China is in the midst of a rapid expansion of its strategic and nuclear weapons systems, and its progress has alarmed U.S. national security officials.
The buildup, described by U.S. officials and analysts, is shrouded in secrecy against a backdrop of worsening U.S.-China relations marked by little communication between Beijing and Washington — the perfect recipe for a destabilizing arms race, analysts say.
The August test was confirmed by four individuals familiar with the matter, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence.
China’s demonstration of hypersonic and orbital capabilities, first reported by the Financial Times, was shocking less for the technology, which its military has been developing for years, than for the fact that Beijing decided to test it at all, analysts say.
These technologies enable states to deliver weapons, potentially with a nuclear warhead, against a target in a way that is difficult to track — unlike intercontinental ballistic missiles.
“It’s amazingly provocative,” Mark J. Lewis, a former deputy undersecretary of defense for research and engineering who left in January, said while commenting on media reports of the test, which sources said involved launching a hypersonic vehicle into orbit before it descended into the atmosphere toward its target.
The question, analysts said, is what is China trying to accomplish with the test and its larger nuclear buildup?
“This was a political decision to do this test now,” said Rebeccah Heinrichs, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who serves on the advisory group to U.S. Strategic Command. “This is clearly the Chinese government flexing its muscles. How is the U.S. government going to respond?”
Some, like Heinrichs, say the Biden administration needs “to make really big changes that show we’re serious about deterring Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific.”
Former presidential envoy for arms control Marshall Billingslea said the United States must not only continue to modernize its nuclear deterrent but also pursue “critical new capabilities” such as a nuclear sea-launched cruise missile as well as nonnuclear medium-range ballistic systems.
But others, such as Jeffrey G. Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif., said: “The correct answer is, ‘Do nothing,’ ” he said. “We don’t have to participate in an arms race.”
Beijing on Oct. 18 disputed the report of a hypersonic test, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian saying the test involved a “regular spacecraft,” some parts of which “got detached before reentering the earth’s atmosphere, and burnt up over the east China Sea.” He said the test was for “peaceful uses of outer space.”
Zhao Tong, a Beijing-based senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said China’s lack of transparency about its program means such tests risk being read in Washington as a fundamental shift toward an offensive nuclear posture. “China never declares where it is going to stop,” Zhao said. “It appears to the United States as an open-ended nuclear buildup.”
Zhao added that he believes Beijing is convinced that the United States is bent on containing China’s rise. “China perceives much more strategic hostility from the U.S., which increases the perception that the U.S. will more easily escalate conflict to a nuclear level,” he said.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, like spokespeople at the White House and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, declined to confirm the hypersonic test. But, Kirby said, “we have made clear our concerns about the military capabilities China continues to pursue, capabilities that only increase tensions in the region and beyond.”
The U.S. intelligence community in its annual threat assessment this year stated that Beijing will continue “the most rapid expansion and platform diversification of its nuclear arsenal in its history.” China intends to at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile during the next decade and to field a “nuclear triad,” referring to air-, sea- and land-based weapons systems, ODNI said.
“Beijing is not interested in arms control agreements that restrict its modernization plans and will not agree to substantive negotiations that lock in U.S. or Russian nuclear advantages,” ODNI said. “China is building a larger and increasingly capable nuclear missile force that is more survivable, more diverse, and on higher alert than in the past,” including systems designed to ensure an intercontinental second-strike capability.
The head of U.S. Strategic Command, which is responsible for the military’s nuclear weapons mission, declined to confirm the Financial Times report. But Adm. Charles Richard told Stars and Stripes that the “breathtaking expansion of strategic and nuclear capabilities” means that “China can now execute any possible nuclear employment strategy.”
Richards has referred to China’s military advances as a “strategic breakout.”
Although China is unlikely to reach nuclear parity with the United States and Russia in the foreseeable future, the buildup of silos is significant by Chinese standards, as well as in international historical context, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists said in a report in September.
“The number of apparent missile silos under construction is similar to the total number of nuclear warheads in the current Chinese stockpile; it exceeds the number of missile silos operated by Russia; it is approaching the number of silos operated by the United States; and it constitutes the largest silo construction since the United States and Russia established their ICBM forces during the Cold War,” the report said.
China has also tested a new submarine-launched ballistic missile for a quieter class of nuclear submarines it is planning to build. It is developing a strategic stealth bomber, antisatellite weapons, and lasers that can blind U.S. reconnaissance satellites, according to Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
China’s strategic weapons buildup has occurred in the midst of a broader investment in military modernization that dates to the beginning of the 21st century, and has accelerated in the last decade or so, according to Tai Ming Cheung, director of the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, housed at UC-San Diego.
By 2035, China wants to reach near parity with the U.S. military, he said. In the most recent five-year plan, Beijing has said it wants to speed up select parts of the modernization program for completion by 2027. By 2049, the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, “they want to challenge the United States for global leadership,” he said.
In some areas, parity has already been reached.
“The scary thing is not only how quickly the Chinese have been able to catch up with us” in hypersonics, “but also in some cases to exceed our capabilities,” said Lewis, the former Pentagon official, who is now executive director of the emerging technologies institute at the National Defense Industrial Association.
He said it was his fear that the United States was falling behind in hypersonics that led him to return to the Pentagon in 2019. That was the year that the Chinese in a military parade showed off a hypersonic boost vehicle attached to a missile. The United States has yet to field such a weapon, he said, adding that the Army hopes to deploy its first system in 2023.
The Washington Post in April reported that China was using sophisticated American software to design semiconductors for supercomputers that enable hypersonic weapons advances. The Biden administration applied export controls to a Chinese firm that designs those chips, Phytium. But a Taiwanese company reported this year that it was still able to use American software to help Phytium make the chips in a Taiwanese foundry full of American equipment — apparently taking advantage of loopholes in the export control rules.
The big takeaway, said M. Taylor Fravel, director of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is U.S.-China dialogue about strategic stability “is incredibly urgent.” Developments are accelerating rapidly, he said, and “there just isn’t much communication about them between the U.S. and China.”
Christian Shepherd, Lily Kuo and Pei lin Wu in Taipei and Paul Sonne and Alex Horton in Washington contributed to this report.