Mutual Vulnerability with China a Reality, Not a Choice

October 11, 2013
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

Bradley Roberts,  former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy in the Obama administration,  comments on strategic stability with China during a presentation at the Stimson Center on 26 August  2013. Video courtesy of C-Span.

The United States is vulnerable to a Chinese nuclear strike. Admitting this reality should not be seen as a diplomatic favor to the Chinese, but as a prerequisite for prudent U.S. defense policy.

China’s nuclear arsenal is small but very well protected. It includes a few score of intercontinental ballistic missiles that can deliver a warhead to targets in the United States. Some are older liquid-fueled missiles fixed in hardened silos that could conceivably be taken out in a preemptive U.S. first strike. But the others are newer solid-fueled missiles that are not in fixed locations. They are transported by trucks and enjoy the secrecy and protection afforded by a large network of underground facilities linked by tunnels. Even if the United States were to launch a massive preemptive strike, it would take considerable hubris to believe China would not be able to retaliate. China is also developing the option to deploy nuclear missiles on submarines.

There is no indication new technical developments will alleviate this vulnerability. U.S. national missile defenses cannot reliably prevent a Chinese warhead from landing on a U.S. target, nor will they be able to do so for the foreseeable future. And it is technically easier and much less expensive for China to develop countermeasures than it is for the United States to develop and deploy interceptors that can defeat them. While some people maintain (incorrectly) that a country like North Korea may not be able to build effective countermeasures to U.S. defenses, few doubt that China can.

In the video above Bradley Roberts, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy in the Obama administration, states rather emphatically that the United States is not going to recognize its vulnerability to Chinese nuclear retaliation. “That’s not,” he says, “something Japan wants to hear.” Perhaps. But the reality of U.S. vulnerability remains whether the U.S. chooses to admit it or not. Nervous Japanese defense planners are unlikely to find reassurance in a policy of denial.

Refusing to admit vulnerability to a Chinese second strike can only reassure those who believe in the possibility of invulnerability. Is Mr. Roberts saying the United States is pursuing such a possibility? If so, Chinese defense planners will most likely respond by increasing the size and capabilities of their nuclear arsenal, which would in turn inspire even greater U.S. efforts to attain an invulnerability that, as we learned in the Cold War, will always be out of reach. A new nuclear arms race in East Asia will leave no one feeling reassured, especially Japan.