DeM Banter: Dr Walt is a much smarter man than I….but…really? Not sure I’m buying’
August 29, 2012
If you were focused on Hurricane Isaac or the violence in Syria, you might have missed the latest round of threat inflation surrounding China. Last week, the New York Times reported that China was “increasing its existing ability to deliver nuclear warheads to the United States and to overwhelm missile defense systems.” Salon offered an even more breathless appraisal: that “the United States may be falling behind China when it comes to weapon technology.”
What is really going on? Not much. China has a modest strategic nuclear force. It is believed to have only about 240 nuclear warheads, and only a handful of its ballistic missiles can reach the United States. By comparison, the United States has more than 2,000 operational nuclear warheads deployed on missiles capable of reaching China. And it has nearly 3,000 nuclear warheads in reserve.
Given its modest capabilities, China is understandably worried by U.S. missile defense efforts. The Chinese fear a scenario in which America uses its larger, much more sophisticated nuclear arsenal to launch a first strike, and then relies on missile defenses to deal with whatever small, ragged second strike the Chinese can muster.
This discussion is pretty Strangelovian, of course, but nuclear strategists get paid to think about all sorts of elaborate, far-fetched scenarios.
In sum, those fiendish Chinese are doing precisely what any sensible power would do: trying to preserve their second-strike deterrent by modernizing their force, developing multiple-warhead missiles that could overcome any defenses the United States might choose to build. As the Wall Street Journal put it: “The [Chinese] goal is to ensure a secure second-strike capability that could survive in the worst of worst-case conflict scenarios, whereby an opponent would not be able to eliminate China’s nuclear capability by launching a first strike and would therefore face potential retaliation.”
Three further points should be kept in mind. First, hawks are likely to use developments such as these to portray China as a rising threat, but such claims do not follow from the evidence. China is making a sensible defensive move, motivated by the same concerns that led the United States to create a “strategic triad” in the 1950s.
Second, the smart way to cap or slow Chinese nuclear modernization would be to abandon the futile pursuit of strategic missile defenses and bring China into the negotiating framework that eventually reduced U.S. and Russian arsenals. And remember: Once nuclear-armed states have secure second-strike capabilities, the relative size of their arsenals is irrelevant. If neither side can prevent the other from retaliating and destroying major population centers, it simply doesn’t matter if one side has twice as many warheads. Or 100 times.
Third, this episode reminds us that trying to protect the country with missile defenses is a fool’s errand. It’s always going to be cheaper for opponents to come up with ways to override a missile defense. Why? Because given how destructive nuclear weapons are, a missile defense system has to work almost perfectly to prevent massive damage. If you fired 100 warheads and 95 percent were intercepted – a very good performance – that would still let five warheads through, and that means losing five cities.
Ballistic missile defense never made much sense strategically or economically, except as a make-work program for the aerospace industry and an enduring component of right-wing nuclear theology.
Stephen M. Walt is a professor of international relations at Harvard University