenated. It still won’t. And China increasingly threatens the U.S. and its allies and partners, as well regional peace and norms, with a robust missile-centric arsenal. It’s not the INF’s demise itself that should be lamented, therefore, but rather the Russo-Chinese actions that precipitated it. Exiting INF is no panacea, but it opens much-needed possibilities for resetting the military balance and calculus in the Asia-Pacific. There, Chinese missiles pose a significant threat to U.S. and regional security. Freed from the constraints of the INF, the U.S. should take the opportunity to develop and deploy its own missiles to counter that threat.

Beijing’s own official statements indicate that it will not accede to any other substantive arms control agreements for the foreseeable future. On the contrary, earlier this summer China fired six anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) into the South China Sea. Ironically, by forcing the withdrawal and destruction of U.S. Pershing II active radar-homing ballistic missiles at the end of the 1980s, INF may have provided China key technologies facilitating the development of its ASBMs—potent systems the United States and Russia could have produced themselves long before absent INF restrictions. At a minimum, PRC researchers studied Pershing II missiles extremely closely.

The several dozen “carrier killer” weapons China fields today are but a fraction of its potent arsenal. China “controls the largest and most diverse missile force in the world, with an inventory of more than 2,000 ballistic and cruise missiles,” Admiral Harry Harris, then commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, testified in 2017. “Approximately, 95% of [China’s] missiles would violate the INF if China was a signatory.” Put another way, up to 2,650 PRC missiles wouldn’t comply. Importantly, Beijing appears to believe that a nuclear arsenal far smaller than Russia’s or America’s is sufficient for deterrence. Chinese strategists view conventionally-armed missiles as far more acceptable, and hence far more useful. Thus, China’s conventional missiles exceed its nuclear missiles by at least a 7:1 ratio. That happens to exploit an enormous loophole in even general arms control discussions, let alone actual enforceable restrictions.

All too often, Beijing’s official statements and arms control discourse more broadly focus exclusively on nuclear weapons—which of course merit attention—to the exclusion of addressing the high-end conventional weapons systems that China has deployed on an industrial scale. This missile myopia must end now: Aside from increasingly disruptive cyber technologies, China’s missile-centric military buildup may be the single biggest factor eroding American power and influence in Asia. If not countered effectively, it could restructure the region away from the peace and prosperity-promoting alliances and rules that Washington has spent tremendous blood and treasure to cultivate over the last eight decades.

For years, China has made meteoric military progress by persistently pursuing technologies that potentially place opponents on the wrong end of physics—in a capabilities competition favoring China designed to become extremely expensive and risky for the United States to even wage, let alone win. And that’s precisely the point: Beijing wants to win without fighting and compel Washington and its regional allies to yield to its self-proclaimed “core interests” by intimidating with a fait accompli of deterrent military might—just like the display it paraded so prominently today.

The ballistic missile has been the cornerstone of Beijing’s effort. Whereas aerodynamically-guided cruise missiles must operate within aircraft-like altitudes, longer-range ballistic missiles maximize speed by flying above the atmosphere mid-course. Ballistic missiles of all ranges close on their targets at multiple times the speed of sound, leaving little time and few opportunities to intercept them. For China—a technologically capable power that has prioritized their development since the late 1950s—ballistic missiles can be developed, deployed, and employed far more cheaply and effectively than they can be defended against.

Moreover, although China is finally dipping its toe in the water regarding sea-based nuclear weapons deployment, the vast majority of its missiles remain land-based. This exploits two formidable factors. First, as the Iraq War ‘Scud Hunt’ demonstrated, even in exposed desert it is extremely difficult to find mobile missiles in real time and neutralize them prior to their launch. This is true all the more for China’s full range of concealing terrains, extensive underground facilities that provide protection for the missile force, ability to deploy road-mobile missiles, and potential to communicate securely by having launch brigades access secure fiber optic networks at pre-designated locations. Second, large INF-range missiles are substantially easier and cheaper to develop and operate in land-based form than in equivalent variants for submarines, surface ships, and aircraft. Third, launching missiles from deep in the interior of a large nation like China makes certain types of intercept (e.g., boost-phase) impossible.

Russia and China Enable the Iranian Horn

This photo, released by the official website of the Iranian Defense Ministry on une 9, 2019, shows the Khordad 15, a new surface-to-air missile battery at an undisclosed location in Iran. The system uses locally made missiles that resemble the HAWK missiles that the U.S. once sold to the shah and later delivered to the Islamic Republic in the 1980s Iran-Contra scandal. (Iranian Defense Ministry via AP)

Russia, China Expected to Equip Iran With Fighters and Tanks When Arms Embargo Lifts

Richard Sisk

Iran has built up the largest arsenal of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles in the Middle East — surpassing Israel’s — to deter and threaten the U.S. and regional adversaries and make up for shortfalls in its aging air forces, a senior defense intelligence official said Tuesday.

U.S. sanctions and the United Nations embargo on arms sales to Iran have squeezed the regime’s ambitions to achieve military dominance in the region, said the official, who made the remarks in a Pentagon background briefing on the newly released annual “Iran Military Power” report by the Defense Intelligence Agency.

But Russia and China are expected to supply new fighter aircraft and tanks when the embargo lifts next year.

In addition, Russia’s sale of the SA-20c surface-to-air missile system “provided Iran with its first capability to defend itself against a modern air force,” the official said.

Currently, Iran has no nuclear weapons, according to the official, “but its nuclear program remains a significant concern for the United States.”

Related: Is It Time to Withdraw US Nuclear Weapons from Incirlik?

Since the U.S. withdrew in May 2018 from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action limiting Iran’s nuclear programs, Iran has exceeded restrictions on fissile material production and threatened to continue the buildup “unless it receives sufficient sanctions relief,” the official said.

Iran is also looking to develop an “expeditionary” capability for its military, but for now is focused on supporting its conventional and unconventional partners in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, the official added.

However, Iranian naval forces have participated in joint operations off China and South Africa and in the Mediterranean Sea, said the official.

In his preface to the 117-page report, Army Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, the DIA director, said that the policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran through its 40-year history “has remained implacably opposed to the United States, our presence in the Middle East, and our support to Israel.”

“While attempting to strengthen its deterrence against foreign attack and influence, Tehran has committed itself to becoming the dominant power in the turbulent and strategic Middle East,” he said.

Iran has skillfully “played the cards” dealt to the regime by the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the civil war in Syria and the rise of the Houthi rebels in Yemen, Ashley said. In Iraq, weapons supplied by Iran were responsible for the deaths of 603 U.S. service members from 2003-2011, according to the report.

In addition, Iran plays off a perception in the region that the U.S. is “disinterested and disengaged,” despite a buildup of U.S. forces in the area, including the carrier Lincoln’s battle group, Ashley said.

Iran’s military consists of parallel forces — the conventional ground, naval, air and air defense forces currently number about 420,000, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), committed to the defense of the Islamic system of government at home and abroad, number about 190,000.

The strengths of Iran’s military are its large ballistic missile inventory, its littoral naval capabilities and its partners and proxies; its vulnerabilities were its mix of conventional and IRGC forces and its lack of access to modern weapons and technology, the report said.

Consequently, Iran’s “way of war” stressed the need to “avoid or deter conventional conflict while advancing its security objectives in the region, particularly through propaganda, psychological warfare, and proxy operations,” the report said.

Iran retains close military-to-military ties with Iraq and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and has military cooperation agreements with Afghanistan, Belarus, China, Oman, Russia, South Africa and Venezuela, the report said.

The main suppliers of military equipment to Iran through arms purchases, according to the report, are Russia, China, North Korea, Belarus and Ukraine.

“Military cooperation between Russia and Iran has grown significantly in recent years,” the report stated, and Russia and Iran have coordinated to prop up Assad in Syria.

The result of the military cooperation agreements, and the arms purchases, has been that in recent years Iran “has shown itself capable of sending small groups of conventional forces –including ground forces, military airlift, and UAV operators — into permissive allied countries to support larger operations,” it continued.

Another concern for the U.S. was that Iran’s nascent space program for the launch of satellites could be used as a testing ground to develop long-range ballistic missiles, the defense intelligence official said.

“We’re looking at their space program as we determine what could be used for military means,” the official said. The development of space launch vehicles “could also serve as a testbed for the development of [Intercontinental Ballistic Missile] technologies.”

— Richard Sisk can be reached at

The China Nuclear Horn (Daniel 7)

Vehicles carrying nuclear-capable DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missiles in Beijing, Oct. 1.Photo: Visual China Group via Getty Images

Treat China as the Nuclear Superpower It Is – WSJ

Nov. 13, 2019 6:00 pm ET

Doubtless the president would not be delighted by the likening of his administration to a giant fat guy who has never skied, pushing off from the top of a double-black-diamond slope and on his way down taking out flags, trees, and people. And yet somehow amid the chaos and ceaseless acceleration quite a few things have been done right. One of them, invisible to and above the horizons of the lacquered info-babes and mouth-breathing morons who inhabit cable news, is that unlike previous, negligent administrations of both parties, this one has addressed the need to bring China into a nuclear arms-control regime.

It was unnecessary when China was a neophyte and the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were nuked up with scores of thousands of warheads and delivery vehicles, making nuclear stability a question for the two superpowers alone. Nuclear strategy must account for analogies to the three-body problem in physics—i.e., there is neither predictability nor stability when more than two bodies act on each other. Unless one (like a spacecraft too small to perturb the orbital relationship between two planets, or the early Chinese nuclear capacity, dwarfed by that of the U.S. and the Soviets) is de minimis.

A perilously neglected problem of the past 20 years or so is that China is no longer so bereft of nuclear weapons as to be dismissible. If the relationship among the now three dominant nuclear powers is not clarified and disciplined, China’s maturing nuclear warfare capabilities will remain both a direct threat to the U.S. and a potent destabilizer of the balance of terror. We know of its rapidly growing families of silo-based, mobile, sea-based, and bomber-deliverable short-, intermediate-, and intercontinental-range delivery systems. We also know that China’s nuclear infrastructure—including production and certain modes of deployment—is housed in an astounding 3,000 miles of elaborate tunnels.

This means we have little knowledge of what China actually possesses, and because we cannot do without such intelligence, bringing China into a control regime is critical. To paraphrase Rep. Ilhan Omar (Philo-Semite, Minn.), it’s all about the verification, baby. And finally an American administration realizes it.

That this has struck a nerve in China was perhaps inadvertently revealed by Zhou Bo, a senior colonel of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. In a recent article on these pages, he states that China’s Ministry of National Defense laughed at Chinese inclusion, because “either the U.S. and Russia would need to bring their nuclear arsenals down to China’s level, or China would need to increase the size of its arsenal drastically.” Why would China possibly object? Unless of course more warheads and delivery vehicles than it admits to were to be secreted in the immense tunnel network known as the Great Underground Wall. And were China as innocuous and lightly armed as he claims, what would be the harm of inspections?

The administration should vigorously pursue this initiative and refuse to let it drop or to treat it as a sacrificial chip in the trade war (it is far more important than that). Success is guaranteed one way or another. Either China will be brought into a system of nuclear stabilization, or it will reveal to the world that it is hiding something very dangerous. No reason exists for anyone other than China—if it is determined upon deception—to oppose such an exercise, but inevitably, in the West, some will.

Contrary to longstanding positions in regard to American nuclear weapons and arms control in general, they will say that numbers don’t matter. So what if China amasses an overwhelming nuclear force in its tunnels? As long as the U.S. has the minimum required to inflict unacceptable damage on China (or Russia) there is no need to worry about bean counting.

But we don’t define acceptable damage, they do. Especially because China has (as do Russia and North Korea but not the U.S.) invulnerable mobile missiles, numbers are important not merely psychologically but, in the horrific nuclear calculus, in making a first strike conceivable by assuring the capacity for second, third, or even fourth strikes.

In simple terms, if I can strike and reduce your nuclear deterrent without hitting your cities, you will have only enough to retaliate against my cities. But if in exchange for that I can reduce your entire country to glass, you will not retaliate. Mere recognition of this puts me in a commanding position without actually resorting to nuclear war. This is only one reason why numbers matter, and the calculus is further complicated by missile defense and the counters to it.

Suffice it to say that China learned in facing the massively greater American nuclear deterrent that its options were severely limited. Now its ambitions are such that it wants to turn the tables. Once, the West crippled China with the opium trade. Now China supplies American addicts with fentanyl. Once, the West sold China manufactured goods in exchange for commodities. Now China sells us manufactured goods in exchange for commodities. Once, Western military bases ringed the world. Now, as the West retreats, China is installing networks of bases in almost exact imitation.

What are the odds—contrary to common sense and to China’s perceived interests, goals, ambitions, plans, declarations, and recent actions—that, taking into account the almost unimaginable 3,000 miles of tunnels, it has only the relatively small numbers of weapons that Col. Zhou affirms? China should be eager to join the two other leading powers in attempting to control the ever-present nuclear danger, and liberals and arms-control enthusiasts should support and commend any attempt to accomplish this, regardless of which U.S. administration makes the effort.

Matters such as these may not be shiny and sparkling enough to command much airtime, but keep in mind that ultimately what this is all about—the detonation of masses of nuclear weapons—is brighter than a thousand suns.

Mr. Helprin, a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute, is author most recently of “Paris in the Present Tense.”

Global View: As China and the United States move towards great power competition, the complexities of the information age could create more unknowns than the nuclear oriented cold war with the Soviet Union. Photo: Getty Images/Istockphoto

China’s Nuclear Horn is a Threat to Babylon the Great

China’s Submarines Can Now Launch a Nuclear War Against America

November 12, 2019, 6:00 PM UTC

Key Point: If China could boost the JL-3’s range to 7,500 miles, like the Trident, then it could reach the entire United States from subs stationed in waters near the Chinese coast.

China has tested a new submarine-launched missile that can hit the United States.

The first flight test of the JL-3 missile was conducted last November from Bohai Bay in the Yellow Sea, according to the South China Morning Post, citing an unnamed source.

The new missile has a flight range of about 9,000 kilometers (5,600 miles), which is less than the 12,000-kilometer (7,500-mile) range of the American Trident II and Russian Bulava submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs),” the Post reported. This would give the JL-3, which can be armed with multiple warheads, a range of about 500 to 1,000 miles greater than its predecessor, the JL-2.

The distance between Shanghai and Honolulu is about 4,900 miles, which would put Hawaii within range of Chinese sub-launched missiles, and about 6,100 miles to San Francisco and 7,400 miles to Washington, D.C. However, unlike land-based ICBMs, Chinese subs can sail closer to the American mainland to put U.S. cities within range. Though definite information on China’s missile submarine fleet is elusive, the Pentagon estimates that China now has four Jin-class subs with 12 JL-2 missiles apiece. These will be followed in the 2020s by the Type 096-class, which will be armed with the JL-3.

But China seems to be signaling that it doesn’t want to embark on an arms race with America. The South China Morning Post, based in the Chinese special administrative region of Hong Kong, cited several Chinese experts who said the missiles were intended as a deterrent and bargaining chip in China’s fraught relationship with the U.S.

“Beijing will only develop a small number of SSBNs [ballistic missile submarines] and submarine-launched ballistic missiles because its main focus is to make sure the PLA has the most effective and powerful second-strike counter-attack capability in the event that the country is hit by nuclear weapons,” one expert said.

The Awesome Chinese Nuclear Horn (Daniel 7)

Stealth Fighters, Hypersonic Missiles and Aircraft Carriers: China’s Military Has Arrived

Key point: America’s technological advantage is decreasing.

Aircraft carriers, stealth fighters, anti-satellite weapons, drones, cyber attack technology and a growing arsenal of ballistic missiles are all among a series of Chinese weapons said to present serious concerns for Pentagon leaders and weapons developers, according to DoD’s annual China report.

The Pentagon 2018 report, called “Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China,” details a broad spectrum of risks to include global economic expansion, massive military modernization and breakthrough weapons technology able to threaten US superiority.

While of course the report emerges within the context of a complicated, multi-faceted and stressed US-China relationship which includes growing tensions, military rivalry and some measure of cooperation as well. A recent DoD news report, for instance, was careful to mention China as a potential “adversary,” not “enemy.”

Nevertheless, the Pentagon assessment is quite detailed in its discussion of the fast-growing military threat posed by China. A few examples, for instance, include the report’s discussion of China’s short, medium and long-range ballistic missile arsenal. China is believed to possess as many as 1,200 short-range missiles and up to 300 intermediate range missiles, according to the report. With this in mind, the report specifies that some of China’s longer-range, precision-guided ballistic missiles are able to reach US-assets in the Pacific region.

The Pentagon report, along with previously released Congressional assessments of China’s military, catalogue information related to China’s nuclear arsenal and long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles – such as the existing DF-31, DF-26 and DF-31A along with the DF-41. In fact, the Pentagon report specifically cites the DF-26 as presenting a particular threat; the intermediate range ballistic missile, the report says, can carry both conventional and nuclear explosives out to ranges of 4,000 kilometers.

“US bases in Japan are in range of a growing number of Chinese MRBMs and LACMs. H-6K bomber flights into the Western Pacific Ocean demonstrate China’s ability to range Guam with air-launched LACMs. The DF-26, which debuted publicly in 2015 and was paraded again in 2017, is capable of conducting precision conventional or nuclear strikes against ground targets that could include U.S. bases on Guam,” the 2018 report says.

The Chinese are believed to already have a number of road-mobile ICBMs able to carry nuclear weapons, the report says. The DF-41 is reported to have as many as 10 re-entry vehicles, analysts have said.

China is known to have conducted several hypersonic weapons tests. Not surprisingly, US Air Force leaders are currently accelerating prototyping, testing and development of hypersonic weapons.

In addition, China’s well-documented anti-satellite, or ASAT, weapons tests have inspired international attention and influenced the Pentagon and US Air Force to accelerate strategies for satellite protection such as improving sensor resiliency, cyber hardening command and control and building in redundancy to improve prospects for functionality in the event of attack.

China’s rapid development of new destroyers, amphibs, stealth fighters and long-range weapons is quickly increasing its ability to threaten the United States and massively expand expeditionary military operations around the globe, according to this years’ Pentagon report as well as several previous Congressional reports from the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

In recent years, the Chinese have massively increased their foreign presence around the globe, in a transparent effort to rival the US as a global superpower. The Chinese have made large incursions into Africa, and even set up a military base in Djibouti, Africa, right near a strategically vital US presence.

“China’s military strategy and ongoing PLA reform reflect the abandonment of its historically land-centric mentality. Similarly,doctrinal references to “forward edge defense” that would move potential conflicts far from China’s territory suggest PLA strategists envision an increasingly global role,” the report cites.

Many of the details of the Pentagon’s 2018 report are aligned with similar claims made in a 2016 US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a Congressional report which also specified China’s growing provocations and global expeditionary exercises.

Additional instances of Chinese provocation in recent years include placement of surface-to-air-missiles and fighters in sensitive areas of the South China Sea, along with its announcement of an “air exclusion zone” in recent years. While the US military flew B-52 bombers through this declared zone in a demonstration of defiance, the move did demonstrate China’s growing willingness to be aggressive. In addition, Chinese “land reclamation” and territorial claims in the South China Sea continue to prompt US “freedom of navigation exercises” to unambiguously challenge China’s claims.

Chinese Navy:

While Chinese naval technology may still be substantially behind current U.S. platforms, the equation could change dramatically over the next several decades because the Chinese are reportedly working on a handful of high-tech next-generation ships, weapons and naval systems.

China has plans to grow its navy to 351 ships by 2020 as the Chinese continue to develop their military’s ability to strike global targets, according to the Congressional reports.

Also the Chinese are building their own indigenous aircraft carriers; their first self-built carrier was launched last year and is expected to enter service by 2019, the Pentagon report says. More are being built to joint China’s first carrier, the Ukrainian-built Liaoning.

Looking to the future, the 2016 report says “future Chinese carriers are likely to be flat deck ships, like U.S. aircraft carriers, that utilize steam or magnetic catapults and would enable the PLA Navy to employ aircraft armed with heavier munitions intended for maritime strike or land attack missions. According to DOD, China could build several aircraft carriers in the next 15 years. China may ultimately produce five ships—for a total of six carriers—for the PLA Navy.”

The report also cites the LUYANG III, a new class of Chinese destroyers are engineered with vertically-launched, long-range anti-ship cruise missiles. The new destroyers carry an extended-range variant of the HHQ-9 surface-to-air missile, among other weapons, the report says.

As evidence of the impact of these destroyers, the reports point out that these new multi-mission destroyers are likely to form the bulk of warship escorts for Chinese carriers – in a manner similar to how the US Navy protects its carriers with destroyers in “carrier strike groups.”

“These 8,000 ton destroyers (the LUYANG III) . . . have phased-array radars and a long-range SAM [surface-to-air missile] system which provides the [navy] with its first credible area air-defense capability,” the 2016 report states.

The Chinese are currently testing and developing a new, carrier-based fighter aircraft called the J-15.

Regarding amphibious assault ships, the Chinese are now adding more YUZHAO LPDs, amphibs which can carry 800 troops, four helicopters and up to 20 armored vehicles, the report said.

“The YUZHAO can carry up to four air cushion landing craft, four helicopters, armored vehicles, and troops for long-distance deployments, which DOD notes ‘‘provide[s] a . . . greater and more flexible capability for ‘far seas’ operations than the [PLA Navy’s] older landing ships.,’ according to the report.

The Chinese also have ambitious future plans for next-generation amphibious assault ships.

“China seeks to construct a class of amphibious assault ships larger than the YUZHAO class that would include a flight deck for conducting helicopter operations. China may produce four to six of these Type 081 ships with the capacity to transport 500 troops and configured for helicopter-based vertical assault,” the report says.

Some observers have raised the question as to whether this new class of Chinese amphibs could rival the US Navy’s emerging, high-tech America-Class amphibious assault ships.

The Chinese are also working on development of a new Type 055 cruiser equipped with land-attack missiles, lasers and rail-gun weapons, according to the review.

China’s surface fleet is also bolstered by production of at least 60 smaller, fast-moving HOBEI-glass guided missile patrol boats and ongoing deliveries of JIANGDAO light frigates armed with naval guns, torpedoes and anti-ship cruise missiles.

Pentagon and Congressional reports also say that Chinese modernization plans call for a sharp increase in attack submarines and nuclear-armed submarines or SSBNs. Chinese SSBNs are now able to patrol with nuclear-armed JL-2 missiles able to strike targets more than 4,500 nautical miles.

The Chinese are currently working on a new, modernized SSBN platform as well as a long-range missile, the JL-3, the commission says.

Chinese Air Force:

A 2014 Congressional report states that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army currently had approximately 2,200 operational aircraft as far back as four years ago, nearly 600 of which were considered modern.

Regarding stealth aircraft, the Chinese now operate their first 5th Gen stealth fighter, the J-20. The aircraft is reported to be more advanced than any other air platform currently deployed in the Asia-Pacific region. The Chinese are also testing a smaller stealth fighter variant called the J-31 although its intended use is unclear, according to the report.

In 2014, China displayed the Shenyang J-31 stealth fighter at China’s Zuhai Air show, according to various reports. However, several analysts have made the point that it is not at all clear if the platform comes close to rivaling the technological capability of the US F-35.

The Rising Chinese Nuclear Horn (Daniel 7:7)


China’s nuclear developments reflect its growing ambition


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Discerning China’s ambition in the international arena is difficult because there are few empirical clues. Publicly available evidence is often alarming – particularly in the nuclear realm, given considerable advances in the Chinese nuclear arsenal. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has made improvements in the capability of its nuclear arsenal and in its growing strategic and intermediate nuclear systems.

Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), has termed the recent growth of China’s nuclear weapons “the most rapid expansion and diversification of its nuclear arsenal in China’s history.” This was echoed by Adm. David Kriete, the deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command, who stated, “China is, and has been for the last couple of decades, on a very clear trajectory where they’re increasing the numbers of nuclear weapons that they field, they’re increasing the number and diversity of the delivery systems,” and will be “expanding its nuclear weapons production capabilities.”

The PRC’s modern, strategic force supports a warfighting military posture and could target the entirety of U.S. military capability. This is a stark development, which stands in contrast to the historical role of Chinese nuclear forces primarily for retaliating against an opponent’s cities. The military parade on Oct. 1, 2019 – the 70th anniversary of the founding of the PRC – debuted the DF-41 solid-fueled, road-mobile ICBM, the DF-100/CJ-100 supersonic cruise missile, and the DF-17 with its hypersonic glide vehicle. Additionally, the PRC is modernizing its bomber force, historically the most neglected aspect of China’s nuclear forces.

Estimates of the size of the Chinese nuclear arsenal vary considerably, from fewer than 300 warheads to a significantly larger number, because China refuses to be transparent about its nuclear forces. What we do know is that the arsenal is growing rapidly. According to Rear Adm. Michael Brookes, director of intelligence for U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, it has doubled in the past decade – and is on a trajectory to double yet again in the next decade.

This nuclear expansion has allowed China to shift from its minimal-deterrent retaliatory posture toward a first-use capability, which likely entails threatening limited nuclear options in a conflict with its enemies. Additionally, Beijing has articulated in its defense strategy the need to use asymmetric and preemptive attacks during high-intensity warfare, as well as the need to link geographically dispersed military forces in joint operations.

Moreover, China’s renewed interest in developing theater weapons and ballistic missile defense systems has been incorporated into its military posture and has provided it with increasing ability to engage in conflict with its likely foes: India, Japan and the United States. China’s 2019 defense white paper places strong emphasis on political loyalty to the Communist Party and defense of China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and recent commentary has emphasized the goal of incorporating Taiwan into its full control, even if by military force.

China’s goal of transforming its military goes beyond regional interests. It focuses on building a world-class force by mid-21st century, while casting China’s military power in a benign light as a “staunch force for world peace, stability and the building of a community with a shared future for mankind.” Equally worrisome, China emphasizes the protection of its overseas interests, including in Africa and Asia, which are clashing increasingly with interests of the U.S. and its allies. This is heightened by the PRC’s construction of military bases near critical maritime choke points (Djibouti, for example) through which key international trade must transit.

Taking the 2019 white paper at its word compels two logical conclusions. First, Beijing seeks to acquire credible coercive extended nuclear capabilities to support its interests and allies abroad, and thus will continue to expand both the number and quality of its nuclear and conventional capabilities. Second, the U.S. cannot rule out that the PRC may rapidly increase its nuclear arsenal and delivery systems to make a bid for eventual nuclear superiority.

Unfortunately for international peace and the security of its neighbors, China’s determined and dramatic increase of its strategic capabilities, coupled with the lack of transparency about every aspect of its nuclear forces, underscores that its ambitions are not limited and very likely are expansionistic.

Just as troublesome, China’s rejection of strategic stability and transparency by undertaking the secretive and accelerated growth of its arsenal, while rejecting any participation in arms control agreements, poses direct and deleterious consequences for U.S. security and the security of its allies.

A final lamentable consequence of China’s nuclear modernization effort, as well as its prominent role in advancing nuclear proliferation, may be that it provokes both Japan and South Korea to acquire nuclear weapons themselves, further undermining strategic stability in the Indo-Pacific region. A key component of the necessary response is for the U.S. to have the appropriate conventional, space, missile defense and nuclear capabilities in the region to deter the threat from China while simultaneously reassuring U.S. allies.

Peter Huessy is founder and president of Geo-Strategic Analysis of Potomac, Md.

Bradley A. Thayer is professor of political science at the University of Texas, San Antonio, and co-author of “How China Sees the World: Han-Centrism and the Balance of Power in International Politics.”

China’s Nuclear Triad (Daniel 7)

Meet the Qing-Class: China’s Homegrown Nuclear Missile Submarine

Key point: The exact details of why China has only one Qing submarine, and what is it used for, are a tightly-held secret.

In 2010, China’s first—and only, so far—Qing-class submarine sailed out to sea following nearly six years of construction. Displacing 6,628 tons submerged and measuring exactly the length of a football field at one hundred yards long (ninety-two meters), it is by most accounts the largest diesel submarine ever built.

Unlike the vast majority of diesel submarines, the Type 032 can fire not only long-range cruise missiles, but submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) with the capacity to send a nuclear warhead across the ocean.

Beijing prefers to keep its cards close to the chest, leading to speculation about the Type 032—is it purely a missile testing submarine, as is officially claimed, or is it the precursor of a fleet of low-cost ballistic-missile subs? Or was the Type 32 actually built as a prototype vessel for export to Pakistan?

In the past, nuclear submarines enjoyed an enormous advantage in submerged endurance and noise compared to traditional diesel submarines. A diesel submarine could swim quietly for days before having to resurface, but a nuclear-powered submarine can do it for months.

That China would even consider developing such a large diesel submarine is due to the advent of Air-Independent Propulsion (AIP) systems, which encompass a variety of technologies that allow engines and generators onboard a submarine to operate while consuming little or no oxygen. AIP systems can be even quieter than the reactors onboard nuclear submarines, and can efficiently propel the ship electrically for weeks, albeit only at slower speeds.

The first operational AIP powered submarine was the Swedish Gotland, which entered service in 1996. Using a Stirling engine, it could operate submerged for thirty days at a time. The small and nearly silent diesel sub successfully penetrated the antisubmarine defenses of U.S. aircraft carrier task forces in several war games.

Since then, China has built fifteen Yuan-class Type 039A (aka Type 041) diesel submarines using Stirling AIP technology, with another twenty planned. The torpedo-armed Yuan-class subs are intended, like the Swedish Gotland, to serve as stealthy short-range boats for stalking enemy vessels in coastal waters.

The Stirling-powered Qing class, however, marks a dramatic departure from that modus operandi. Situated on the vessel’s elongated sail are two or three Vertical Launch Systems (VLS) tubes used to fire JL-2A Ju Lang (“Big Wave”) ballistic missiles. The JL-2A is believed to have a range approaching five thousand miles and can carry a single one-megaton nuclear warhead, or three or four ninety-kiloton independent reentry vehicles (MIRVs).

The JL-2 was first tested in 2001 and constitutes the main armament of China’s Type 094 Jin-class nuclear submarines. A Type 094 sub embarked on China’s first nuclear deterrence patrol in 2015. Hypothetically, the Type 032 would offer a cheaper, shorter-endurance compliment to the Type-094.

Four or five additional VLS cells on the Qing class’s bow can fire JL-18B Yingji (Eagle Strike) antishipping cruise missiles, which surge to speeds of Mach 2.5 on their terminal approach. The JL-18B is supposedly satellite guided, and is variously credited with a range of 110 to more than three hundred miles. The Type 032 can also launch the slower but longer-range CJ-20A cruise missiles, a derivative of the CJ-10.

Rounding out the Qing class’s armaments is an unconventional pairing of a single standard 533-millimeter torpedo tube with an extra-large 650-millimeter tube. The Type 032 also has facilities to accommodate and deploy up to fifty special-forces personnel—an increasingly common feature in modern submarines.

In other respects, the Type 032 is less impressive. It’s slow—with a maximum speed of sixteen miles per hour submerged, nearly half the speed of a Virginia-class nuclear-powered attack submarine. Its maximum dive depth is reported to be 160 to 200 meters—again, less than half the depth that many modern designs can submerge. The Qing class is understandably not designed for a knife-fight.

In any case, the fact that only a single Type 032 has been built reinforces the claims that it is intended as an affordable testing platform for missile armament. It indeed appears to have replaced the sixties-era Type 031 Golf-class sub used to test the JL-2 ballistic missile. In addition to its crew complement of eighty-eight, it claimed that the Type 032 can carry an additional one hundred “scientists and technicians.” The sub has also reportedly been used to test submarine-launched surface-to-air Missiles and a new underwater escape pods. Some suggest the Type 032 may be applied to deploying undersea drones.

However, a 2011 report claimed that China would sell six Type 032 submarines to Pakistan. The two countries hold a long-time alliance opposing India. China remains wary of the potential future superpower, and sees reinforcing its archrival Pakistan as a strategic hedge. However, the initial claim to a Type 032 deal was either inaccurate or fell through.

More recently, Beijing confirmed in October that it would sell eight Project S-26 and Project S-30 submarines for $4–5 billion—a price roughly equivalent to the cost of two nuclear submarines. Four of each subtype will be constructed in China and Karachi, Pakistan, with first delivery no sooner than 2020 and completion of the contract by 2028.

However, it’s unclear what type of submarines these will turn out to be. Several of official reports appear to state that these are derivatives of the Type 032, but most experts believe they are instead down-scaled version of the ship-hunting Yuan-class submarine. However, some descriptions of the S-30 imply it is based on the Type 032, with an intended armament of four Pakistani-developed Babur nuclear-capable land-attack cruise missiles as well as retaining two SLBM tubes.

Nuclear submarines still possess advantages over AIP-powered diesel submarines. Deterrence patrols tend to be lengthy, so the three-to-four-month endurance of nuclear subs still handily beats the thirty days of a Stirling-powered sub. And even though the ability to remain underwater for months at a time may be less vital for coastal defense subs, nuclear submarines can also sustain higher underwater speeds over long distances.

Still, most navies across the world aren’t like United States, which operates submarines thousands of miles across the length of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Countries like China, Pakistan or, hypothetically, Iran or Saudi Arabia, have naval security interests closer to home and don’t need their submarines to cross vast oceans.

Particularly for countries like Pakistan with access to nuclear arms, a missile-armed diesel submarine could offer an affordable means to threaten nuclear retaliation that would remain very difficult to counter, potentially starting a new worrisome trend in nuclear proliferation.

Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring. This first appeared in December 2016.

Image: Wikimedia.

Australia will build its own nuclear arsenal (Daniel 7)

Should Australia build its own nuclear arsenal? | The Strategist

Rod Lyon

ASPI releases today the second issue of its Strategist Selections series, pulling together a collection of 36 of my Strategist posts on nuclear strategy. I’m honoured to follow in the footsteps of Kim Beazley, whose collected posts formed the first issue, and hope that readers find value in the latest publication. The Strategist, ASPI’s commentary and analysis site, is now over seven years old, and a vast archive of more than 6,000 articles is there for the mining. I do not think the latest volume in the series could be more timely.

In recent months the question of whether Australia should build its own nuclear arsenal has received considerable attention. It’s a question that demands careful handling, not least because it’s an invitation to the incautious respondent to take a length of rope and hang themselves in the corner. And all too often, respondents do exactly that, burdening the argument for a domestic nuclear arsenal with poor judgement, strategic paranoia and moral insensibilities.

For many years the simple, formal answer to the question has always been the same: Australia is a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and it is not a repentant state. (Repentant states are those that signed the treaty but later came to regret their own hastiness.) That’s because the NPT generally represents the last major occasion on which states were asked to choose their nuclear identity.

The strategic commentariat has, over the years, been reluctant to challenge the choice Canberra made then. For good reason: Australia hasn’t confronted a serious strategic challenge since Richard Nixon’s opening to China, an event almost contemporaneous with the NPT. That’s why Hugh White’s recent book is novel. It explores the option of an indigenous arsenal essentially in 21st-century strategic terms.

So, should Australia build its own nuclear arsenal? I think the answer is, ‘Yes, if it needs to.’ That’s a big ‘if’—indeed, a series of big ‘ifs’: if the regional strategic environment becomes appreciably darker; if US extended nuclear deterrence is no longer available, or patently incredible; and, perhaps just as importantly, if there’s bipartisan Australian acceptance of the need for an indigenous arsenal.

The first ‘if’ poses a major challenge of assessment: how dark does the regional strategic environment need to be? The fact that the Australian mainstream is already broken over the ‘China threat’, despite China’s recent blatantly coercive behaviour, doesn’t bode well for its ability to reach a consensus on what might constitute the grounds for initiating a nuclear-weapons program.

I’d venture one, imperfect, benchmark: the environment would need to be sufficiently dark that an Australian nuclear-weapons program would be seen (by some countries at least) as a positive contribution to regional stability. It certainly would have to be dark enough for us to satisfy the ‘supreme national interests’ test of Article X of the NPT—the article covering withdrawal from the treaty.

The second ‘if’—extended deterrence—is already encountering some choppy waters, waters which Donald Trump’s presidency has roiled rather than calmed. True, the administration’s 2018 nuclear posture review comes closer to underlining the specific provision of a US nuclear umbrella to Australia than any of its predecessors. On page 22 of the main text, there’s a sentence that reads: ‘The United States has extended nuclear deterrence commitments that assure European, Asian, and Pacific allies.’ That’s an interesting separation of America’s usually hyphenated Asian and Pacific allies, and may reflect a deliberate attempt by Washington to reinforce its assurance to Australia.

Still, US extended nuclear deterrence was a doctrine invented for a different era; it faces genuine credibility issues in a more risk-tolerant world, especially if themes of nationalism and buck-passing continue to resonate in US strategic policy.

The third ‘if’ is just as awkward, and often overlooked. Australia, to use a rowing metaphor, hasn’t got its head in the boat in relation to an indigenous nuclear-weapons program. For Australian thinking about nuclear weapons to change, we’d probably have to be facing an existential threat. Only such a condition could generate the level of bipartisan agreement necessary to develop, build and deploy a serious nuclear force.

But, of course, if we were staring down the barrel of an existential threat, we’d probably want to have a nuclear arsenal to hand relatively quickly. And there’s the problem. Nuclear-weapons programs take time. In wintertime, many Canberrans are acutely conscious of how far their most remote hot-water tap is from their hot-water system, and the amount of time it takes for hot water to move through the house. But pursuing an indigenous nuclear-weapons program in Australia’s current circumstances would be worse: it would be the equivalent of turning on a tap in a house to which no hot-water system had ever been fitted.

It would be easier to build nuclear weapons if we had in place a stronger core of nuclear skills in our workforce, some capacity to produce fissionable materials, and a suitable delivery vehicle. (More ‘ifs’.) Australia has few of those assets. We have one research reactor at Lucas Heights. We have neither an enrichment capability for uranium nor a reprocessing facility for plutonium. And our best delivery vehicle, the F-111, has long since faded into history. If Australia was to attempt to proliferate, using only national resources, we’d likely face a 15-year-plus haul.

Working in partnership with others would allow us to shorten that timeframe. Indeed, in a post-NPT world we might even be able to buy an arsenal, or critical parts thereof, off the shelf—our usual path to acquiring high-technology military weaponry. But that seems an unlikely scenario.

Nuclear weapons cast long political shadows—which, indeed, is their primary purpose. But they’re also weapons of mass destruction, meaning a decision to proliferate should never be taken lightly.

Personally, I think there are enough large strategic variables already at play that we should be thinking now about an indigenous nuclear-weapons program in much the same way that we did between the 1950s and 1970s.

That is, we should be acting to minimise the lead time required for us to have such a capability, just in case we decide we do need it.