China’s defense minister confirmed this week that the People’s Liberation Army was expanding its nuclear arsenal, but downplayed the development that a US nuclear commander called a “strategic escape” comparable to the Soviet Union of the 1960s .
PLA General Wei Fenghe is the first Chinese official to respond to reports that Beijing is rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal, long overshadowed by those of the United States and Russia, including the deployment of around 350 intercontinental ballistic missiles DF-41 multi-warhead in western China. Despite US concerns about the buildup, General Wei said nuclear expansion was normal.
“China is developing nuclear capabilities at a moderate and appropriate level,” he told reporters in Singapore on Sunday. “It means being able to protect our nation’s security so that we can avoid the catastrophe of a war, especially the catastrophe of a nuclear war.”
US Strategic Command Commander Admiral Charles Richard sounded the alarm over what he called an explosive Chinese nuclear buildup. In August 2021, he said Beijing was looking for a “strategic escape” – an unusually large and rapid expansion of nuclear forces.
Last month, the admiral told a Senate hearing that China was expanding its nuclear forces so rapidly that US intelligence agencies were unable to keep up.
“At the end of the day, what I asked my staff at Stratcom to do…whatever the intelligence community tells you about what China is going to do, halve it in time, and you’ll probably be more close to what is happening,” he said. said.
Two years ago, the debate among US intelligence agencies involved a debate over whether the PLA would double its stockpile of nuclear warheads by the end of the decade.
“It happened before when I was commander of US Strategic Command,” he said.
Admiral Richard said the “largest and most visible” expansion of China’s nuclear forces is the construction of at least 360 new intercontinental ballistic missile silos in western China in recent years.
But General Wei, a former missile force commander, said China’s nuclear forces are purely for defensive purposes and repeated China’s longstanding nuclear policy of not being the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict. He did not mention the new silos.
A 2019 military parade in Beijing showcased the new ICBM DF-41, capable of landing nuclear warheads across the United States.
“China has been developing its capabilities for more than five decades. It is fair to say that there has been impressive progress,” General Wei said, insisting that Beijing’s nuclear policies have been “consistent”.
“We use it for self-defense. We will not be the first to use nuclear [weapons]. … We have developed nuclear capabilities to protect the hard work of the Chinese people and to protect our people from the scourge of nuclear war.
After long maintaining an arsenal of around 200 strategic warheads, China is working to build and deploy at least 1,000 nuclear ICBMs. Based on Admiral Richard’s assessment of at least 360 DF-41s in the new missile silos, this ICBM would be capable of carrying up to 10 warheads on each missile, for a total strategic warhead stockpile for ICBMs only based on silos of at least 3,600.
The PLA has also developed a range of short, medium and medium range missiles that can be armed with conventional or nuclear warheads.
Admiral Richard told the Senate Armed Services Committee on May 4 that in addition to new ICBM silos, the Chinese military had doubled the number of its hard-to-track mobile road missiles.
The PLA has also deployed “a veritable air arm” of nuclear-capable H-6N bombers capable of launching a single air-launched ballistic missile, Admiral Richard said, while China’s ballistic missile submarines from Jin class can now perform continuous operations. sea patrols from protected strongholds in the South China Sea.
“And more are coming,” Admiral Richard said of the missile submarines.
Launch on warning
Contradicting General Wei’s comments in Singapore on the regime’s nuclear policy, Admiral Richard said Beijing is building an early warning system that will allow nuclear forces to carry out launch strikes on warning and launch under attack.
China’s nuclear forces, which in the past separated warheads from missiles, have in recent years increased the readiness of nuclear forces.
“They’re changing their command and control, and that’s before we even get into the new weapons systems,” Admiral Richard said, noting the July 2021 flight test of a split orbital bombing system. .
The FBOS is a nuclear strike weapon that orbits the poles and “has unlimited range, can attack from any azimuth, and descends in a hypersonic hover vehicle with excellent performance,” Admiral Richard said. .
“No nation in history has ever demonstrated this capability,” he said, describing the PLA buildup as “by far the biggest expansion in China’s history and rivaling the biggest expansion of all nations in history, including us and the Soviet Union in the early ’60s.
General Wei first met US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at the annual conference known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, a gathering of senior defense and military officials.
China’s defense minister repeated past comments about Beijing’s determination to seize control of the democratic self-governing state of Taiwan, which China considers its territory. In contrast, Mr. Austin struck a conciliatory tone regarding the meeting, according to a Pentagon statement on the meeting.
Describing Chinese actions in Asia as increasingly aggressive, Mr Austin appeared to play down the threat posed by China which he instead repeatedly called a “pace challenge”.
Mr. Austin “discussed the need to responsibly manage competition and maintain open lines of communication,” the statement said. “The Secretary stressed the importance for the People’s Liberation Army to engage in substantive dialogue on improving crisis communications and reducing strategic risks.”
The Pentagon has sought for decades to develop closer communications with the PLA, an army under the control of the Chinese Communist Party.
However, these efforts have repeatedly failed.
For example, in 2001, after a Chinese interceptor plane collided with a US EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft, Chinese military leaders refused to accept appeals from US defense and military chiefs.
General Wei on Sunday said US efforts to develop a four-nation alliance with Japan, Australia and India in the Pacific could lead to a US-China confrontation. He also said that China was not supplying arms to Russia for its war in Ukraine.
Thomas D. Grant, a former State Department arms control official, said China’s nuclear buildup will be used for geopolitical coercion rather than strategic deterrence.
China plans to use its nuclear arsenal to overturn the geopolitical status quo, he said.
“The United States and its allies have long relied on our nuclear arsenals to stabilize international relations, calibrating our stockpiles of weapons to deter both nuclear war and conventional armed aggression,” Grant said in a statement. recent report published by the National Institute for Public Policy. , a think tank.
“China, by contrast, seeks a new state of nuclear affairs, not to safeguard global stability, but rather to give China permission to pursue its own increasingly aggressive agenda against its immediate neighbors and beyond. “
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