An accelerating arms race will determine the contest for strategic primacy between the United States and China. Perceptions of American weakness could tempt China to risk war. At stake is whether future generations benefit from a prevailing liberal democratic order or become enveloped by a spreading illiberal anti-democratic order organized, led, and armed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
One important aspect of the China-U.S. arms race is a growing competition in land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
On July 23, China released its latest Defense White Paper, which re-states long-standing policy rhetoric, “China does not engage in any nuclear arms race with any other country and keeps its nuclear capabilities at the minimum level required for national security.” However, People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) modernization trends point to the possibility that China could seek nuclear “parity” with the United States, or even superiority.
China is deploying one or two new liquid-fueled silo-based ICBMs, and two to three new solid-fueled and mobile ICBMs. It also may be building mobile solid-fueled space launch vehicles (SLVs) as a “reserve” ICBM production capability.
On Aug. 2, satellite imagery released for the Chinese Weibo web page showed that eighteen new DF-41 ICBMs had for the first time surfaced near Beijing as staging for the Oct. 1 70th Anniversary of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Appearance in this military parade serves as informal confirmation that the DF-41 has entered the arsenal of the PLARF. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is also developing a railroad-based version of the DF-41 which may be hidden underground.
This 80-ton ICBM is carried by a 16-wheel transporter-erector-launcher (TEL), making it capable of off-road launch missions. It has an estimated range of 14,000 kilometers and may be able to carry up to ten multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) nuclear warheads.
Also revealed in the Aug. 2 imagery were 18 of the new DF-31AG, the latest version of the DF-31 ICBM, first seen in 1999 during the 50th Anniversary PRC parade. It is also carried by a new off-road capable TEL, and Chinese sources suggest it may carry up to three warheads, a multiplier yet to be confirmed.
In January 2017, the PLA tested a 10-warhead version of the silo-based and liquid-fueled DF-5 ICBM which first flew in 1971. It is not known whether the DF-5C has entered service, but the three-warhead armed DF-5B is in PLARF service.
Rejecting Western notions of military transparency, the PLA has never revealed numbers for its missile forces, but in the 2019 issue of the Pentagon’s annual “China Military Power” report, the PLA is credited with having “90” ICBMs. If 18 ICBMs, as seen gathering for the upcoming parade, constitutes a “Brigade,” or the basic missile unit, then 90 ICBMs might indicate the PLARF has five ICBM Brigades.
However, an informed Chinese blogger who posts useful military information on the popular Meyet website, suggested on Aug. 11 that the PLARF was going to be increasing the size of a missile Brigade to 60 missiles. This at least raises the possibility that the PLARF may increase its land-based ICBMs to 300. Another 120 ICBMs might be added with one Brigade each of the DF-5C and rail-mobile DF-41.
There also is the issue of potential “reserve” ICBM production capacity, as China’s two main military missile companies are marketing four new mobile, solid-fueled space launch vehicles that could easily be converted into mobile ICBMs.
A force of 300 PLARF ICBMs could potentially field about 1,000 warheads. Adding a Brigade of DF-5C and rail-mobile DF-41 ICBMs could raise the total to over 2,000 warheads. This does not include additional warheads on JL-3 submarine-launched ballistic missiles expected to arm the new Type 096 ballistic missile submarine, nor cruise missiles that may be carried by an intercontinental range stealth bomber expected by 2025.
For its part, following the 2005 retirement of 50 silo-based LGM-118 Peacekeeper 96-ton ICBMs capable of carrying up to 11 warheads, the U.S. Air Force has relied on a force of LGM-30G Minuteman-III silo-based ICBMs. The force of 550 missiles with three warheads each, first deployed in the early 1970s, has been reduced to a force of 400 with one warhead, in order to comply with 2011 New Start Treaty with Russia. These missiles are spread over 450 fixed silos.
One of the U.S. Air Force’s most important modernization programs is to replace the Minuteman-III, sustained by repeated life-extension and upgrade programs, with a new ICBM called the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD). Research and development of this system must be funded in the next year, or it will not be ready to deploy by the end of the 2020s, when Minuteman-III becomes prohibitively expensive to maintain.
But the GBSD is opposed by some in Congress and in academia, who assert that the United States may still be able to deter its nuclear-armed enemies by moving from a “triad” nuclear delivery systems to a “dyad” of just submarine launched ballistic missiles and bombers.
However, eliminating ICBMs would only increase U.S. vulnerability to preemptive nuclear attacks. As nuclear ballistic missile submarines and bombers are concentrated in only a few bases, there would be a greater temptation for our enemies to launch a first strike. But taking out the larger number of ICBM silos cannot be assured, so the adversaries are more likely to be deterred.
Russia maintains a nuclear triad, and by the mid-2020s China will have a triad with potentially, a much larger number of ICBMs. The United States requires an effective triad with a new ICBM to deter Russia, China, and fast-arming nuclear rogues such as North Korea.
Rick Fisher is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.