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Sept. 28, 2023
Notes from the Pentagon

Nuclear targeting debate: Cities or militaries?

By Bill Gertz
China’s emergence as a major nuclear power has set off a debate among U.S. strategic analysts over how best to deter war in the new three-way nuclear standoff between Washington, Beijing and Moscow.

Four strategic nuclear experts recently called for keeping the 40-year policy of not targeting civilians in urban areas after two anti-nuclear, arms control advocates suggested adopting the strategy of planning nuclear strikes on Chinese and Russian cities.

“A counter-city deterrence strategy may entail more modest nuclear force requirements and costs, as its advocates claim, but the priority goal is to deter nuclear war to the extent possible, not finding a rationale for the smallest, least expensive U.S. force posture,” the four experts, all with Pentagon experience in both Republican and Democratic administrations, said in a report made public this week.

The specialists are John Harvey, former principal deputy assistant defense secretary of for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs; Keith Payne, former deputy assistant defense secretary and former senior adviser in the Office of the Secretary of Defense; Franklin C. Miller, a former senior nuclear policy and arms control official in the Pentagon and National Security Council staff; and Robert Soofer, former deputy assistant defense secretary for nuclear and missile defense policy.

U.S. nuclear targeting of enemy cities was abandoned in the 1980s as ineffective, on the theory that the Soviet regime cared more about protecting Communist Party leaders and their system than the population.

But recently, political scientist Keir Lieber and strategic analyst Daryl G. Press, both with the Atlantic Council, have advocated a return to the city-blasting strategy to fit the modern strategic landscape.

In May, Mr. Lieber and Mr. Press wrote in a report that the emerging U.S., Russia, China nuclear “tripolarity” should prompt the Pentagon to reconsider its ban on deliberately targeting enemy civilians with nuclear weapons. The policy prohibits “counter-city targeting even in retaliation for a major Chinese or Russian nuclear attack on the U.S. homeland,” they said.

Current strategic policy directs U.S. nuclear strikes to be carried out against military, leadership and other “high-value” targets, while minimizing civilian casualties.

Advocates such as Mr. Lieber and Mr. Press say the main benefit of targeting cities would be to reduce the need for a major buildup of warheads and delivery forces, something that likely would be required for the United States to effectively deter both Russia and China.

China is engaged in a rapid, large-scale expansion of its nuclear forces that for the first time in the nuclear weapons age has created two nuclear-armed adversaries for the U.S. to deter.

“In an era of rapid adversary nuclear enhancements, this ‘counterforce-only’ approach to nuclear planning is a recipe for large nuclear requirements and a likely three-party arms race,” Mr. Lieber and Mr. Press wrote.

Pushing back, the four former nuclear officials argued in a report published by the National Institute for Public Policy that a city-targeting strategy would undermine, not enhance, deterrence.

Authoritarian leaders such as China’s Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin appear unconcerned about losing millions of people in a nuclear war.

“An effective U.S. deterrent threat must hold at risk what contemporary hostile leaderships value most, because they are the audience that must be deterred,” the report stated. “Any threat of lesser consequence could lead the opponent to believe that, under some circumstances, the ‘cost’ of its aggression could be acceptable — and thus would not be deterred.”

The report states that the past and present brutality of the Chinese Communist Party includes viewing population centers as instruments of the state to be dispensed with as needed.

Mao Zedong, they note, once wrote of a nuclear war with the United States, that “for our ultimate victory, … for the total eradication of the imperialists, we are willing to endure the first [U.S. nuclear] strike. All it is a big pile of people dying.’”

The founder of the Chinese communist regime also stated that the deaths of hundreds of millions of Chinese in a nuclear conflict would be “no great loss.”

More recently, Mr. Putin has hinted at nuclear strikes against NATO if it intervened in Russia‘s war in Ukraine.

Noting the aging U.S. nuclear arsenal and Russia’s modernized and advanced strategic forces, Mr. Putin said: “We have more such nuclear weapons than NATO countries. They know about it and never stop trying to persuade us to start nuclear reduction talks. Like hell we will … because, putting it in the dry language of economic essays, it is our competitive advantage.”

Messrs. Payne, Harvey, Miller and Soofer conclude that the United States rejected nuclear targeting of cities for four decades for good reason: It provides, they wrote, a more effective and credible deterrent to authoritarian enemies; it is more aligned with legal and moral principles; it could make arms negotiations more likely; and it is less costly overall than a counter-city strategy that would require the Pentagon spending more on conventional forces.

“With the addition of China to the familiar U.S.-Russian deterrence dynamic, the new ‘tripolar’ threat environment is significantly different from the Cold War bipolar context,” the report said. “But the critical advantages of a counterforce/city avoidance-oriented deterrent remain, as do the severe failings of intentionally targeting populations.”

Taiwan to launch first indigenous sub
Amid mounting threats from China, Taiwan is launching its first domestically built attack submarine this week. The new Hai Kun submarine has completed hull construction and painting and is scheduled for launch from the southern port city of Kaohsiung on Sept. 28, according to Taiwanese officials.

The launch is a milestone in a decades-long program by the Taiwanese to build their own submarines — key weapons needed for deterring and countering any future attack by China.

Taiwanese Adm. Huang Shu-kuang, a presidential security adviser, told reporters the prototype sub will begin testing Oct. 1 through April 2024. Sea trials will follow and deployment is expected three years later, the official CNA news agency stated. A total of eight new submarines are planned in the coming years, he said.

The diesel-electric submarines will be armed with MK-48 torpedoes and two new submarines will be deployed by 2027 — the year Chinese President Xi Jinping has ordered military forces from the mainland to be ready to take over Taiwan, which Beijing considers its territory.

Taiwan’s current submarine force includes two Dutch-built Sea Dragon-class subs purchased in the mid-1980s. Two World War II-era U.S. Guppy-class submarines are used mainly for training.

Adm. Huang said the submarine force will be deployed to contain Chinese forces to the “first island chain” — a string of islands stretching from North Asia through the South China Sea. They will also seek to prevent Chinese naval forces from entering the Pacific and encircling the democratic island.

The admiral said later that submarines could be armed with missiles to deter the Chinese navy and protect key supply lines.

“If we can build up this combat capacity, I don’t think we will lose a war,” Adm. Huang told an internal briefing on the project, Reuters reported.

The future missile-firing submarines could carry submarine-launched anti-ship missiles — key systems needed for an anticipated Chinese attack across the Taiwan Strait.

Adm. Huang called the submarine force a strategic deterrent to Chinese warships that frequently cross the Miyako Strait, near southwestern Japan, and the Bashi Channel, separating Taiwan from the Philippines.

“This was also the strategic concept of the U.S. military — to contain [the Chinese] within the first island chain and deny their access,” Adm. Huang said. “If Taiwan is taken, Japan will definitely not be safe, South Korea will definitely not be safe.

“The submarines will keep their ships away from our eastern shores.”

The indigenous submarine program was initially backed by the George W. Bush administration in April 2001, which planned to provide eight new submarines to Taiwan. That U.S. support dried up, however, due to production problems — mainly, that the United States had not built diesel submarines since the 1960s.

China’s submarine forces vastly outgun the Taiwanese with a massive manufacturing and foreign submarine acquisition program.

Beijing purchased 12 Kilo submarines from Russia, each equipped with highly lethal Klub anti-ship missiles. China’s total force of attack submarines is about 58 vessels, according to the Pentagon.

Americans warned again on travel to China
The State Department has extended a warning to Americans about the dangers of travel to China, according to a department-sponsored security report.

The report said “travelers should reconsider travel to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) due to the arbitrary enforcement of local laws, including in relation to exit bans, and the risk of wrongful detentions.”

The report by the Overseas Security Advisory Council said the Chinese Communist Party government harbors anti-U.S. sentiment: “The Chinese government consistently targets Westerners with arbitrary detentions and exit bans as a form of hostage diplomacy during times of geopolitical tension.”

Other dangers facing U.S. travelers include “pervasive technical surveillance, physical attacks and prosecution of journalists, lawyers, writers, bloggers, dissidents, petitioners, and others as well as their family members.”

The report also questions China’s claims to observe the rule of law.

“Corruption remains rampant. Many cases of corruption involve areas heavily regulated by the government, such as land usage rights, real estate, mining and infrastructure development, which were susceptible to fraud, bribery and kickbacks,” the report said, noting that court judgments are often not enforced.

Chinese technical monitoring is also pervasive, with Beijing authorities capable of monitoring all devices connected to the internet.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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