Several years ago UCS reported China could put its nuclear weapons on high alert so they could be launched on warning of an incoming attack. Last week I had the opportunity to speak with some of the authors of The Science of Military Strategy: the authoritative Chinese military publication that was the source of the information in our report.
In a lively discussion, most of which took place between the authors themselves, I was able to confirm our original report is accurate. But I also learned more about how and why The Science of Military Strategy was written and what that can tell US observers about the broader context of how military thinking is evolving in China.
What it means to say China “can” launch on warning.
As of today, China keeps its nuclear forces off alert. The warheads and the missiles are separated and controlled by different commands. The operators are trained to bring them together and prepare them for launch after being attacked first.
China’s nuclear arsenal is small. Reliable estimates of the amount of weapons-grade plutonium China produced and the amount of plutonium China uses in its warheads tell us China has, at most, several hundred nuclear warheads. It has even fewer long-range missiles that could deliver those warheads to targets in the United States.
Because China’s nuclear arsenal is small and kept off alert some Chinese military strategists worry it could be completely wiped out in a single attack. Their US counterparts have told them, in person, that the United States will not rule out attempting a preemptive strike at the beginning of a war. The question for Chinese strategists is whether or not they should do something to mitigate this vulnerability. Many believe the risk of a major war with the United States is low and the risk of a nuclear war is even lower.
For Chinese strategists who don’t share that optimism, there are two basic ways to address their vulnerability. The first would be to significantly increase the size of China’s forces. Chinese nuclear weapons experts told me that would require a lot of time and considerable effort. They would need to resume producing plutonium for weapons and may also need to resume nuclear testing. The economic costs would be considerable. The diplomatic costs would be even greater.
The second way to avoid the risk of allowing an adversary to think they can wipe out China’s nuclear force with a preemptive strike is for China to put its forces on alert and enable them to be launched on warning of an incoming attack. That would require the development of an early warning system. It may also require upgrading China’s nuclear-capable missiles. One Chinese missile engineer explained that China’s existing missiles are not designed to be kept on continuous alert.
Either option would significantly alter China’s nuclear posture. But the latter may also require a consequential change in China’s nuclear doctrine.
China’s political leaders promised the world they would never, under any circumstances, be the first to use nuclear weapons. Wouldn’t launching on warning of attack, before any damage is done, violate that promise? The answer is not as obvious to Chinese policy-makers as it probably seems to their American counterparts, who don’t believe in the efficacy or credibility of a no first use pledge in the first place.
What I learned in my conversation with the authors of The Science of Military Strategy is that when they wrote that China “can” launch on warning of an incoming attack they were not saying China has the technical capability to do so, nor were they announcing the intention to implement a launch on warning policy. They were simply declaring that, in their view, China could launch on warning—before their missiles were destroyed—without violating China’s no first use pledge.
Shouldn’t they have made that more explicit?
The authors told me, in response to a direct question, that they did not consider the impact of what they were writing on external audiences. That does not mean they were unaware non-Chinese might read it, just that they weren’t writing for them. The Science of Military Strategy is an institutional assessment of China’s current strategic situation prepared for the consideration of the rest of China’s defense establishment and its political leadership. Those two audiences wouldn’t need to be told what the “can” in an Academy of Military Science (AMS) statement on launch on warning was referencing. They would already understand the context. As the authors explained, AMS is not responsible for making technical assessments of China’s capabilities, nor does it make public announcements about Chinese military policies or the intentions of China’s political leadership.
It’s difficult for many US observers to imagine that Chinese open source publications like The Science of Military Strategy aren’t just another form of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda. That’s understandable given Chinese government controls on speech and publication. But even in a relatively closed and tightly controlled polity like China’s, professionals still need to engage in meaningful discussion, including military professionals. Understanding that internal discussion from abroad requires more than parsing the language in Chinese publications. It also requires a sufficient degree of familiarity with the social, institutional and sometimes even the personal factors that define the context within which Chinese discussions of controversial topics – like nuclear weapons policy – take place.
Regular interaction with Chinese counterparts is the only way to acquire this familiarity. Unfortunately, both governments make that much more difficult than it needs to be. And language is still a significant barrier, especially on the US side.
Pessimism on US-China Relations
Most of my Chinese colleagues believe the intergovernmental relationship between China and the United States is deteriorating. The cooperative relationship of the 1980s and 1990s gradually gave way to an increasingly competitive relationship over the past two US administrations. The new edition of The Science of Military Strategy, composed over an 18-month period prior to its publication in 2013, addresses new issues that might emerge if this trend continues, and the relationship moves from competition toward conflict.
There is no fixed schedule for putting out a new edition. According to a general who was also involved the production of two prior editions, the first addressed concerns related to China-USSR relations. The second responded to the so-called “revolution in military affairs” exemplified by the new technologies used in the 1991 Gulf War. The current edition had no equally specific point of origin. It was, in the Chinese general’s words, more “forward-looking.” And as the Chinese military looks forward, its relationship with the United States looms large on the horizon.
None of the authors felt China’s overall military capabilities were remotely comparable to those of the United States. One of the more interesting barometers they used was the average annual salary of an ordinary soldier. All of the authors agreed this gap is unlikely to be closed in the foreseeable future. China still needs to focus its military development in select areas. Having a clearer understanding of what China’s future military challenges might be—an understanding AMS is charged with articulating—can help Chinese decision-makers set priorities.
That one of those priorities is addressing the vulnerability of China’s nuclear forces to a US preemptive attack is a troubling indicator of deteriorating relations.