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Feb. 20, 2020
Notes from the Pentagon

STRATCOM on China's nuclear buildup
The commander of U.S. Strategic Command told Congress recently that China is engaged in a troubling buildup of nuclear forces that could be used to wage regional conflict or to coerce nations in Asia.

“Competitors, such as China and Russia, are developing advanced capabilities to directly challenge our strengths across all domains,” Adm. Charles A. Richard, the commander, said last week, singling out Beijing for its large-scale nuclear force modernization.

“China is advancing a comprehensive modernization program for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and is building a robust, lethal force with capabilities spanning all domains, the electromagnetic spectrum and the information environment,” he stated in prepared testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Feb. 13. “These initiatives increase China’s ability to project power further from their mainland and support their aspirations to impose China’s will throughout the Indo-Pacific region.”

The goal of the force buildup is to “establish regional hegemony, deny U.S. power projection operations in the Indo-Pacific and supplant the U.S. as the security partner of choice.”

Adm. Richard also questioned Beijing’s declared “no first use” nuclear policy — the assertion that the PLA will not be the first to use nuclear arms in a conflict.

Chinese secrecy regarding its nuclear buildup and the expansion of the overall nuclear arsenal “bring [China‘s] motives and intent into question,” he said.

The main question is why China is doubling the size of its relatively small nuclear arsenal by the end of the decade.

China, Adm. Richard said, is building a range of nuclear forces — missiles, missile submarines and bombers — designed to deny foreign regional forces access to conduct operations in the Indo-Pacific region.

“The PLA’s Air Force (PLAAF) newly reassigned nuclear mission, and a deployment of a strategic bomber would provide China with its first credible nuclear triad,” the four-star admiral said.

In addition to a bomber dubbed the H-20, several new strategic systems were showcased in October at a major Chinese military parade. They include an upgraded H-6N bomber, DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missiles, D-17 medium-range ballistic missiles and improved submarine-launched ballistic missiles

“Collectively, Chinese improvements to its nuclear capabilities raise troubling concerns and underscore the need to press on with modernizing our nuclear forces, including the supplemental capabilities outlined in the [Nuclear Posture Review],” Adm. Richard said.

“Our nation, and our allies and partners, should not accept Chinese policies or actions that threaten the international rules-based order or undermine regional and global stability,” he added. “We must remain postured to counter Chinese coercion and subversion, assure our regional allies and partners, and protect our national security interests as international law allows.”

American adversaries have increased their ability to conduct attacks against the homeland, the commander of U.S. Northern Command told the Senate recently.

Air Force Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy, who is also chief of the U.S.-Canadian North American Aerospace Defense Command, laid out the threats during a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee during an appearance alongside Adm. Richard.

“Our adversaries’ capability to directly attack the homeland has leapt forward, and they are engaged in overt, concerted efforts to weaken our national technological, economic and strategic advantage.”

The threats include nuclear, conventional and cyber weapons.

Russia modernized five Bear H bombers with communications and navigation gear that can now fire Moscow’s advanced AS-23 cruise missiles. Six other bombers are being readied for the missiles, Gen. O’Shaughnessy said.

The AS-23 can be armed with either a nuclear or conventional warhead and has a range of 2,500 miles — enough to hit targets throughout the United States from strike zones close to the country.

Russia also expanded operations of cruise-missile-firing submarines from the North Atlantic. In the Arctic, Moscow’s military expanded bases and deployed a coastal defense cruise missile unit near the Bering Sea close to Alaska.

“When deployed to the Russian northeast, this system has the capability not only to control access to the Arctic through the Bering Strait, but also to strike land targets in parts of Alaska with little to no warning,” Gen. O’Shaughnessy said.

The commander warned that American military dominance after the fall of the Soviet Union is now in question.

“Our power projection capabilities and technological overmatch allowed us to fight forward, focusing our energy on the conduct of operations overseas,” he said in prepared testimony. “However, our key adversaries watched and learned, invested in capabilities to offset our strengths while exploiting our weaknesses, and have demonstrated patterns of behavior that indicate they currently have the capability, capacity and intent to hold our homeland at significant risk below the threshold of nuclear war.”

The erosion of the U.S. military advantage is making it more difficult to detect threats, defeat attacks and deter aggression against the nation.

“The threats facing our nation are real and significant,” the four-star general said. “The Arctic is no longer a fortress wall, and our oceans are no longer protective moats. They are now avenues of approach for advanced conventional weapons and the platforms that carry them.”

China, the general said, also is building long-range, conventional precision-strike weapons that put portions of the U.S. homeland at risk.

“In a future crisis, China could use these weapons, along with its world-class offensive cyber capabilities, to attack our logistics nodes in an attempt to frustrate our force flows across the Pacific,” he said.

Chinese military units also are moving into the Arctic, working in concert with Russia.

“In the past year, we have observed signs of a nascent but growing strategic cooperation between China and Russia, including the combined bomber patrol last July and Chinese participation in multiple Russian exercises,” Gen. O’Shaughnessy said.

Until recently, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has taken the lead within the Trump administration in warning about the growing threat from China.

The hard-line policies, outlined in a series of speeches, have drawn opposition from officials within the U.S. government — at the Treasury and Commerce departments — who favor business as usual with Beijing.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper, however, has joined Mr. Pompeo in highlighting the danger of the Communist Party of China.

During a speech in Munich last week, Mr. Esper said he regards China as the most significant challenge for the Pentagon, followed by Russia, Iran, North Korea and terrorism.

The secretary spent most of his speech talking about the threat from China and noted that Beijing’s admission to the World Trade Organization 20 years ago was supposed to moderate China’s communist system, speed up its conversion into a market-oriented system and, ultimately, spark political reform.

Instead, China used its access to obtain technology to build up its military and expand its authoritarian system, he said.

“In fact, under [President Xi Jinping‘s] rule, the Chinese Communist Party is heading even faster and further in the wrong direction — more internal repression, more predatory economic practices, more heavy-handedness and — most concerning for me — a more aggressive military posture,” Mr. Esper said.

“It is essential that we, as an international community, wake up to the challenges presented by China’s manipulation of the long-standing international, rules-based order that has benefited all of us for many decades.”

The United States does not seek a conflict with China but wants Beijing to become a responsible member of the international community, and that will require China to be more transparent and to respect the sovereignty, freedom and rights of all nations, Mr. Esper argued.

“Unfortunately, their current behavior leaves great cause for concern,” he said. “Over time, we have watched them seize and militarize islands in the South China Sea and rapidly modernize their armed forces while seeking to use emerging technologies to alter the landscape of power and reshape the world in their favor often at the expense of others.”

Mr. Esper said China’s Communist Party is developing artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies to conduct surveillance and repression of Muslim minorities, journalists and pro-democracy demonstrators.

The Chinese government also is exporting those tools to bolster other nondemocratic regimes.

The Pentagon chief urged all Western nations to avoid using gear made by Huawei Technologies, the Chinese state-backed telecommunications company, over concerns of the company’s links to China’s intelligence and military agencies.

Mr. Esper said Beijing is weaponizing outer space with directed-energy weapons and killer satellites. He noted that “the Pentagon is standing up its first new military service in over 70 years — the United States Space Force — to ensure freedom of use, commerce and navigation in, to and through space, for all.”

The remarks drew a sharp rebuke from Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who called Mr. Esper’s remarks “lies.”

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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