War with China

Holy fuck. I genuinely had no idea that US nuclear missiles had increased in accuracy by such a degree in the last 15 years. Assistant professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame Keir Lieber and Daryl Press who was a consultant on military analysis projects for the U.S. Department of Defense for 13 years, write in the Atlantic’s China special about any war between the US and China. The statistic:

During the Cold War, U.S. submarines posed little danger to China’s silos, or to any other hardened targets. Each warhead on the Trident I missiles had little chance—roughly 12 percent—of success. Not only were those missiles inaccurate, their warheads had a relatively small yield. (Similarly, until the late 1980s, U.S. ICBMs lacked the accuracy to carry out a reliable disarming attack against China.) But the Navy’s new warheads and missiles are far more lethal. A Trident II missile is so accurate, and the newer W88 warhead so powerful, that if the warhead and missile function normally, the destruction of the silo is virtually assured (the likelihood is calculated as greater than 99 percent).

In reality, American planners could not assume such near-perfect results. Some missiles or warheads could malfunction: One missile’s rockets might fail to ignite; another’s guidance system might be defective. So a realistic counterforce plan might assign four warheads to each silo. The U.S. would “cross-target” the missiles, meaning that the warheads on each missile would each go to different silos, so that a silo would be spared only if many missiles malfunctioned. Even assuming that 20 percent of missiles malfunctioned—the standard, conservative assumption typically used by nuclear analysts—there is a 97 percent chance that every Chinese DF-5 silo would be destroyed in a 4-on-1 attack. (By comparison, a similar attack using Cold War–era Trident I missiles would have produced less than a 1 percent chance of success. The leap in American counterforce capabilities since the end of the Cold War is staggering.)

And casualties from any US first strike on Chinese silos could be quite low:

Improved accuracy now allows war planners to target hardened sites with low-yield warheads and even airbursts. And the United States is pushing its breakthroughs in accuracy even further. For example, for many years America has used global-positioning systems in conjunction with onboard inertial-guidance systems to improve the accuracy of its conventionally armed (that is, nonnuclear) cruise missiles. Although an adversary may jam the GPS signal near likely targets, the cruise missiles use GPS along their flight route and then—if they lose the signal—use their backup inertial-guidance system for the final few kilometers. This approach has dramatically improved a cruise missile’s accuracy and could be applied to nuclear-armed cruise missiles as well. The United States is deploying jam- resistant GPS receivers on other weapons, experimenting with GPS on its nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, and planning to deploy a new generation of GPS satellites—with higher-powered signals to complicate jamming.

The payoff for equipping cruise missiles (or nuclear bombs) with GPS is clear when one estimates the civilian casualties from a lower-yield, airburst attack. We asked Matthew McKinzie, a scientific consultant to the Natural Resources Defense Council and coauthor of the 2006 study, to rerun the analysis using low-yield detonations compatible with nuclear weapons currently in the U.S. arsenal. Using three warheads per target to increase the odds of destroying every silo, the model predicts fewer than 1,000 Chinese casualties from fallout. In some low-yield scenarios, fewer than 100 Chinese would be killed or injured from fallout. The model is better suited to predicting fallout casualties than to forecasting deaths from the blast and fire, but given the low population in the rural region where the silos are, Chinese fatalities would be fewer than 6,000 in even the most destructive scenario we modeled. And in the future, there may be reliable nonnuclear options for destroying Chinese silos. Freed from the burden of killing millions, a U.S. president staring at the threat of a Chinese nuclear attack on U.S. forces, allies, or territory might be more inclined to choose preemptive action.

I guess this would beg the question as to why the US needs missile defence. If they can take out the entire Chinese arsenal in one go, how hard would it be to take out the whole of Iran’s future arsenal?

9 thoughts on “War with China”

  1. Submarines are not a first strike weapon and are therefore not required to have pinpoint accuracy. The goal of the submarine fleet is to assure the MAD constraints (MAD=mutual assured destruction) are met thus maintaining the cold war status quo.

    They do this by evading a first strike and then launch retaliatory strikes directly on “cities” not silos. land a scatter of warheads on Moscow and Leningrad is a much less onerous task than taking out a specific missile silo.

    ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) systems contravened MAD by offering a country some hope that they could survive a first strike or counter strike and is one of the reasons they were outlawed by SALT (I? II?). This is why the USSR is kicking up such a stink about Dubya’s latest ABM plans.

  2. In a “cold war world” joe…but we no longer live in one.

    In this new world of highly accurate missiles, is the US not changing the role of its subs to that of first strike weapons? Especially given then National Security Strategy 2002. The writers note:

    Just as the danger of mutual nuclear annihilation—or mutual assured destruction (MAD), as it was labeled then—helped prevent war between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, so too will nuclear deterrence cool tensions between the United States and China.

    But little about the emerging nuclear balance between the United States and China should lead anyone to assume a similar stabilizing effect. The United States is pursuing capabilities that are rendering MAD obsolete, and the resulting nuclear imbalance of power could dramatically exacerbate America’s rivalry with China.

    In the 1990s, with the Cold War receding, nuclear weapons appeared to be relics. Russian and Chinese leaders apparently thought so. Russia allowed its arsenal to decline precipitously, and China showed little interest in modernizing its nuclear weapons. The small strategic force that China built and deployed in the 1970s and early 1980s is essentially the same one it has today.

    But meanwhile, the United States steadily improved its “counterforce” capabilities—those nuclear weapons most effective at targeting an enemy’s nuclear arsenal. Even as it reduced the number of weapons in its nuclear arsenal, the U.S. made its remaining weapons more lethal and accurate. The result today is a global nuclear imbalance unseen in 50 years. And nowhere is U.S. nuclear primacy clearer—or potentially more important—than in the Sino-U.S. relationship.

    How the United States achieved nuclear dominance after the Soviet Union collapsed is an open secret. The Navy refitted its entire fleet of nuclear-armed submarines with new, highly accurate Trident II missiles and replaced many of the 100-kiloton W76 warheads on these missiles with 455-kiloton W88 warheads. (One kiloton is the explosive energy released by 1,000 tons of TNT.) The result is an unprecedented combination of accuracy and destructive power, essential for an attack on hardened silos. The Navy also recently tested a GPS guidance system that would dramatically boost the accuracy, and thus lethality, of the submarine missile arsenal.

    For its part, the Air Force has improved the guidance systems of land-based Minuteman III missiles. Many of these missiles are also being “retipped” with more-powerful warheads—and more-accurate reentry vehicles—taken from recently retired MX (“Peacekeeper”) missiles. The Air Force has also upgraded the avionics on B-2 bombers. These nuclear-mission-capable bombers are already “stealthy,” but the upgrades improve the planes’ ability to penetrate enemy airspace secretly, by flying very low and using the terrain to shield them from radar.

    Perhaps as important, the United States is pursuing a slew of nonnuclear weapons that will provide officials options they may find more palatable if they decide to attack an adversary’s nuclear arsenal. These include precision “bunker buster” conventional bombs, high-speed long-range cruise missiles, and conventionally armed ballistic missiles—each of which could be used to destroy enemy missile silos. Furthermore, Washington is undertaking initiatives—including advances in antisatellite warfare and in wide-area remote sensing, designed to find “relocatable” mobile missile launchers—that will make China’s nuclear forces vulnerable. Even a missile-defense system substantially boosts U.S. offensive counterforce capabilities. Critics of this system are right in claiming that it could not shield America from even a modest nuclear attack (e.g., 25 warheads), because it would be easily overwhelmed by decoy warheads and the “penetration aids” that would accompany an adversary’s missiles. But it could enhance offensive nuclear capabilities, by “mopping up” a small number of incoming warheads that survived a U.S. first strike.

  3. Hi Gavin,

    Took a while to get back to this one. I have no doubt that new more accurate warheads do create more tempting first strike scenarios for military planners. But only a tiny percentage of warheads have to survive a first strike (or a handful of submarines) to ensure MAD constraints are met.

    Its the illusion of invincibility created by studies that promise 99% accuracy that worries me. What they fail to add is that 1% of either china or russia’s nuclear arsenal is more than enough to destroy civilisation as we know it.

    According to this report (http://www.nrdc.org/nuclear/nudb/datab13.asp) Russia had approximately 8400 nuclear warheads at its disposal in 2002. Of this total 3000 were land based ICBMs (on 700 launchers) and 1000 were submarine based (on 78 subs).

    So even if you succeed in knocking out 99% of the ICBMs (leaving 30 active) that still leaves 1000 sub based warheards in addition to a miscellaneous 2000 or so warheads loaded onto shortrange devices etc.

    Basically we all die in a nuclear exchange, no matter who starts it. But same delusional thinking that got the USA into Iraq is what is also driving Star Wars II . Some body needs to give those guys a good shaking and get them to watch a video documentaries on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


  4. But wasn’t MAD thrown out the window at the end of the cold war? And doesn’t MAD only really work where there is two sides with similar sized forces? The piece is more about taking out China’s entire nuclear arsenal in one go – using accurate missiles.

    Whether Russia, admittedly with a far bigger and more advanced nuclear arsenal, would get involved in a war between the US and China is to me a side issue, the artilcle is about a war between China and the US, one having a relatively small and inferior nuclear force, and one having a massive and accurate one.

    The authors note the size of China’s arsenal:

    “China has approximately 80 operationally deployed nuclear warheads, but only a few of them—those assigned to single-warhead DF-5 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs)—can reach the continental United States. (There is no definitive, unclassified count of China’s DF-5 ICBMs, but official U.S. statements have put the number at 18.) China has neither modern nuclear ballistic-missile submarines nor long-range nuclear bombers. Moreover, China’s ICBMs can’t be quickly launched; the warheads are stored separately, and the missiles are kept unfueled. (Unlike the solid fuel used in U.S. missiles, the liquid fuel used to propel Chinese ICBMs is highly corrosive.) Finally, China lacks an advanced early-warning system that would give Beijing reliable notice of an incoming attack.

    This small arsenal fulfilled China’s strategic requirements in the 20th century, but it is now obsolete. The current Chinese force was designed for a different era:when China was a poor nation with a limited role on the world stage, and when U.S. and Soviet missiles were too inaccurate to carry out a disarming strike—even against Beijing’s small force. But China’s international presence is expanding, and America’s counterforce capabilities have soared. Moreover, one of the biggest constraints that would deter American leaders from contemplating a disarming strike is fading away. In the past, a U.S. preemptive attack would have generated horrific civilian casualties, but that may soon cease to be the case.”

    I’m not sure China’s nuclear arsenal would destroy civilisation as we know it, but could kill a good few million people… any return strike by the US, if on cities, would also kill tens of millions. Obviously if Russia got involved, then we are all pretty screwed.

  5. The US says the PLA modernisation is a threat to the US. The facts state otherwise. In conventional and nuclear weapons China is out gunned by a ratio of 10000 to 1. So you tell me who is the greater threat.
    Obviously the US wants a weak China like the one in the 50s to early 20s when a US strike on China would be so overwhelming the PLA could do nothing except protest.
    Now the picture is different. The PLA would be able to retaliate and being the weaker party won’t strike the first blow.The PLA would be able to inflict unacceptable damage on the Conus if the US were to attack China.Hence the need for the missile shield.
    If the US builds the shield the PLA could increase their nm strength by a factor of times ten.
    Yes the US will be able to prevail but it wont be a cheap victory like in the old days when the Chinese were defenceless and unable to hit back at the conus.

  6. The US nuclear strategy is already well known. It has threatened to use nuclear weapons and will most probably use them in a war
    against china or even NK.
    It has demonised NK for the posession of a few nuclear weapons when the US has thousands of them.Its like saying saying the jackal is the biggest threat in the jungle when it is the lion.
    Let’s be honest.The US wants to be able to threaten the existence of other countries eg Russia,China ,NK,Iran etc.But when these countries build up their defences they are a threat to US security read they must not be allowed to hit back when attacked by US forces.
    Well to be top dog and to maintain military dominance the US has to modernise its armoury but other countries must not..At some point in time the money to feed the Pentagon will run out .
    As it is the US owes other countries trillions. It won’t surprise me if the Pentagon start a war to get rid of the debt but I believe saner heads will prevail because it will be pyrrhic victory.

  7. why is the US making angry noises about PLA modernisation and consider it a threat to the US.?if you examine the facts the US has forces on 15 minute alert status to attack china with NW.China wont fire the first shot.
    The problem is the US wants a defenceless China to be bullied.That cannot be. The Chinese were subjected to nuclear blackmail in the Korean war 1953,Taiwan crises 1954 and 58 and finally vietnam war.
    If the US wants to attack china it better be prepared for pla retribution.As time goes on the Chinese will become more powerful regardless of whether the US upgrades its weapons.
    You see the US has an assured destruction capability against China and can increase it many times. Similarly the PLA can at the moment wreak devastation on the US only 20 % and it will increase to 50 to 75%.
    That is enuf to give any US president reason to pause before going to war with China.

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