The Expansion and Modernization of China’s Strategic Forces

For decades the People’s Republic of China has accepted the inferiority of it’s strategic forces when compared to those of the United States and Russia. The relatively small size of China’s nuclear arsenal, coupled with the limited amount of damage it could inflict upon an enemy led many experts over the years to question China’s beliefs about nuclear warfare as well as its strategy for fighting one. The overall consensus is that since China exploded its first atomic bomb, the nation’s nuclear posture has been one of minimal deterrence.  In recent years the questions have become louder as China’s nuclear forces undergo modernization and expansion. As a consequence of this, China’s nuclear posture will inevitably shift away from minimal deterrence to one which offers more flexibility and options.

Minimal deterrence is a Western term not frequently used in Chinese military and political circles. In application, minimal deterrence is a doctrine in which a state possesses only enough nuclear weapons to deter a nuclear adversary from undertaking a first strike. It revolves around a no first use policy and the principle that the primary role of nuclear weapons is deterrence. The small size of a state’s nuclear arsenal severely limits the second strike options available to its leadership in the event of an attack. A counterforce second strike is not feasible under minimal deterrence. The only viable option then, is a countervalue second strike aimed at an enemy’s population centers. Realistically, minimal deterrence can only be achieved if the survivability of a state’s nuclear force can be guaranteed.

China’s strategic modernization appears to be the result of a political decision to make China’s nuclear force more survivable in the face of US strategic upgrades.  For years the primary component of Chinese nuclear forces was the liquid fueled, silo based DF-5A ICBM. This changed as the more survivable DF-31A entered into service. The DF-31A is a solid-fuel missile based on a mobile launch system. Hence, it is not restricted to a stationary launch site and can be readied in minimal time, unlike its liquid fueled counterparts.

The newest ICBM to enter Chinese service is the DF-41. This missile can be delivered by mobile launcher or silo and has significantly updated capabilities compared to its predecessors. In August, 2021 it was also reported that China is building new missile fields, with each expected to house over 100 DF-41s in Inner Mongolia. Three fields are expected to be operational at some point in the near future with a total of 350 to 400 new long-range nuclear missiles. If 10 warheads are deployed on each missile, China‘s warhead level will rise to over 4,000 warheads on the DF-41s alone

China’s strategic modernization is not confined to land. At sea, the single Xia class SSBN which was in service since the mid-80s was withdrawn early in the 2010s. The PLAN has replaced it with the Type 094 (Jin Class) ballistic missile submarine. Six are presently in service with more under construction.  As many as ten boats are planned. The Type 094 is a marked upgrade from the Xia.

Modernization of China’s nuclear forces is pacing upgrades to the conventional forces. US interest and concern is understandably high. The primary question at the moment is: what do the new capabilities in Chinese nuclear forces tell of China’s future intentions?

At the very least, it is becoming apparent that minimal deterrence is fast becoming an obsolete doctrine for the People’s Republic of China.

First Strike: The American Nightmare- Strategic Rocket Forces

*Authors note: The Iranian missile test will be addressed in a post tomorrow*

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In November, 2015 Russian strategic forces were estimated to be comprised of 500 strategic launchers and between 1800-1900 warheads. The majority of launchers and warheads can be found in the Strategic Rocket Forces, which is the land-based component of Russia’s nuclear triad. The Russian navy has 8 ballistic missile submarines in its inventory at present. Five are stationed with the Northern Fleet and the remainder of boats are with the Pacific Fleet. In the air, Russia’s strategic bomber forces is comprised of 55 Tu-95 Bear H and 11 Tu-160 Blackjack bombers.

Whereas the United States has been content to modernize its forces instead of building newer systems and platforms for its nuclear forces, Russia has taken a different path.  In recent years, Russia’s strategic forces have been undergoing frequent modernization periods and new strategic platforms are being introduced. While the United States deploys the bulk of its nuclear warheads at sea on SLBMs, Russia has historically placed most of its nuclear striking power on ICBMs. Neither side places as much emphasis on strategic air power as they once did.

The Strategic Rocket Forces are a separate branch of the Russian Armed Forces responsible for control of the nation’s ICBM force. The current commander is Lieutenant General Sergei Karakayev. His command consists of 18,000 troops divided among three missile armies. These armies include eleven missile divisions The current total number of land-based missiles is 305. Of these missiles, 148 are mobile based. The remainder are housed in hardened silos. Unlike the US, which keeps its ICBM fore exclusively in silos, the SRF is a firm believer in the concept of mobility enhancing survivability. ICBMs on mobile launchers are more difficult to detect, thus more problematic for an attacker to destroy, even with nuclear weapons. This is one reason why Russia has historically invested more striking power on land based systems instead of at sea as the US has. There are five missile systems currently in service. The SS-18 Satan, SS-19 Stiletto, and SS-25 Topol missiles are silo-based. The SS-27 Topol-M and SS-29 is fielded are both silos and mobile launchers.

Another difference between US and Russian nuclear arsenals is that most Russian ICBMs carry multiple warheads. US Minuteman IIIs have been modified and now only carry a single warhead. This makes the SRF considerably more effective in the counterforce role and as a first strike tool.

 

First Strike: The American Nightmare- US Strategic Forces

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With tensions between the United States and Russia steadily increasing over the last two years, nuclear weapons and strategic warfare are creeping back into the mindsets of military leaders, politicians and the public as a whole. The current situation between the world’s two premier nuclear powers suggests the possibility of a new cold war on the horizon. New areas of influence are being established, while simultaneously, attempts are underway to reassert influence and power in regions where a respective power once held tremendous sway. Saber-rattling has become a common practice, and the fielding of new strategic weapons by Russia is receiving tremendous amounts of scrutiny in the United States and Europe. With the possibility of another cold war, also comes the potential for a military confrontation as well. And with the chance of a conventional clash between the US and Russia comes a possibility of a nuclear conflict as well.

With that in mind, this article will examine the current posture of US strategic forces, and provide an overview of weapon systems, doctrines, and issues facing the nuclear forces of both nations. In spite of the limitations and reductions being imposed by the New START Treaty, the US and Russia will each continue to field enough nuclear warheads and launchers to destroy the world for the foreseeable future.

 

US Strategic Forces

The three arms of the US nuclear triad are air, sea, and land. In order to comply with the terms of New Start, the United States will be reducing the number of warheads it has deployed on ICBMs and bombers in the next few years. While this happens, plans to develop and field new delivery systems are moving ahead. The goal is to have these systems deployed within the next 20-30 years and this goal is achievable, even under current the current budgetary restrictions.

At the moment, the US has 1,600 warheads deployed on ICBMs and ballistic missile submarines. These platforms are referred to as long-range strategic launch vehicles. Bombers are not included in the category. By 2018, the number of warheads will be reduced to 1,550 when New START is fully implemented.

The land-based arm consists of ICBMs, at current 450 Minuteman IIIs. Each bird contains one W87 warhead. The W87 was originally fitted on Peacekeeper missiles. When the Peacekeeper was retired, they were retrofitted for use on Minutemen. The active force is based at Malmstrom AFB, Montana, Minot AFB, North Dakota and FE Warren AFB in Wyoming. The Air Force is upgrading the force with new engines and electronics to keep the missiles in service until the new Ground-based Strategic Deterrent enters service between 2025 and 2030.

The sea-based component of the triad consists of 14 Ohio class ballistic missile submarines. Each boat carries 24 Trident II (D-5) SLBMs. The Ohios are the quietest submarines in existence and because of this fact, are the most survivable arm of the nuclear triad. With the US shift to Asia, Trident submarine basing has been reshuffled in recent years. 9 subs are based in Washington State and patrol the Pacific, while 5 are based at Kings Bay, Georgia and patrol the Atlantic. With tensions with Russia rising it will be interesting to see if any subs are shifted back to the Atlantic to better cover targets in Russia.

The air component is made up B-52 and B-2 Spirit strategic bombers. Unlike the other arms of the triad, the bombers are no longer kept on alert. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush took US bombers off of alert and a year later deactivated the Strategic Air Command. Before he did that, US bombers stood alert at SAC bases across the continent and the world for decades, ensuring that at least some aircraft would survive a surprise Soviet nuclear attack. In contemporary times, in the event of a Russian counterforce attack during peacetime conditions, it is unlikely that many bombers would survive.

The US Air Force recognizes that in the event of a nuclear attack, USTRATCOM’s headquarters at Offutt AFB and the nation’s capital, Washington DC, would be the top two targets on the Russians targeting list. If Offutt and DC are hit, the civilian and military command structures could be neutralized, leaving no one to issue orders to US strategic forces. To deal with this potential problem, two specialized aircraft and their crews are postured on alert 24 hours a day 365 days a year, ready to take to the skies in response to an attack on the United States.

The first aircraft is the E-4B National Airborne Operations Center, known as Nightwatch in Air Force circles. Nightwatch is a heavily modified Boeing 747 designed to serve as a survivable command post for the president and his advisers should an attack come. From the late 70s until the early 90s, Nightwatch was based at Andrews AFB outside of Washington DC. In the 1990s, President Clinton ordered the aircraft to be kept at Offutt unless needed.

The second aircraft is the E-6 Mercury. Primarily used as the main TACAMO platform for communications with ballistic missile submarines in the event of war, the E-6 also serves as USTRATCOM’s primary airborne command post. Before 1997, this role was filled by the Looking Glass aircraft, an EC-135 for decades. In 1997 the E-6 Mercury was given the Looking Glass role. In the event that USTRATCOM headquarters is destroyed, Looking Glass will take command of and issue orders to strategic forces.

*Russian Strategic Forces will be published on Saturday*

November’s In Depth Series: First Strike: The American Nightmare

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As I alluded to in the previous blog entry, the comprehensive focus for November is going to be centered on US strategic forces. To be more specific, Today’s DIRT is going to focus on how survivable America’s nuclear forces, command and control systems, and leadership would be in the event of a Russian first strike against the United States. To some people, the notion of a first strike is unrealistic. Their assumption could be that if an enemy nation launches its nuclear weapons at the US it will trigger an immediate retaliation and result in the eventual destruction of the world. An alternate assumption is that since the Cold War is over, there is absolutely no chance of a US-Russian nuclear conflict erupting. Hollywood has conditioned us to accept that a nuclear war is unwinnable. Even a limited nuclear war would lead to untold numbers of deaths, the destruction of cities around the world and the end of life as we know it.

I disagree these arguments. At present, the United States is more vulnerable to a first strike than ever before. A combination of variables make the current time a period of vulnerability: Lack of resolute and effective US leadership, significant deterioration in the condition of US strategic forces, and a resurgent Russia to name a few. There are other factors that will be discussed in the series along with the ones mentioned above.

The five parts of the series are listed below, along with a brief summary of the areas each entry will cover. The first one will be published on 9 November.

Part I: Introduction- This entry will take a look at nuclear warfare and the concept of a limited first strike, as well as examine the current world situation and identify flashpoints that could potentially lead to a situation where Russia may feel that a first strike against the US could succeed.

Part II: The Current State of US and Russian Strategic Forces– In Part Two, a brief history of US and Russian nuclear forces and C3I capabilities will be presented. Special attention will be applied to the deterioration of US nuclear forces in recent years as well as plans on the table to modernize the force.

Part III: The Perils & Advantages of a First Strike – Like it or not, military planners do ponder the possibility of limited nuclear war. Contrary to public opinion, a nuclear war can be winnable if planned and executed properly. Hundreds of simulations and studies have been run since 1949. Many have revealed that the side that launches first stands the best chance of emerging as the victor.

Part IV: First Strike Scenario- A detailed scenario depicting what a successful Russian first strike could look like, along with what the consequences might be for the United States and the world.

Part V: Conclusion– The series will wrap up with a summary and look at the future of the US-Russian nuclear balance of power.

If any revisions are made to the above schedule I will post them.

October 28, 2015, Midweek Update: Playing Hardball In The South China Sea, First Russian Death in Syria

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Well, perhaps not hardball yet, but tensions are rising. The sail-past of disputed islands by the destroyer USS.Lassen last night has ruffled feathers in Beijing. Lassen actually moved inside of the 12 mile territorial limit claimed by China around Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands. The United States does not recognize the formation of China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea as sovereign territory. Beijing, predictably, did not respond well to the action, which it viewed as the US Navy trailing its coat along Chinese territory. The US ambassador to Beijing was summoned by the Chinese Vice Foreign Minister and told that the Lassen’s actions were ‘extremely irresponsible.’ This was the first time since 2012 that US naval units traveled within the 12 mile limit. By all accounts, the practice will become a regular occurrence in the future. A Chinese guided missile destroyer and patrol ship shadowed Lassen during its transit, keeping a safe distance and limiting its involvement to issuing warnings.

The South China Sea is an area where China has been concentrating a large amount of military activity in recent months, including the expansion of reefs to accommodate runways and support facilities for aircraft.

Russia’s military has suffered its first death…that we know of….since becoming involved in the Syrian conflict. The Ministry of Defense has announced that a soldier committed suicide at the Russian base in Latakia, Syria. The announcement was made after sources revealed the name of the soldier: Vadim Kostenko and indicated that the man’s relatives and colleagues began mourning his death last weekend. The family is disputing the reported cause of death. Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported the death of a Russian serviceman due to ‘careless weapons handling.’

Russia has a history of being cryptic when it comes to discussing combat casualties. During the early stages of the conflict with Ukraine, Moscow had much difficulty holding back news about Russian combat deaths. In a conflict that Russia officially claimed its soldiers were not fighting, the number of fresh graves rose at a number of military cemeteries across Russia.

The US Air Force has awarded Northrop Grumman with the contract for the Long Range Strike Bomber. The LRS-B will be a heavy bomber capable of launching from the United States, reaching targets anywhere in the world and in the process, penetrating heavily defended airspace. The mission profile of this aircraft is no different from the profiles of the bombers currently in the US inventory. The difference will come in the defensive and offensive capabilities that the LRS-B will have to offer.

The Air Force and Navy are moving ahead with plans to modernize America’s strategic forces despite consistently shrinking budgets. Programs for new SSBNs and ICBMs are in development. Contracts will not be rewarded for some time, however, it is refreshing to see that the US is moving in the right direction. Today, more than ever since the end of the Cold War, the US nuclear deterrent needs to be seen as a credible force.