Urgent Steps Needed to Defuse Potential for U.S.-China Nuclear Face-Off
WASHINGTON (November 30, 2006) -- The U.S. military, intelligence agencies, and conservative think tanks and news organizations are exaggerating China's nuclear weapons capability to justify developing a new generation of nuclear and conventional weapons, according to a report issued today by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
Likewise, the report found that the Chinese have been citing U.S. weapons upgrades as a rationale for modernizing theirs, locking the two nations in a dangerous action-and-reaction competition reminiscent of the Cold War.
"The Pentagon has been sounding the alarm about China's nuclear intentions for a long time, but our analysis shows that they are overstating the threat," said Robert S. Norris, an NRDC nuclear analyst and co-author of the report. "Now that the Soviet Union is gone, the military needs a new threat to justify buying new missiles, destroyers, submarines and fighter planes. So they're hyping China."
Based on unclassified and declassified U.S. government documents as well as commercial satellite images of Chinese installations, the 250-page report, "Chinese Nuclear Forces and U.S. Nuclear War Planning," provides a detailed overview of China's nuclear forces and its plans to upgrade them. It also describes two nuclear strike scenarios that calculate the casualties that each side would suffer.
(For the report, go to docs.nrdc.org/nuclear/nuc_06113001a.pdf. For high-resolution Google Earth satellite images of dozens of nuclear weapons-related and other military sites in China, as well as the report's nuclear strike simulations, go to www.nrdc.org/media/docs/061130.kmz.)
The report's main finding is that the Pentagon and others routinely highlight specific incidents out of context that inaccurately portray a looming Chinese threat. Specifically, the report demonstrates they have been embellishing China's submarine and long-range missile capabilities.
For the last two years, the Pentagon's annual report on Chinese military developments cited the intrusion of a Chinese nuclear-powered attack submarine into Japanese territorial waters in 2004 as emblematic of how China's military is trying to expand its reach deep into the Pacific. What the DOD reports did not mention, the FAS/NRDC report reveals, is Chinese submarine patrols have dropped from a peak of six in 2000 to zero in 2005. Dramatic news coverage earlier this month of a Chinese submarine surfacing in the vicinity of the USS Kitty Hawk carrier group near Okinawa failed to mention that this was the first reported Chinese submarine patrol in nearly two years.
In addition, the report found that China's sole submarine capable of firing ballistic missiles, which was built in 1981, has never gone on an extended deterrent patrol with nuclear missiles. In fact, the submarine has never been fully operational.
Similarly, U.S. intelligence agencies warn that the Chinese will be able to target 75 to 100 nuclear warheads at the continental United States by 2015. But that prediction assumes China will be able to deploy 40 to 55 new DF-31A missiles before 2015, in addition to two other shorter-range missiles. Given that the Chinese have yet to conduct test flights of the DF-31A, the report concluded that that assumption is highly questionable.
The Pentagon also has made much out of the fact that China's next-generation missiles will be mobile. But the majority of China's ballistic missile force always has been mobile, the report points out, and the U.S. military has targeted it as a routine matter since the 1980s. In fact, improved U.S. targeting of Chinese missiles has played a significant role in prompting China to develop new long-range missiles, according to U.S. intelligence agencies.
The report concludes that the United States will be easily able to maintain its overwhelming nuclear superiority over the Chinese for decades. But the report also points out the China needs relatively few warheads to adequately deter the United States. A hypothetical Chinese attack with its 20 nuclear long-range ballistic missiles on 20 U.S. cities would result in as many as 40 million casualties, the report estimates, and blanket large portions of the United States and Canada with radioactive fallout. Likewise, the United States needs relatively few warheads to deter China. A limited and highly accurate U.S. nuclear attack on China's 20 long-range ballistic missile silos would result in as many as 11 million casualties and scatter radioactive fallout across three Chinese provinces, according to a simulation described in the report.
The report does confirm that China -- like all of the declared nuclear powers -- is indeed updating its forces. This effort, however, has been moving slowly and is, to a considerable extent, a reaction to U.S. nuclear deployments and military policies.
"Unlike the United States or Russia, the Chinese have taken extraordinarily long periods of time to field new weapons systems," said Hans Kristensen, project director at the Federation of American Scientists and lead author of the report. "And in many cases, their weapons have been obsolete by the time they were finally deployed. But the Chinese still need to be more open about their plans, or they will continue to feed the perception among U.S. military officials that they pose a significant threat."
The challenge facing China and the United States, said Kristensen and Norris, is to halt their action-reaction dance that only can undermine the more important economic relationship that binds them together.
In light of the recent North Korean nuclear test, concern that Japan might decide to build its own nuclear force, and the potential for a nuclear arms race in Asia, their report urges the United States and China to work more closely together to limit each other's capabilities and better understand each other's objectives to avoid military competition -- or worse.