• Jeffrey Lewis argues that, whatever China's motives are for deploying such weapons, "there is no arguing that China's nuclear force is small." Unless, of course, you happen to live in Taiwan, Vietnam, South Korea, Japan, Nepal, Tibet, the Philippines, Indonesia, or Malaysia -- all of which collectively have zero nuclear weapons.

  • Lewis also assures us China has no interest in a "large" number of missiles. He argues that China's nuclear posture has been driven "by an enthusiasm for reaching technological milestones" -- as if China is simply engaging in a high school science project.

In the nuclear deterrent business, U.S. commanders both civilian and military are paid to take things seriously.

Getting the nuclear deterrent business wrong would, after all, be bad for America, bad for civilization and bad for the world.

Recently, China tested a missile with multiple warheads. Up to that time, all of China's nuclear-armed missiles were assumed to have only single warheads. Many of those were liquid-fueled and required considerable time to load and launch.

It is true that China's increased economic and military clout is seen by conventional thinking largely as a "peaceful rise" -- a term taken directly from the Chinese communist party description of its overarching goal of "pursuing a peaceful rise."

Ahh, a "peaceful rise!" So what's the worry?

According to one arms control analyst, Jeffrey Lewis, China's recent missile test merely demonstrates Chinese prowess in developing missile technology -- not any danger to the United States or our allies.

According to Lewis, the Chinese have in fact not changed their strategy on nuclear weaponry. The test was simply the result of a "decision taken a long time ago," which Peking just now got around to implementing. Lewis is implying, of course, that the deployment of many new warheads in the Chinese nuclear arsenal is not a big deal.

Chinese road-mobile ballistic missiles.

"China," Lewis continues, "has a fairly small arsenal of nuclear-armed ballistic weapons," but with significant technological "drawbacks." A recent PBS television documentary approvingly cited a claim that China has only twenty warheads capable of reaching the USA. So what's the problem?

Lewis also reassures us that only some of the 18 Chinese "bad boy" multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV) missiles can reach "all" of the United States, and a second series of missiles -- the DF-31A -- probably cannot reach "much" of the United States. China's missiles, writes Lewis, can mostly "only" target Hawaii, Alaska and the West Coast.

Lewis also argues that in examining "What else would one do with all that space" on top of a rocket, the Chinese would not necessarily put a lot of warheads in it. He further explains that the Chinese will probably also deploy some warhead "decoys" in the same space to "defeat missile defenses." Oh, so it's our fault: we made the Chinese do it!

Lewis then chastises Americans for thinking there is something "morally compromised" about China placing multiple warheads on its ballistic missiles. After all, writes Lewis, the U.S. has multiple warheads on the D-5 missiles aboard its submarines, so why can the Chinese not do so as well?

Lewis's position is ironic. Throughout the Reagan defense build-up of America's nuclear deterrent, the "arms control community" roundly condemned the U.S. deployment of the multiple-warhead Peacekeeper land-based missile as highly destabilizing and even immoral.[1] But now that China is poised to deploy such multiple warheads on both its land- and sea-based nuclear forces, Lewis argues precisely the opposite -- that it is no cause for concern.

In addition, Lewis notes, whatever China's motives are for deploying such weapons, "there is no arguing that China's nuclear force is small." Unless, of course, you happen to live in Taiwan, Vietnam, South Korea, Japan, Nepal, Tibet, the Philippines, Indonesia, or Malaysia -- all of which have collectively zero nuclear weapons.

Lewis also assures us China has no interest in a "large" number of missiles. He argues that China's nuclear posture has been driven "by an enthusiasm for reaching technological milestones" -- as if China is simply engaging in a high school science project and not seeking nuclear weaponry as a means of achieving hegemonic ambitions.[2]

And just so we don't get the wrong idea, Lewis reminds us that it was America's nuclear deterrent "posture," and not China's, that inspired the movie "Dr. Strangelove."

Lewis also claims that with a multiple warhead missile, the Chinese can better survive a "sneak attack" because its missile force is small. However, according to Philip Karber, a retired senior Pentagon official, a number of top-level sources believe China has 3000 warheads, or 200% of America's deployed strategic arsenal.[3]

Finally, Lewis argues that while China might "stumble" unthinkingly into an arms race, America already chases "unthinking new missile defense and conventional strike capabilities."

Because China's is only a "peaceful rise," right?

Peter Huessy is president of GeoStrategic Analysis.


[1] MX Prescription for Disaster, by Herbert Scoville Jr. Illustrated. 231 pp. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press.

[2] "Strategic Implications of China's Great Underground Wall," Philip Karber, September 26, 2011. The Chinese nuclear arsenal probably is now, or soon will be, in the 400-800 warhead range; but all numbers are estimates by U.S. and other China experts, not numbers published by any official Chinese government or military sources. No such data is available. For further information, see Mark Schneider of NIPP, Dan Cheng of the Heritage Foundation, and Richard Fischer of the International Assessment and Strategy Center, all of whom are experts on the issue.

[3] Michael Pillsbury, The Hundred-Year Marathon: China's Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower, Henry Holt and Company 2015; and "China's Missiles and the Implications for the United States," Conference at the Hudson Institute, August 19, 2015, hosted by national security expert Rebeccah Heinrichs.

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