Share | Contact Us | NPEC Email Alerts |
Articles Working Papers & Monographs Interviews Official Docs & Letters Op-Eds & Blogs Press Releases Presentations Audio & Video Testimony & Transcripts Translations


Follow @NuclearPolicy to be the first in on NPEC's latest research

More of NPEC’s Work
A chronological listing by resource:

Articles | Working Papers & Monographs | Interviews | Official Docs & Letters | Op-Eds & Blogs | Press Releases | Presentations | Audio & Video | Testimony & Transcripts | Translations
Towards More Competitive, Long-term Arms Control

Monday, the Trump Administration’s s special envoy for arms control announced he will be meeting this month with his Russian counterpart to discuss whether and how to extend the New START agreement. One reported option is to agree to extend New START (if Russia agrees to include additional weaponry), renew it annually, and draw the United Kingdom and France into future talks to engage Beijing.  

By any measure, this is an ambitious agenda. In fact, most significant peace and arms control treaties take roughly a decade to negotiate and last no more than 20 years.  With this in mind, NPEC held a workshop this week on how missile-driven competitions with Russia and China might unfold over the next two decades and how this should inform Washington's long-term arms control efforts. Attached are three memos the workshop used to discuss these matters. 

The first, by John Maurer of the American Enterprise Institute (soon to assume a professorship at the Air War University), is a long-term prospectus on competitive arms control. Sound agreements, he argues, “require asymmetry in the capabilities to be limited” and that “large, obvious asymmetries” make talks “all but impossible."   John spotlights where China, Russia, and the US stand relative to one another. He believes Washington needs to decide if it wants to promote nonproliferation to keep the number of states negotiating small enough for future arms talks to succeed.  

The second brief by David Cooper of the Naval War College is drawn from his forthcoming book on the future of arms control.  His message — “we need to arms race towards arms control” — borrows from the dual—track strategy that generated the INF Treaty. David offers several arms control proposals for the mid- to long-term. These include banning intermediate-range missiles in Europe, imposing ceilings on long-range and nuclear-armed hypersonics, and capping multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) and nuclear weapons generally.

The last brief is mine.  Besides laying out how the offense-defense competitions might unfold with China and Russia, it offers four arms control initiatives that could be discussed now. None — deterring NPT withdrawals, calling for a Pacific peaceful plutonium production pause, prohibiting the nuclear targeting of cities, and capping long-range hypersonics — depend on establishing a symmetry of numbers.  Some could usefully be raised with Russia and with China, France, and the UK.

It is unclear if any of these ideas will gain traction. But if we are serious about deterring wars and developing effective competitive diplomacy, they are a good place to start. 


Jun 10, 2020



Future Long-Term Scenarios for U.S.-China Missile Controls

By John D. Maurer

April 28, 2020


Arms Control in an Era of Intense Great Power Competition

In an era marked by a return to intense great power competition, future arms control negotiations are unlikely to achieve positive-sum improvements in mutual security. Rather, great powers will seek zero-sum security gains by using arms control negotiations to dismantle threatening adversary capabilities, while preserving areas of perceived military advantage. Genuine negotiations will occur only when both sides feel sufficiently threatened to come to the table and trade off potential military advantages in search of marginal security gains. Successful negotiations will require balancing the differing time horizons of the participants and their differing predictions of when emerging technologies will allow opportunities for deals in which each side walks away believing it “won.” Arms control will serve as non-violent warfare to gain strategic advantage.

Determined great power competitors will not sign agreements that put them at an obvious military disadvantage, even if an arrangement could be justified on the basis of “common security.” No great power will sign an agreement ratifying a major disadvantageous asymmetry of forces. Creative agreement on competitive arms control arrangements will instead require a symmetry in the capabilities to be limited. Large, obvious asymmetries in capability will make talks all but impossible, since rival great powers will prefer to leave unconstrained those areas in which they believe themselves at a disadvantage in the hope of eventually catching up in the competition. In addition, negotiators will struggle to limit capabilities that fulfill very different missions and have very different values for the parties involved.


Scenarios for Future U.S.-China Arms Control

The largest short-term challenge for any U.S.-China arms control dialogue is the radical asymmetries that characterize the U.S.-China military balance. The question of when a meaningful arms control dialogue might occur, and what form it might take, can thus be fairly readily subsumed into the question of when (if ever) the two countries will construct more symmetrical forces. Consider the following six scenarios.

Strategic nuclear forces. The United States currently enjoys a significant numerical and qualitative superiority over China in strategic nuclear forces. Under such conditions, there is virtually no chance that the Chinese will agree to participate in any strategic arms control dialogue with the United States. Any agreement emerging from such a dialogue would only serve to ratify the United States’ overwhelming superiority. Over the longer term, however, shifts in the strategic nuclear balance might change this calculus. China has embarked in recent years on a sizeable increase in its strategic nuclear capabilities, aimed at building a genuine nuclear triad whose ultimate size is difficult to predict. On the other hand, the future of American nuclear modernization remains uncertain. If current modernization programs slip away, it is entirely feasible that the size of the American nuclear arsenal might contract over the next 10-15 years. At that time, China and the United States might find themselves in a position to have a serious dialogue on limiting strategic nuclear arms. The United States would use such negotiations to prevent China from overtaking it in number of weapons. Meanwhile, China would use the negotiations to ratify nuclear parity or perhaps even some margin of superiority. This scenario reflects the experience of the Cold War arms control competition. Absent a major Chinese buildup and an American drift downwards, however, it is difficult imagine meaningful strategic nuclear dialogue between the two countries.

Theater nuclear forces. The Chinese currently enjoy a significant numerical and qualitative superiority over the United States in intermediate-range missile forces. Here, too, short-term negotiation is unlikely. Since the United States does not possess theater nuclear missiles, it is unlikely to sign a treaty ratifying Chinese superiority in this class of weapons. Even over the longer term, meaningful U.S.-China dialogue is unlikely. The absolute minimum prerequisite for such talks would be a sizeable reintroduction of American theater nuclear forces into Asia, a move which does not seem politically viable. Again, this scenario reflects the experience of the Cold War, when the United States found it political difficult to acquire and deploy theater nuclear systems in Europe. In addition, China sees its “theater” nuclear forces as fulfilling the strategic mission of deterring regional competitors like Russia and India. The best-case scenario over the next 10-15 years might involve the United States brokering a multilateral dialogue between China and its neighbors over theater-range nuclear missiles. Such a multilateral undertaking would face significant challenges in concluding an actual agreement.

Theater conventional missiles. The Chinese enjoy significant superiority over the United States in this category of weaponry since China was unconstrained by the INF Treaty for the past 30 years of development. American theater-range conventional capabilities on bombers and warships are increasingly vulnerable to attacks by Chinese ground-based weapons, a major component of China’s anti-access strategy. With the demise of the INF Treaty, however, some arms control progress between the United States and China might occur over the short- to mid-term. This outcome is only likely to occur if the United States and its allies actually develop and deploy a convincing and threatening land-based intermediate-range conventional capability. China’s growing conventional power-projection capability will be threatened by American and allied theater-range forces deployed on its maritime periphery. Chinese leaders might then be willing to discuss the limitation or even abolition of theater conventional missiles. To obtain this outcome, the United States will face a major policy choice in the near-term: whether to proliferate theater-range conventional missiles to allies, or insist that such missiles be deployed only under American auspices on allied territory. Proliferating missiles to allies will entail fewer alliance political problems in the shorter term, allowing a larger allied missile force to be deployed more quickly in China’s vicinity. If the longer-term objective is an arms control deal on intermediate-range weapons, however, American control would dramatically simplify the ultimate deal with China because fewer countries would sit at the negotiating table.

Intercontinental conventional missiles. There is relatively little asymmetry between the two countries, in intercontinental conventional missiles since neither has such weapons in its inventory today. (The United States does possess a force of long-range manned bombers.) The current symmetry in capabilities might actually make this a viable topic for discussion with the Chinese in the near term. This area for negotiation might be especially attractive if both the United States and China decide to double down on the acquisition of theater-range conventional forces. In that case, there might be little appetite on either side for longer-range conventional missiles, which would require tradeoffs in investment from the theater-range buildup, as well as strategic nuclear modernization. An approach to limit a non-existent weapon system that neither side sees as militarily decisive might be a useful short-term measure to begin an arms control dialogue with China, even if the competition continues in other missile capabilities.

Missile Defense and Space. Given outer space’s importance for enabling long-range missile attacks, both the United States and China will have strong incentives to develop rules limiting disruption of space-based assets. On the other hand, establishing rules for outer space will be complicated by the race for better missile defenses, since any missile defense system capable of intercepting an ICBM also provides at least some anti-space capability. The two objectives – establish a space sanctuary and build missile defenses – thus exist in tension with each other. Unless the United States is willing to reverse decades of missile defense policy and dismantle its defenses, achieving effective control over space weapons will be difficult in the short term. Although the United States might make unilateral changes in its missile defense program, formal arms control is unlikely, because the American missile defense program is much larger than its Chinese counterpart. Over the longer term, the Chinese are more likely to pursue missile defenses along the Russian model, through incremental improvements to their air defense systems, rather than by inventing new missile defenses out of whole cloth like the United States. As Chinese missile defenses mature, this could create opportunities for negotiation over limiting missile defenses, which might in turn create possibilities for limiting space weapons. Even then, though, the different purposes and capabilities of American and Chinese missile defenses would make negotiations difficult. The United States would no doubt want to retain some strategic missile defense capability against third parties like North Korea and Iran, and would also likely link reductions of theater missile defenses to parallel reductions in theater offensive missiles. Similarly, China would likely balk at limiting its dual-use air and missile defense systems, out of a desire to retain defenses against aerial attack. All of this bodes ill for significant limitations on space weaponry, even over the longer term. While a non-enforceable “rules of conduct” agreement on space might be possible even in the short term, it will do little to prevent the United States and China from deploying ever-more-sophisticated missile defenses and space weapons.

Exotic strike technologies. The United States should continue to assess whether new exotic technologies for offensive strikes work to its strategic benefit or not. Given the difficulties of even defining such weapons, realistic limitation is unlikely in the short term. Still, dialogue with the Chinese over some form of limitation might be worthwhile as an exercise in defining the problem. Much of this competition will be determined by the relative ability of the United States and China to exploit developments in artificial intelligence and advanced robotics to acquire new types of high-persistence, swarming weapons that would overturn the current cost-benefit ratio of weapon range versus weapon volume. While the R&D balance between the two countries remains contentious, it is worth considering the practical benefits the United States enjoys given its decades-long experience actually operating long-range, high-persistence robotic attack aircraft across Eurasia and Africa. Even as military operations in the Middle East and Africa are drawn down to refocus on great power competition with China, the United States should take steps to ensure that it does not lose this valuable body of expertise in drone warfare.




By David A. Cooper*

May 27, 2020




The Future is Multipolar

We are in the nascent stages of a multipolar nuclear arms race that is being fueled by the wider systemic transition to a competitive multipolar international order. This emerging nuclear landscape puts the United States and the world in uncharted waters in the nuclear age. The core geostrategic dynamic is the tripolar US-Russia-China rivalry—with each corner of this triangle in a competitive nuclear dyad with both of the others. However, the secondary nuclear powers are part of the equation with Britain and France adding to the total nuclear forces arrayed against Russia and India adding to the total nuclear forces arrayed against China. Any future controls must encompass at least the trilateral core (and will probably need to expand to plurilateral arrangements if only because Russia and China understandably will insist on this). The challenges of plurilateral nuclear arms control are daunting and unprecedented. It is unlikely to be achieved any time soon. Those who argue that the Trump administration’s current trilateral initiative is a cynical ploy conceived by former National Security Advisor John Bolton as a feint to avoid blame for killing New START may or may not be correct. But none of this changes the fact that New START—regardless of whether it is briefly extended for a few years—will and must be the last bilateral treaty to control US and Russian nuclear forces in the face of China’s emergence as America’s primary geostrategic competitor. A trilateral approach therefore needs to become a shared bipartisan principle consistent with the spirit of former President Barack Obama’s 2009 Prague vision that, “We will negotiate a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the Russians this year….And this will set the stage…to include all nuclear weapons states in this endeavor.”

This is a Technology Race

This is shaping up to be a technological rather than a numerical arms race. The loci of nuclear competition are emerging strategic nuclear delivery systems and defenses against them. Putting aside thehype about novel Russian strategic delivery systems—including a nuclear-powered and armed cruise missile and “typhoon doomsday torpedo” and an air-launched ICBM—the burgeoning revolution in maneuverable hypersonic vehicles (MHVs) threatens to completely upend existing strategic balances across the multipolar board. MHVs promise to tilt strategic force postures as decisively toward counterforce as the advent of the MIRVed ICBMs once did. The structural action-reaction dynamics of this will be irresistible without controls, because MHVs will eclipse traditional ballistic and cruise missiles and require a space-based architecture to defend against. Although the United States does not currently plan to use MHVs as strategic nuclear delivery systems, Russia does, and China may. Moreover, Russia believes that these systems can threaten the survivability of its strategic nuclear forces even without nuclear armaments. Moscow is particularly worried that these systems may threaten mobile ICMBs, the mainstay of its strategic deterrent force.

Party Like Its 1959

Nuclear multipolarity may be unprecedented, but there are distinctive echoes today of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Then, the United States was grappling with the Soviet Union’s emergence as a true nuclear peer rival, just as today we are grappling with the emergence of China and resurgence of Russia. Then, nuclear competition was comparatively unfettered by normative guardrails, just as we now are facing again with the demise of INF and likely expiry of New START. Then, game-changing new offensive counterforce capabilities were looming with the advent of ICBMs and MIRVs, just as today we face a similar counterforce surge from hypersonic missiles. Then, these new counterforce systems were driving the quest for new defenses against them, just as now hypersonic missiles are reorienting missile defense to consideration of space-based platforms. Then, our primary geostrategic competitor (the Soviet Union) was adamantly unwilling to countenance any intrusive verification measures, just as now China refuses to provide even minimal transparency about its nuclear capabilities. Then, hawks thinking in terms of military security principles were arguing for nuclear superiority and doves thinking in terms of moral principles were arguing for nuclear abolition with little common ground between them, just as now calls for offensive and defensive dominance are again in vogue on one side, and a dangerously unserious Nuclear Ban Treaty is gaining momentum on the other…squeezing out plausible and pragmatic arms control. These parallels suggest the need to reinvent the type of pragmatic and adversarial approach to arms control that was conceived in the early 1960s. Like then, this will start with peripheral steps—things like nonproliferation cooperation, strategic posture dialogues, and risk reduction measures—that perhaps can lead to something more significant. Even if so, however, this is likely to resemble SALT-I more than INF or START.

Focus on Delivery Systems

Cold War arms control thought in terms of nuclear missiles and bombers and defined different categories of nuclear forces not only by weapons yield, but also by the range of delivery systems (strategic, intermediate, and short). By contrast the post-Cold War nonproliferation paradigm tends to treat nuclear weapons and their missile delivery systems as cognate but distinct issues. This legacy nonproliferation approach is increasingly unhelpful in the context of prospective controls on the return of great power nuclear competition. Put bluntly, the nonproliferation paradigm treats missiles as separate and secondary. While this approach arguably is misguided even for nonproliferation—and I have argued elsewhere in the context of the Iran nuclear deal that it is—it is unquestionably counterproductive for any prospective trilateral or plurilateral nuclear arms control process. In the first instance, because delivery systems and defenses against them are at the heart of the current technology race as noted above. But perhaps more importantly, as long as China remains allergic to intrusive verification, then delivery systems will be the only things there is any hope to control within acceptable bounds of verification risk. It is instructive to recall that SALT-I—lacking intrusive verification measures—mainly controlled only launchers (e.g., ICBM silos and SLBM launch tubes).

We Need to Arms Race Toward Arms Control

Arms control is only going to happen when Russia and China believe that the only alternative is a dangerous and expensive arms race that they stand to lose (or at least that they cannot realistically hope to win). The United States is arriving late to this party and so presently has scant leverage. We are behind Russia numerically in strategic deployments and far behind in total nuclear deployments (due to Moscow’s massive lead in nonstrategic systems). We are likewise far behind both Russia and China in fielding modernized delivery systems. Moreover, unless the United States successfully modernizes its entire nuclear force within the next 10-15 years, we could cease altogether to be a credible nuclear power. This lagging position is compounded by partisan political divisions that might encourage our rivals to take a wait and see approach to arms control. The Trump administration is promising to spend our rivals “into oblivion” if necessary to win this arms race, but these words will need to be matched by budgets over a sustained period to convince Beijing and Moscow that an uncontrolled nuclear arms race with the United States is a losing proposition. This means that before we can hope to convince our two main geostrategic rivals to get serious about nuclear arms control, we first need to develop and demonstrate a strong level of bipartisan support for a dual-track approach. This requires building moderate-dovish support for robust strategic nuclear modernization and the development and deployment of new short- and intermediate-range systems, in return for moderate-hawkish support for pursuing pragmatic arms control. Then we need to show that we can stick to it through one or more election cycles. Then and only then will we see what new nuclear guardrails may be possible.

Every Successful Arms Control Process Begins with Rejected Proposals

A common refrain today from certain quarters of the arms control community is that the Trump administration is not being serious about arms control because it is proposing things that it knows that China will not accept. Again, the Trump administration may be serious or cynical about arms control. However, this specific criterion of seriousness is woefully misguided. Every successful arms control negotiation starts with lopsided proposals that each side knows will be rejected. Hardnosed arms control is an adversarial political process. The art of the thing is to offer proposals that are sufficiently plausible to be taken seriously, if only to pressure rivals to do the same. China insists that it will not participate in any nuclear arms control in any form or under any circumstances. If that proves the case, then there are only two courses of action: 1) allow Beijing to enjoy its long run of arms control free-riding; or, 2) begin to impose costs by arms racing against them while at the same time offering plausible arms control alternatives. I would argue that the latter is the best option. It puts China on the political hook and forces Chinese strategic thinking to begin considering what a counterproposal might entail. Beginning with modest, plausible, and pragmatic proposals that enjoy bipartisan domestic support and that are difficult for either Beijing or Moscow to dismiss out of hand is the first step.




US-Russian Intermediate-Range Deployment Ban in Europe

The US could propose a deployment ban on intermediate-range ground-launched missiles from the Atlantic to the Urals. This would be a bilateral arrangement with trilateral implications by putting pressure on China to reconsider the advantages of a trilateral approach. It revives a compromise that was considered during the INF negotiations when an outright ban on these systems seemed out of reach. Now that the demise of the INF Treaty has once again put an outright ban out of reach, this old compromise could offer new advantages. In effect the US would refrain from deploying these systems in NATO countries in exchange for Russia agreeing not to deploy them West of the Ural Mountains (a natural boundary between the European and Asian parts of Russia that was used to define the geographic scope of the CFE Treaty). This would avert (or at least postpone) a US-Russian missile race in Europe by shifting Russian missiles and any potential US overseas deployments toward China. This would reassure NATO and alarm China, both good things in this context. To move quickly this could be proposed as a reciprocal political moratorium rather than as a formal arrangement (given that cheating would be readily detectable by national technical means). If Russia agrees, then this is a positive arms control step that also puts helpful pressure on China to negotiate trilaterally. If Russia refuses, then by having tried and failed, Washington will have demonstrated its desire for progress on arms control (and accordingly help convince the American public and/or NATO allies should this or a future administration deem that missile deployments to Europe are necessary).

Ceilings for Strategic-Range and/or Nuclear-Armed Hypersonics

The easiest controls to negotiate are sometimes prophylactic. However, it is probably already too late to negotiate an outright ban MHVs. In the first place the United States still lags behind China and Russia and therefore will have no negotiating leverage until catching up. By then these systems will be in full-scale production and deployment, making stuffing the genie back in the bottle as difficult as de-MIRVing was by the 1970s and 1980s. Secondly, these systems are being developed at tactical, intermediate, and strategic ranges with applications for every level of conventional warfighting. For example, the Pentagon now plans to deploy MHVs as power projection workhorses across the Services with land-, sea-, and air-launched variants. Additionally, it is not only other nuclear powers that are developing MHVs (including France and India), but also major non-nuclear powers like Japan. A ban is just not realistic. However, strategic-range and/or nuclear-armed MHVs pose unique threats to deterrence stability. Capping such systems at levels below what would be needed for an effective strategic first strike could promote multipolar strategic stability. This could be packaged as a stabilizing measure that would not specifically disadvantage any of the parties, especially in conjuncture with limits on space-based missile defenses (a potential US concession) and other novel strategic delivery systems (a potential Russian concession). This would be a longshot requiring the sacrifice of sacred cows all around—e.g., China on intrusive verification, the United States on limiting strategic missile defense, and Russia on limiting President Putin’s doomsday toys. But it is a modest and pragmatic enough idea that it could have a plausible chance. 

Caps on MIRVs

A more ambitious but complementary proposal that draws from the Cold War arms control experience would be to try to negotiate MIRV limits. This could involve an overall ceiling on deployed warhead numbers relative to strategic delivery systems. Alternatively, a more realistically and verifiable approach might be to cap the maximum number of reentry vehicles that can be deployed on individual ICBMs. This would need to capture traditional MIRVs and multiple HMVs. Russia is re-MIRVing and plans to deploy multiple HMVs on its new Sarmat/Satan-II road-mobile ICBM—which will be the heaviest and most highly MIRVed system in history and presumably capable of carrying more HMVs than any US or Chinese systems—and China and India are now MIRVing for the first time. The United States does not currently deploy MIRVed ICBMs, but it could gain significant leverage for this proposal from its capacity to do so rapidly by uploading stored warheads back onto deployed ICBMs. China might have an incentive because it is still at entry-level in MIRVing. However, this would require China to move significantly off its aversion to intrusive verification. All in all, it is unlikely to work but still worth putting out there to stir the arms control pot.

Comprehensive Nuclear Ceiling(s)

At the most ambitious stretch of plausibility would be something along the lines of where the Trump administration now seems to be heading with a comprehensive ceiling on all nuclear weapons. This could involve an overall ceiling on all deployed nuclear warheads and/or delivery systems, although delivery systems would be most plausible. This approach would allow all sides the freedom to determine their own force structure mix within an overall ceiling (e.g., strategic, intermediate, and nonstrategic). This ceiling could be set at a higher level equivalent to Russia (allowing the United States and China to build up), or at medium level at or below the United States (with Russia reducing and the United States freezing, while allowing China to build up), or at presumed Chinese levels (with China verifying and freezing and Russia and the United States reducing). A more practicable variation might be to set caps on different types of systems at the highest current level (e.g., Russian nonstrategic systems, Chinese intermediate-range missiles, US bombers and SLBMs). This variant would eschew any reductions by allowing each country to retain its current force advantages while allowing the others to build up. The common selling point of either of these variants is to allow for current and future asymmetries. As a bonus, China would be hard pressed to dismiss any proposal along these lines out of hand, since they would afford it parity within common trilateral ceilings. At the same time, this proposal would require China to accept a full-scope intrusive verification regime. It is therefore unlikely to work, but it could be a useful way to put pressure on China to explain why not.


* All views are solely those of the author and do not reflect positions of the US Naval War College or any other agency or organization.



Towards Mutually Discriminate Wars and More Competitive Diplomacy

By Henry Sokolski

June 10, 2020


Strategic Missile-driven Competitions

Phase I: 2020-2030

During the early years of the first phase (2020-2030) of military missile-driven competition with China, the US will be able to strike China’s homeland with many more long-range missiles than China could against the Continental US. Initially, all of these intercontinental-range missiles on both sides will be nuclear-armed. By 2030, more will be nonnuclear. From now through the mid 2020s, China, will have far more nonnuclear short and intermediate range missiles in East Asia than the US or its allies. By 2030, though, the United States and its East Asian allies are likely to have amassed some number of short and intermediate range nonnuclear missiles based in South Korea, Japan, US territories, Vietnam and perhaps in Taiwan and the Philippines. By mid-decade, both China and the United States will have advanced bombers capable of delivering larger numbers of nonnuclear missiles. At the end of this first phase, the US and its allies could seek to put China on the defensive by targeting assets essential to the Chinese Communist Party rule over provinces that would rather go their own way. Such targeting would likely encourage the CCP to invest much more in active and passive defenses on the mainland for a variety of targets that currently are undefended. Ideally, Chinese investments in active and passive defenses would come at the cost of China otherwise investing more in offensive strike systems. US and Chinese active defenses during this phase will continue to leak significantly but be able to generate enough uncertainty to force up the numbers of offensive missiles needed to assure destruction of any given target. The United States will continue to rely very heavily on space-based systems to meet its military command, communication, control, intelligence and surveillance requirements. China and Russia will not rely so heavily on their space-based systems to achieve their military goals. US space-based systems will be vulnerable to Russian and Chinese ground-based lasers and rendezvous satellite operations for most of this period.

Phase II: 2025-2035

China will likely make some investments in non-nuclear missiles that can target CONUS precisely with MaRVs and hypersonic technologies. China would also use intermediate and shorter range versions of such missiles to threaten America’s regional friends and allies. This, in turn, would increase US and allied interest in the development of enhanced passive and active defenses (e.g., ultra performance concrete protected structures, increased mobility missile launchers, proliferating possible aim points for Chinese missiles to have to target, low-vulnerability space-based command, control, communication and surveillance system, missile defense and ASAT lasers, etc.). A premium would be placed on the developing a variety of high fire rate, low costs per shot active defenses. Against such US and allied activities, Beijing might try to hedge its strategic bets further by developing a large “peaceful” nuclear fissile production base to be able threaten a relatively quick and massive nuclear arms ramp up any time after 2030. Indeed, China could build such an infrastructure simply keeping to its “civilian” nuclear plans for the 2020 to 2030 period.

Phase III: 2030-2040

Once the United States and China have both larger numbers of long and shorter range precise strike systems and much more robust active and passive missile and air defenses, the possibility of unlimited wars using missiles would be less attractive on both sides than it might seem today and so too would the early use of nuclear weapons. By 2035, United States would have much more resilient and survivable space-based systems to support its military. The precise targeting of stationary military targets still could be accomplished and mobile ones to some extent as would the targeting of perceived key political points needed to maintain control in China, the United States, Japan and South Korea. In the latter category, the United States might enjoy some advantage: Unlike China, the US and allied governments might still enjoy more popular support than China and so would be politically more resilient to such attacks. Also, China would still be far more urbanized than the United States, making it more difficult for China to target all of the political nodes in the United States that might matter.


Diplomatic Opportunities 

Given China’s regional military advantages and the nuclear superiority of the United States over the next decade, Washington and its East Asian allies would likely have difficulty persuading China to cut any arms control deals of the counting numbers sort previously cut with the Russians. With this in mind, diplomatic proposals initially should focus on new ideas that would be awkward for China to reject and that would not turn on relative numbers per se.

It might be possible and useful, for example, to consider negotiations to establish a prohibition against using nuclear weapons against cities. This could make sense militarily and politically even failing China’s willingness to agree. First, China is more urbanized (and so more vulnerable to attack) than the United States and yet is more likely than the United States to threaten targeting cities. Also, it would be to US and allied advantage to put Beijing on the spot not to target cities in Japan and South Korea (two countries that are even more urbanized and vulnerable than China). Finally, pushing such a diplomatic effort would alert China’s most irredentist provinces, that in any war, the US would spare them. To the extent that the Chinese Communist Party leadership would not want to risk losing these provinces in war, this message would indirectly strength America’s hand in deterring the Chinese them from launching major military operations that might prompt such counterstrikes.

A second, diplomatic initiative that might help Washington maintain alliance cohesion with Tokyo and Seoul and reduce the prospect of any massive Chinese nuclear ramp up would be to have the US, Japan and South Korea approach Beijing about establishing a moratorium on expanding “peaceful” uranium enrichment capacities or operating commercial spent fuel recycling. The logic of such an understanding (which could be cut as a political deal) would be to exchange Japanese, US, and ROK nuclear production restraint in exchange for Chinese nuclear production restraint. This should appeal to China as it is on record criticizing Japan for Tokyo’s reprocessing plans (which include opening a massive plant at Rokkasho in 2021 capable of making 1,500 bombs’ worth of nuclear explosive plutonium a year). Beijing also would prefer that South Korea not develop a nuclear weapons option either. Keeping both Japan and South Korea from developing such options is also in America’s interest to keep both allies working closer with Washington than they otherwise might.

Third and related, Washington might take the lead on proposing measures to deter any further NPT withdrawals. This would be timely given immediate concerns about Iran and other Middle Eastern nations (Turkey and Saudi Arabia) possibly leaving the NPT and similar mid-term concerns regarding South Korea and Japan and the rescheduling of the NPT Review Conference for 2021 or 2022.
The United States might work first with the UK and France (two P-5 members of the UNSC) on a country-natural UN resolution. Here, a good place to start would be the recommendations of Pierre Goldschmidt . Once Washington reached agreement with Paris and the UK (or even), it could bring this matter up with Russia in its arms control discussions (scheduled for this summer). The idea behind pushing these modest political understandings now would be
1. To have something to work on together for the NPT Review Conference, which may now be held as late as 2022),
2. To test the arms control sincerity of Russia (if they were unwilling to agree to the modest proposals Goldschmidt has offered, that would tell you how unlikely and difficult it would be getting Russia to agree to other more challenging arms control agreements.
3. If Russia agreed to work with the US, UK, France on a draft UN resolution designed to deter further NPT withdrawals and IAEA violations, it would give the US leverage to finally open some meaningful nonproliferation arms control talks with China and test their willingness to deal with the pressing local nuclear worries they have — Japan and South Korea

Fourth, the United States and is Asian and European allies could start now to promote limits on rendezvous satellite operations and ground based lasers to reduce potential surprise attacks against US and allied space-based assets that are critical to the conduct of long-range and short-range military operations. The United States and its key NATO and East Asian allies would all have an interest in backing a set of rules of the road that would help clarify acts of war in space and from the ground. This also would be in China’s interest as it becomes more dependent on space-based command, control, communication, surveillance and targeting systems. China may also wish to develop its civil and commercial space programs to offer services for export. If so, rejecting such rules might be awkward as they would logically be used not just for military satellite operations, but for commercial operations as an internationally accepted standard for commercial satellite insurance underwriting.

Finally, it might make sense to propose limiting the numbers of hypersonic long-range missiles on both sides. Such limitations might be difficult for China to push aside and could allow the US more time to develop such offensive systems (neither side is likely to deploy many of these systems by 2030) After 2030, with both sides so armed equally, the US might be in a better position to leverage greater missile limits than it would otherwise would be able to on the basis of by then having developed a larger and more advanced production base and possibly more advanced missile systems than the Chinese.

The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC), is a 501 (c)3 nonpartisan, nonprofit, educational organization
founded in 1994 to promote a better understanding of strategic weapons proliferation issues. NPEC educates policymakers, journalists,
and university professors about proliferation threats and possible new policies and measures to meet them.
1600 Wilson Blvd. | Suite 640 | Arlington, VA 22209 | phone: 571-970-3187 |