01 October 2005

China’s Nuclear Force Modernization

Lyle J. Goldstein and Andrew S. Erickson, eds., China’s Nuclear Force Modernization, Naval War College Newport Paper 22 (2005).

  • Author of “China’s Ballistic Missile Defense Countermeasures: Breaching America’s Great Wall in Space?” 65-91.

p. 96

The last chapter, written by Andrew Erickson, represents an attempt to fathom PRC responses to the U.S. deployment of ballistic missile defenses. Erickson found that American strategic planners are deeply divided concerning the value of U.S. BMD for China-related contingencies. Next, the author demonstrated that BMD countermeasure systems, including specifically Chinese variants, have a long history of development, reaching far back into the Cold War era. A brief review of the evolution of Chinese nuclear strategy suggested that American BMD poses a rather direct challenge to the PRC emphasis on minimal nuclear forces. The analysis subsequently revealed a plethora of options for countering U.S. ballistic missile defense that Chinese planners appear to be exploring, including especially saturation, decoys, and multiple methods for direct attack on the BMD system itself. Chinese nuclear strategists appear to have high confidence that U.S. BMD can be overwhelmed. Given the PRC’s increasingly impressive defense science and technology infrastructure, the author concluded that American ballistic missile defense should focus on defending against threats from smaller, less capable rogue states, such as North Korea or Iran. Based on the efficiency, stealth, and flexibility of sea-based platforms, Erickson suggested that the U.S. Navy must play a central role in the ongoing evolution of BMD architecture.

pp. 65-66

A significant component of contemporary naval transformation involves adapting the force to meet the emerging ballistic missile defense challenge. With the advent of sea-based BMD, the U.S. Navy has entered a new era. One naval strategist views the advent of “missile defense task forces” within the surface warfare community as being on a par with the dramatically successful transformation of the submarine force led by Admiral Arthur W. Radford in the 1950s to embrace the strategic deterrence mission. For this reason, maritime forces are poised to play a critical role in securing American interests from the growing threat of missile attack in a variety of regions around the globe. In Northeast Asia, the 2004 deployment of an Aegis cruiser equipped with the SM-3 (Standard Missile 3) for continuous patrol in the Sea of Japan heralded the dawn of this new chapter in naval warfare.

Northeast Asia represents a highly complex military and diplomatic environment for the United States. What impact will the U.S. Navy’s BMD initiative have on the volatile region? What will be the larger geopolitical consequences of U.S. BMD as its architecture continues to evolve? BMD’s significance for North Korea is frequently discussed and is relatively straightforward; it is, rather, China’s reaction to American BMD, including its naval component, that will have the most profound impact on global politics in the twenty-first century.

The question of whether U.S. BMD could or should address China-related contingencies was raised by a debate in 2002 between two respected China specialists, Heritage Foundation vice president Larry Wortzel and Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Adam Segal. Wortzel advocated constructing BMD with China in mind, arguing that “building a missile shield now will head off Chinese nuclear blackmail later.” Segal opposed building BMD specifically against China, arguing that “setting up an antimissile system aimed at the Chinese will leave the United States less secure.” Three years later, the debate is increasingly salient, and it remains unresolved. 

The United States has invested in BMD development sporadically since the 1950s, but with little consensus regarding its limitations or ultimate purpose. Questions of overall system effectiveness aside, the debate has centered on which nations would constitute the proper “targets” of such a system. While some of BMD’s strongest proponents contend that a robust multi-tier system is readily achievable and could ultimately protect the United States from all intercontinental missiles, many policy makers have been concerned about the costs and benefits—and even the feasibility—of defending against certain threats. Virtually all missile-defense supporters believe that it is possible to defend the United States against missiles launched from the territory of rogue states, but regarding China there is much less consensus.

This chapter addresses China’s likely countermeasures against U.S. BMD and their implications. The purpose is not to conduct a cost-benefit analysis on the merits of investing in BMD per se but rather to explore how current investments can be made to yield the greatest security dividends for the United States given present geopolitical realities. It begins by outlining the American BMD debate as it relates to China, reviewing the evolution of BMD and countermeasures, and considering the potential impact of ballistic missile defense on China’s nuclear strategy. There follows a detailed discussion of China’s potential BMD countermeasures and a comparison of American and Chinese missile-defense strategies. Finally, the chapter offers conclusions and policy recommendations—for the nation and the U.S. Navy. …