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May 23, 2019
Notes from the Pentagon

New START extension in doubt
Senior Trump administration officials told Congress recently that the United States is reviewing whether to seek an extension of the 2010 New START strategic weapons treaty amid concerns about Russian treaty violations and China’s growing nuclear arsenal.

Andrea Thompson, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs, disclosed the administration’s stance during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week.

“The administration has not made any decision on a potential extension of New START and will continue to consult with Congress as this administration determines next steps,” she said. The treaty expires in early 2021.

A central consideration in reviewing a possible extension of the Obama-era arms pact is whether continued adherence is in the national security interest and the impact on what Ms. Thompson described as the deteriorating international security environment.

The State Department arms official noted both Russian and Chinese nuclear arms buildups. Moscow is “developing new strategic offensive arms and expanding its nonstrategic nuclear forces, and China is modernizing and building up its nuclear forces,” she said.

“China currently benefits from having the two largest nuclear powers restrained while it can pursue competition on its own terms,” Ms. Thompson noted. “China’s lack of transparency regarding the scope and scale of its nuclear modernization program also raises questions regarding its future intent.”

“We need a new era of arms control to address new and emerging threats that reflect modern reality,” she stated. “While we seek to bring Russia and China to the arms control table to deliver meaningful results, we will be relentless in our efforts to advance U.S. and allied interests, ensure our security and deny our adversaries advantages.”

David Trachtenberg, deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, also noted Russian and Chinese nuclear developments. “Unfortunately, Russia and China have chosen a different path and have increased the role of nuclear weapons in their strategies and actively increased the size and sophistication of their nuclear forces,” he said at the hearing.

“For this reason, a robust and modern U.S. nuclear deterrent helps ensure that the United States can deter nuclear attack and large-scale conventional warfare between nuclear armed states. It also allows us to negotiate from a position of strength,” he said.

Russia’s military is developing several strategic weapons that — while not directly violating New START — appear to be a circumvention of the treaty. They include new long-range missiles, hypersonic missiles that travel at ultra-high speeds, a nuclear-powered cruise missile and an underwater drone armed with a megaton-class warhead. Under the treaty, Russia is obligated to discuss new strategic arms in bilateral meetings and has not done so.

China also is aggressively building up its nuclear forces with new long-range multiple-warhead missiles, new missile submarines and new strategic bombers. China in the past has refused appeals to engage in arms talks over concerns that doing so would require disclosures about its nuclear arms, which Chinese officials have said would undermine their deterrent value. Chinese military secrecy regarding its nuclear forces has remained constant despite an aggressive U.S.-Chinese military exchange program designed to build military trust.

The response from China on joining New START extension talks was a flat “no.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said in response to Ms. Thompson’s comments that Beijing has no interest in strategic arms talks.

“This is not the first time that a U.S. high-level official put forth the idea of China joining the U.S. and Russia in nuclear disarmament talks,” Mr. Lu said. “Frankly, many nuclear disarmament experts are wondering: By engaging China in the talks, is the U.S. trying to increase China’s nuclear arsenal to its level or reduce its own nuclear arms to China’s level?”

China is interested in seeing the United States and Russia reduce their nuclear arsenals only by extending bilateral arms accords, he said, adding that the United States is using China’s nuclear buildup as “an excuse” to avoid further cuts.

“Our nuclear force is always kept at the minimum level required by national security, with an order-of-magnitude difference from that of the U.S. and Russia, which puts things in a completely different light,” Mr. Lu said. “On this issue, China’s position is clear: We will not participate in any negotiation for a trilateral nuclear disarmament agreement.”

Mr. Lu sidestepped questions about Chinese military secrecy regarding its nuclear arsenal by stating that China does not engage in arms races and does not offer nuclear protection to other countries.

China, however, provided Pakistan with nuclear weapons design information in the 1980s, designs that were the basis for Pakistan’s nuclear forces. That nuclear arms information was later spread to Iran, Libya and North Korea by Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan.

Veteran China expert and retired Army Col. Larry M. Wortzel is warning that Beijing’s nuclear arsenal will leap ahead as China moves forward with developing hypersonic warheads for its large missile force.

China’s past nuclear force of a small or limited number of nuclear weapons has grown in recent years to include large numbers of new and advanced missiles and warheads, Col. Wortzel, a former military intelligence officer based in China, stated in a report published this month by the American Foreign Policy Council.

The new Chinese approach to nuclear power includes developing nuclear missile submarines, new types of mobile missiles with multiple warheads and penetration aids and hypersonic warheads and missiles.

“Today, aspects of that strategy are changing as China develops hypersonic warheads for ballistic missiles and hypersonic cruise missiles,” Col. Wortzel stated.

The People’s Liberation Army regards hypersonic technology as “the commanding height of aerospace technology,” providing ultrafast speeds. For example, a Tomahawk cruise missile needs an hour to strike a target over 600 miles away while a hypersonic strike missile can fly the same distance in eight minutes.

According to the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, China is building weapons to defeat U.S. missile defenses, including maneuverable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), decoys, chaff, jamming, thermal shielding and hypersonic glide vehicles.

However, Col. Wortzel said China’s drive to build hypersonic weapons is not limited to defeating missile defenses. Chinese hypersonic missiles also could be used to attack U.S. aircraft carriers.

“Hypersonic weapons, what Beijing sees as asymmetric forms of ‘assassin’s mace weapons,’ have been China’s weapons of choice to hold the U.S. military and its bases in Asia at risk,” he said.

China in 2018 conducted a flight test of a new, nuclear-capable hypersonic missile called the Xingkong-2, which has multiple stages and is capable of maneuvering to its targets. China’s other hypersonic missile, known as the DF-ZF, has been tested several times.

Col. Wortzel urged the U.S. government to rapidly build up its own force of hypersonic missiles to counter China’s emerging new high-speed weapons.

The incursion this week into protected U.S. airspace by four Russian nuclear-capable bombers and fighter escorts was designed to practice cruise missile strikes against U.S. missile defense bases in Alaska and to test American air defenses, according to defense sources.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) said four F-22 jets and an E-3 early warning aircraft intercepted two Tu-95 bombers on Monday after they entered the Alaskan air defense identification zone.

“The bombers exited and then re-entered the Alaskan ADIZ accompanied by two Su-35 fighter jets,” the command said in a statement. “NORAD committed an additional two F-22s and E-3 to relieve the initial intercept aircraft. A KC-135 air-to-air refueling aircraft supported both of NORAD’s intercept teams.”

The bomber incursion was the second time in two days that Russian strategic aircraft flew inside the defense zone and the fifth time this year for Russian bomber flights near the United States.

The location of the intercepts was not disclosed by NORAD. The Russian Defense Ministry, however, stated on the ministry website that the bombers flew along the western coast of Alaska and the northern coast of the Aleutian Islands. The bombers also flew over international waters near the Chukotka, Bering and Okhotsk seas. Details of the Russian bomber practice mission were not disclosed.

The bomber flights are designed to test U.S. air defenses to defense zone incursions by monitoring the response from the Air Force and Canadian forces.

The likely target of practice strikes with long-range cruise missiles known to be carried by the bombers were the Fort Greely missile defense base, and Elmendorf and Eielson Air Force bases. Strikes against Fort Greely would be part of the opening stages of a nuclear attack on the United States by long-range missiles fired from Russia.

The U.S. military also operates several radar stations and listening posts on the Aleutians.

Mark Schneider, a former Pentagon nuclear policymaker, said the bomber incursions appear to be “nuclear intimidation” on the part of the Russians.

"The Russian leadership believes that nuclear threats increase their political power,” he said. “Because of this, these flights could be aimed at the possibility new strategic arms control negotiations."

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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