China’s Worrisome Edge Toward a ‘Launch-on-Warning’ Nuclear Posture

"[China] accepted a 'striking' degree of vulnerability to superpower coercion while forswearing first use of nuclear arms"

The Pentagon’s latest annual report on Chinese military power serves a reminder that the world has embarked on a second nuclear age, following the first one that began at Hiroshima and Nagasaki 75 years ago. The good news is that arms-control accords slashed the number of weapons built for the Cold War. The bad news is that the nuclear club now includes far more countries than before. New members come in many shapes and sizes, with varying economic and military potential. Some border one or more potential antagonists. Some newcomers are building up their inventories while old-timers from the first nuclear age cut back or hold them steady.

In other words, the new order features less destructive power but more complexity and instability than during the Cold War, when more or less symmetrical alliances faced off for 40 years.

There is no guarantee atomic deterrence will hold in this brave new world.

That’s why the China report makes for troubling reading. The report’s authors forecast that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will at least double its stockpile of nuclear arms over the coming decade. That means China’s doomsday arsenal will expand from 200 warheads or thereabouts to 400 or more. The PLA is diversifying its inventory, for instance by putting to sea its first working class of nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs). These “boomers,” as they’re known colloquially in the U.S. Navy, constitute an invulnerable second-strike capability. That is, they can vanish into the depths and strike back at a foe with nuclear-tipped missiles even if China suffers a disarming first strike against its ground-based forces.

The ability to reply with a devastating counterstrike is the gold standard for nuclear deterrence, which is why U.S. Navy grandees sound so adamant about replacing the navy’s fleet of Ohio-class boats in the coming years. Constructed to wage the Cold War, the Ohios are swiftly aging out of their service lives. Without the dozen new SSBNs of the Columbia class, for which shipbuilders first cut steel last year, the United States would lose its own second-strike capability. These are hulls the navy cannot do without.

The raw numbers from the China report aren’t that worrisome in themselves. Even if the PLA does double the warhead count, it will still field only a fraction of what the U.S. and Russian inventories hold. The New START arms-control treaty limits Washington and Moscow to 1,550 deployed warheads apiece, carried aboard 700 deployed missiles and bombers. What is worrisome is the report’s conjecture that Beijing is edging away from its longstanding “no-first-use” policy toward a “launch-on-warning” posture. That’s what former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), a longtime arms-control stalwart, calls a “hair-trigger” approach to releasing nuclear weapons.

That would be a dramatic departure. China’s leadership long contended itself with a “minimal deterrent” force composed of a few land-based ballistic missiles.

It accepted a “striking” degree of vulnerability to superpower coercion while forswearing first use of nuclear arms.

By contrast, a contender that embraces a launch-on-warning policy reserves the right to cut loose with nuclear counterstrikes before an incoming raid hits home. It refuses to take the first punch before retaliating.

A launch-on-warning posture raises a host of problems. It compresses the time available to frame and deliver a response. The potential for error is immense. Early-warning radars may give false indications of a strike. People may misinterpret the data under extreme stress. Worse, data are oftentimes ambiguous. Weapons are black boxes to outside observers. It’s hard to tell from a blip on a radar scope whether a ballistic or cruise missile is tipped with a conventional or nuclear warhead. Furthermore, defense manufacturers have made a habit of designing weapons to carry either type of munition. Ambiguity only compounds the retaliatory dilemma. Small wonder launch-on-warning proved controversial among U.S. defense officials in the 1970s and 1980s, when they were debating the proper stance for releasing ground-based Minuteman ballistic missiles.

Needless to say, the repercussions could be dire when two nuclear-armed adversaries that possess hard-to-decipher weapons and put themselves on hair-trigger alert square-off.

Strictly speaking, China isn’t a new entrant to the nuclear club. It exploded its first atomic device in 1964 and is one of five nuclear-weapon states officially acknowledged in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968. But China’s nuclear strategy is undergoing a metamorphosis not unlike that of a nuclear newcomer. If the Pentagon has it right, the PLA is multiplying its arsenal by twentyfold or more, constructing a “triad” of sea-based, land-based and air-delivered armaments, and radically modifying its alert stance. Studying its evolution hints at the quandaries endemic to the second nuclear age.

What should U.S. leaders do about China’s shift of stance? Well, there’s only so much they can do. Keeping the U.S. deterrent strong is an obvious step. Navy leaders are not wrong to stress the importance of building Columbia-class SSBNs. A measure of empathy with Beijing also would be helpful. For example, eliminating ambiguity from U.S. weapons would ease the stress on Chinese decision-makers in times of crisis, bolstering the likelihood of sound strategic choices. That might mean designating each type of missile solely for nuclear or solely for conventional payloads and conveying that to PLA commanders.

And lastly, regular consultation is a must. Beijing may be hostile, but it is not  irrational. It accepts the logic of mutual assured destruction — the cornerstone of deterrence. Because Xi Jinping & Co. are rational, they may prove receptive to relaxing the PLA’s alert posture if persuaded that Washington and Moscow will do likewise.

And relaxation would be an improvement.

Source: The Hill

  1. Rowdy-Yates says

    It reminds me of the Opium trade led by David Sassoon an Iraqi Jew living in Bombay and ending up working for England. During the Opium trade David Sassoon and his sons controlled 70% and the Chinese Jewish families of Kaifeng, like the Hardoon, Kardoorie, Arnold, Abraham, Ezra, Solomon controlled 30%. The trade caused 2 famines in Bengal killing close to 12 million (?) and millions in China. It made enough money from the 1830’s to the 1900 to pay for all the wars England fought. that trade led to the Opium wars which the Qing Dynasty lost but England got Hong kong. They had a very strong role in China. 8 European powers (including Russia) set up commercial centers up the Pearl River. South Asia became a colonial holding with the banks of London financing it. They controlled the Colonial empires.

    btw the “Boxer” rebellion was named because the first Chinese rebels used methods of Kung Fu which uses boxing as a way of fighting so the British called them boxers. It was actually “the kung Fu Rebellion”. They called their movement “the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists”. that term of ” the Righteous” is based on the Buddhist Dharma of Righteous thought and actions

  2. Citizen Avatar says

    The US is positioned to engage and decisively dominate a five front war to decapitate all opposing forces in under 48 hrs. No other strategy would suffice since the opponents in each hotspot will jump in to leverage and maximize their chances amidst chaos. A five front war can never be sustainable so after the dust settles, regional ally’s will have their day.

    1. itchyvet says

      And what fallout would result from such a scenario you paint ??? Regional allies will have their work cut out dealing with the fallout before they can even think of having their day. Clearly, some folks think nuclear war is like setting off fire crackers.

  3. Rowdy-Yates says

    If the Judeo elite wanted China to develop into a global power they would do what they did to the European colonial Empires which they financed. The British Empire, its banking system and the role of the pound was shifted to America by the end of world war 2 (I am thinking Bretton wood meeting and Roosevelt making private holdings of gold illegal back in 1933)

    Following that logic both the US and China have one thing in common and that is a society where uniformity is encouraged mainly for the workforce. Rockefeller said that he did not want a nation of thinkers but a nation of workers and American social engineering created a society that is about the same coast to coast with chain stores. Religion has been removed with atheism & secularism. The standardization of America made its population similar to the uniformity of the Chinese workforce. The Judeo elite were central in the Chinese Communist Revolution. the dumbing down of America worked well for the non literate to simply accept the shutdown

    So decades later and a mounting debt now approaching 30 trillion with household debt so high the Judeo elite have plundered this nation, and exported its technology, corporations and finances from America to China. The same pattern they did from Europe to America.

    China is the next global power and tech center. America like some cheap hooker is used and disposed. It is the T a l m u d i c way. A g o y u m is a g o y u m be he Chinese or American. The defense is China and its financial capitals of Singapore, Hong kong and Shanghai while New York is emptied and left to dry. but the media narrative is that China is the enemy against America

    They wage war on both sides…

    In this war India and its many faiths is an abomination to the Judeo elite. Already Modi’s shutdown has devastated its economy sending millions into starvation. Those nukes are more lethal against China’s adversarial neighbors than to nations where the judeo elite live. But the dark side of that judeo faith is that it believes in sacrifice. Be it the son of Abraham of the children of Jacob sacrifice atones and forgives the wrongs needed for a greater future. The sacrifice elevated them after ww2 and elevated their faith over the sacrifice of Christ on mount Calvary. They will sacrifice many of their own in a nuclear holocaust to pave the way for greater glory

    From the beginning they were Tribal and remain so. Since arriving in Europe their vow was to never settle down and claim a land leaving the option of wealth by usury and plunder. The war against Rome and then the Church was a 2 thousand year war on established religions

  4. Paul says

    Hopefully Pompeo will wind his neck in somewhat, over attacking Iran with unlawful sanction based aggression at sea etc.

  5. thomas malthaus says
  6. Mary E says

    China knows the US -inside and out- when it comes to war and all its accoutrements…like missiles and subs…and it won’t sit there waiting for Washington’s fanatical hawks to make the first move that will hamstring China…
    nope, they are ready…and ready they should be. Trusting the US would be a huge
    mistake – HUGE Miscalculation…. The Chinese haven’t and never will be the losers..

    1. David Bedford says

      Let’s hope not because it would have dire consequences for the world economy.

  7. Kevin Rangi says

    No need for ambiguity about any missile heading towards China. If it’s incoming it doesn’t matter if it’s nuclear or not, it’s an act of war and needs responding to.

  8. Jihadi Colin says

    “The ability to reply with a devastating counterstrike is the gold standard for nuclear deterrence.”

    And China is doing this, therefore achieving nuclear deterrence, which is the ability to prevent an adversary from attacking it.

    So the problem is…….?

    1. David Bedford says

      The US wants to be able to dominate China and drop nuclear weapons on that like they did to Japan.

      1. Jihadi Colin says

        MacArthur tried that in 1951 and even Truman, the Butcher of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was so alarmed he sacked him. It’s a bit late to plan on nuking China when even North Korea’s handful of weapons is apparently a credible enough deterrent.

  9. James Willy says

    Wondering if they will have the guts to bother firing at these gringos. What a useless joke the PLA is. All mouth, no action. They won’t do anything. The track record speaks for itself. These gringos should have been engaged long ago. After every provacation they should be but Xi is just a useless cuk.

    1. brian niziol says

      I have to wonder if that is what your disgraced general MacArthur said while his troops were abandoning their guns and fleeing for their lives when China send a small detachment to attack his army. James the last time you fought China you got your butts handed to you. Vietminh outnumbered and outgunned destroyed your army and you now have a long wall of dead peoples names carved into it to prove your so called military prowess. Come back when you win one James then you can talk smack.

    2. Canosin says


  10. Raptar Driver says

    Why is it “worriesome”? Are they not just keeping up with the Joneses?


    according to visions by Gruver and others
    China will nuke the west coast from subs

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