uclear issues are very much in the news now. For the past year, senior U.S. military officials have been quietly warning U.S. policymakers that China’s buildup of nuclear weapons is a serious threat to the United States.
Then late this summer, satellite pictures of multiple missile fields with hundreds of Chinese missile silos—completed or under construction—were publicly revealed. They number over 350 silos.
While skeptics initially dismissed the silos as nothing more than wind farms, it soon became apparent the Chinese were building a massive new nuclear capability that could in short order match or significantly exceed the totality of the U.S. deployed strategic nuclear force.
And thus, a debate began in the United States over what it all meant. For example, how many missiles will actually end up being placed in the 350+ silos completed or under construction by China?
If the DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) was the Chinese missile of choice, then each missile could carry from six to ten warheads, implying a future nuclear force at the high end of new estimates.
Another part of the debate centered on whether the long-held conventional wisdom that China has a very limited supply of nuclear weapons fuel was still valid. Is the scope of Chinese missile deployments going to be controlled by China’s warhead fuel supply? Or is China’s goal to have as large a nuclear force as possible? In short, is it the nuclear fuel or the missiles themselves that are driving the Chinese buildup?
Yet more important than the “what” of the discovered build-up is the “why.” What is China trying to achieve politically, diplomatically, and militarily, and what effect would it have on U.S. and allied security?
The good news is that recent discoveries have moved the debate over China’s nuclear future from mere guessing to being more grounded in facts.