Just before Christmas, President-elect Trump shocked national security watchers with a tweet saying, “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” Commenters wondered—and worried—whether this signaled Trump’s desire to start a new nuclear arms race after the Obama administration had worked to reduce the size of, and strategic reliance on, the U.S. nuclear arsenal. In an off-air conversation with a news presenter, the President-elect supposedly confirmed, “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all."
The day after Trump’s comments seemingly inviting a new nuclear arms race, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson attempted to de-escalate the rhetoric, saying that “China stands for and advocates the complete prohibition and thorough destruction of nuclear weapons. The country with the largest nuclear arsenal should assume a special and prior responsibility on nuclear disarmament, and take the lead in dramatically and substantially reducing its nuclear arsenal so as to create conditions for the complete and thorough nuclear disarmament.”
While it’s yet to be seen how Trump intends to translate “strengthen and expand” into policy, under President Obama the United States has already embarked on a 30-year $1 trillion dollar modernization of its nuclear forces. At the same time, China’s comments advocating eventual disarmament belie a similar effort to ensure the reliability of their own nuclear deterrent, albeit a far more modest one. In light of this unexpected focus on the role of nuclear weapons and the prospect of continued U.S.-Chinese competition, it’s worth understanding more about the two countries’ nuclear policies and capabilities.
While we popularly think of any nuclear confrontation as a one-size-fits all end of the world, U.S. nuclear policy reserves a role for smaller-yield “tactical” nuclear weapons and for deterring non-nuclear attacks. Strategic nuclear weapons are massive yield weapons that threaten global nuclear Holocaust in order to prevent it. Tactical nuclear weapons are low-yield weapons intended for battlefield use; these are designed not for deterrence but for their military utility compared to conventional weapons.
President Obama’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, while articulating an overall goal of eventual global disarmament, specifies that “there remains a narrow range of contingencies in which U.S. nuclear weapons may still play a role in deterring a conventional or CBW [chemical and biological warfare] attack against the United States or its allies and partners.” This policy is a holdover from the Cold War when war planning suggested that NATO would be unable to defeat a conventional attack by Soviet forces, who had such numeric superiority in terms of conventional forces (tanks, troops, planes), without resorting to a limited, first-use of tactical nuclear weapons. Just this past year, despite speculation that President Obama considered declaring a policy of “no first-use” of nuclear weapons, it appears that the U.S. will retain the right to use nuclear weapons in narrow, warfighting scenarios.
For its part, since becoming a nuclear power in 1964, China has avoided the extraordinary nuclear build-up of the U.S. and USSR, defying many theoretical predictions for a rising power. Despite now having the world’s second largest economy and a massive, modern military, the Ploughshares Fund estimates that China has the second-smallest nuclear arsenal of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) – less than 300 warheads, compared to the nearly 7,000 in the U.S. arsenal.
Unlike the United States, China does not acknowledge a potential role for tactical nuclear weapons in fighting or winning a limited conflict, and is thought to maintain only a strategic nuclear arsenal exclusively to deter nuclear coercion or threat from another country. According to the Chinese government, China maintains a restrained nuclear policy built on a “lean and effective deterrent force” and remains “committed to the policy of no first use of nuclear weapons, pursues a self-defensive nuclear strategy, and will never enter into a nuclear arms race with any other country.”
Deterrence like this depends on the idea of “assured destruction.” If a country launches a nuclear attack against another nuclear power, both understand that they will be destroyed, regardless of which strikes first. Assured destruction strategies rely on maintaining an effective “second strike” capability – the ability to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike even after suffering a pre-emptive “first strike” nuclear attack by another country.
For the United States, this second strike capability is provided by its 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines. Considered the “most survivable” component of the U.S. nuclear triad, these stealthy, hard-to-detect submarines armed with nuclear missiles are intended to evade attempts to pre-emptively neuter the U.S.’s nuclear arsenal and retaliate even if its strategic bombers and land-based nuclear missiles are destroyed.
China is thought to have a nominal second strike capability, but is working to make it more secure and reliable in the event an adversary is tempted by the relatively small size of China’s arsenal. Unlike the U.S.’ land-based nuclear missiles, which are housed in fixed silos and so can be reliably targeted, China’s land-based nuclear missiles do provide a degree of second strike capability. Deployed on road-mobile launchers, China’s nuclear missiles can change location and disperse to avoid detection and targeting against pre-emptive attack. However, an effective sea-based, submarine-launched deterrent would provide additional assurance of China’s second strike capability without necessitating a dramatic increase in the size of its arsenal.
Today, China is the only permanent member of the UNSC without an effective sea-based deterrent, as noted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). While China has had a notional sea-based nuclear deterrent since 2007 when it deployed its Type 094 Jin-class ballistic missile submarine, CSIS explains that technical issues with both the submarine and its JL-2 nuclear missile raise doubts that the submarine could remain undetected and effectively launch its missiles with sufficient confidence to guarantee assured destruction. Despite being in service for nearly a decade, the Type 094 is believed to have only conducted its first deterrence patrol in 2016.
Meanwhile, the United States faces challenges to maintaining its own submarine-based second strike guarantees. The 14 existing Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines must begin retirement at the end of the 2020’s and cannot have their service lives extended. This makes the development and construction of the replacement Columbia-class submarines critical to maintaining the U.S. nuclear triad of missile, bomber, and submarine-based strategic nuclear weapons.
But replacing this capability comes at enormous cost. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) assesses that the Navy faces a nearly 30% budget shortfall for ship construction for its current 308-ship plan, let alone the 350-ship construction plans President-elect Trump campaigned on or the 355-ship fleet the Navy said is the minimum size required in its most recent Force Structure Assessment. Further, the CBO projects that if the Navy commits to building all 12 planned Columbia-class missile submarines under current funding levels, it would use up nearly one-third of the Navy’s projected shipbuilding budge. In other words, fully funding the Columbia-class would result in cuts to other ship programs that would leave the Navy with less than 240 ships in the 2040s, more than 100 hulls short of what it thinks it needs now.
Navy officials have repeatedly testified to Congress that fully funding the Columbia-class submarines without substantially raising the Navy’s budget would cripple other procurement programs and result in the emaciated fleet that the CBO projects. In 2014, Congress created a National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund separate from the Navy budget to pay for the Columbia class. But while the account has been created, no additional money has been appropriated for it and the development and construction costs for the first Columbia hull are currently programmed to come out of the Navy’s shipbuilding budget.
Some western analysts believe that expanding U.S. missile defense and precision conventional strike capabilities may motivate China to dramatically increase the size of its nuclear arsenal or abandon its defensive, no first-use policy. But in an analysis of Chinese strategic writing and interviews with Chinese strategists and scientists, Taylor Fravel, associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Fiona Cunningham, a PhD candidate, instead conclude that China is unlikely to do either. They argue the Chinese are confident in their ability to improve the reliability of their second strike capabilities, allowing China to maintain an assured destruction strategy without engaging in an arms race or adopting looser launch criteria. However, as President-elect Trump signals a willingness to question cornerstones of the Sino-U.S. relationship, like the One-China Policy, it is important for both countries to appreciate the impacts of changes to their respective nuclear policies on the stability of their mutual deterrent.