The strategic situation for the United States is changing in connection with the growing confrontation with China. It is changing, perhaps, really uncomfortably for Washington, which could not have calculated in advance the promptness of China’s reaction and the consequences of maintaining a confrontational policy with Beijing and Moscow at once. This opens up a window of opportunity for Russia, since a confrontation with two opponents of equal strategic systems at once will be a burden for the United States, writes Valdai Club expert Alexander Yermakov.
Recently, at a number of special events, senior generals of the US Strategic Command made several statements of principle, some of which can be considered revolutionary. First of all, they relate to the growing military power of China and how this process is changing the strategic environment for America.
The most important, programmatic, of these was the speech on August 12 by Admiral Charles Richard, the head of command at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama.
It should immediately be clarified that the relations between the American military and society are different from what we are used to; they are much closer: the format of independent speeches at events held by countless associations and think tanks or detailed interviews is well-established there. Moreover, in these cases, vocal statements can be made, usually in the mainstream of state policy, but sometimes slightly ahead. The traditional position in relation to civilian leadership can be characterised as emphatically polite, but without enthusiastic praise. Given the regular perturbations in civil leadership, politeness is best for a stable career. For example, Admiral Richard was appointed back in November 2019, under Donald Trump. With these reservations, we can say that high-ranking military personnel in the United States are specific politicians, and sometimes quite influential ones — for example, we can say that the commander of a district is a larger political figure than ambassadors, and during foreign visits he meets with ministers of foreign affairs.
In addition to the key speech on August 12, in this article we will also consider abstracts from the interview Admiral Richard gave on August 26 to the Hudson Institute (a conservative think tank) and the interview of his deputy Lt. Gen. Thomas Bussiere on August 27 in the framework of the thematic project of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. Both in their speeches “followed” one line, which can thus be regarded as the position of at least the “nuclear missile branch” of the US armed forces.
On Containment During a Missile Flight
The substantive part of the admiral’s speech on August 12 took 27 minutes — just about the flight time of a SLBM to a target from a remote area. At the same time, the main narrative was devoted to how, without reaching such measures, America can ensure the solution of foreign policy problems in a changing world — that is, to ensure reliable strategic deterrence.
First of all, as is natural for any expert, he emphasised the special importance of his own task. The basic formula here was “if strategic deterrence fails, then all other operational plans of all commands and branches of the armed forces will not be properly executed”. Interestingly, Admiral Richard strenuously emphasised the need to move away from narrow “nuclear deterrence”. The “Strategic deterrence”, which his command is engaged in, also includes the use of non-nuclear systems, and at the stage of formation there is a kind of “integrated deterrence”.
Around this idea, which seems to be promoted by senior Pentagon management, headed by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, he uses a lot of words, which can be reduced to a “for all good against all bad” formula, and leaves a feeling similar to attempts to explain what “perestroika” or “juche” mean. However, if we put aside his repeated calls for all the American military to work together in different ways, then we can grasp an interesting essence — the rejection of the rigid dividing line between nuclear deterrence and conventional hostilities (and, as a consequence, the threshold of the use of nuclear weapons). Integrated deterrence should include joint operations not only on land, at sea and in the air, but also in space, in cyberspace, and even information warfare. Why the Strategic Command likes this is understandable — the dimension of its powers and competencies is growing indefinitely. However, this once again cannot but cause fears from the Russian side, which traditionally reacts painfully to the blurring between conventional and nuclear warfare by the Americans and the lowering of the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. True, in this area the Russian reproaches are met with counter-claims about its large number of tactical nuclear weapons, and even ascribing to Russia “escalation for de-escalation” tactics.
Some attention was paid to Russian successes in the second important area, devoted to new technologies affecting strategic deterrence. The success of Russian modernisation is not often praised abroad. Richard repeated the thesis, traditional for meetings of the Collegium of the Russian Ministry of Defence on the modernisation of “more than 80% of strategic nuclear forces”, focused, according to him, on the Soviet-era mobile and silo ICBMs , which includes an increase in the ability to deliver warheads, a significant modernisation of the conventional forces, and serious investment in the development of hypersonic weapons. According to him, Russia “at the moment” is the world leader in hypersonic technologies, including the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle already on alert service and the Zircon hypersonic cruise missile is passing tests.
These systems, especially the much-hyped dual-capable Zircon , together with the Poseidon nuclear-powered underwater drone and the Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile, are, according to the head of the US Strategic Command, “a new challenge for strategic deterrence” and give Russia “asymmetric advantages”. Considering that the above systems were presented as measures to prevent the possibility of the American missile defence system from influencing Russia’s retaliatory strike potential, one could rejoice, but such “praise” of course has its own motives. Instead of Moscow’s desired dialogue on limiting the American missile defence system, so that in the future it could be limited by the possibility of repelling only a blow from a “rogue state”, the Americans are constantly talking about building up its capabilities. Interestingly, regarding missile defence, Richard said twice that in fact, Russia has more strategic interceptors and that they are equipped with nuclear warheads, which is a reason to recall Lenin’s phrase “formally correct, but essentially sheer mockery”. Regarding hypersound, the admiral said that the Strategic Command was eager to receive hypersonic weapons. How to use them is already being actively studied at the theoretical level, and they will be immediately included in US strategic deterrence as soon as they appear in service. Of course, mentions of Moscow’s malicious behaviour in cyberspace could not be enough, but they were probably made in order to remind the need to continue and deepen the American process of modernising the out-dated national NC3 system .
The Great Chinese Missile Wall and the Containment Triad
However, the most vocal statements have been made on the Chinese issue and how it affects the changing strategic situation for the United States.
Anticipating the analysis of the statements of such interested persons as high-ranking American generals, we have to note that China, of course, is actively modernising its nuclear triad. For most of their history, since inception, China’s nuclear forces have been rather modest in size. This was justified by a particularly responsible attitude and peacefulness, but in practice the so-called “policy of minimum deterrence” caused problems with the production of high-tech weapons in large volumes due to the country’s technical and personnel backwardness. Although the first copies of the Soviet MiG-21 (J-7) fighters and Tu-16 (H-6) bombers were created in the 1960s, their large-scale production started only in the late 1980s. The first missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to Moscow and Guam — the DF-4, began to be deployed, according to American estimates, around 1975-76, but even by the mid-1980s, only four missiles were deployed. The deployment of the first real ICBM, DF-5, started in 1981 and only four missiles were deployed for more than ten years. Only in the mid-1990s was their number increased to about ten. In 1983, the PLA received the first type 092 nuclear-powered missile submarine, but the boat was extremely problematic. In fact, it was incapable of combat, armed with JL-1 missiles with a range of only about 2,500 km and, as a result, only one was built.
When, after the end of the Cold War, China began to rapidly develop its industrial capabilities, it initially focused on conventional weapons — as a practical matter , and as a political one. A too-rapid modernisation of nuclear weapons could not but be painfully perceived in the West, close economic cooperation with which, for the CPC, was the main driver of economic growth. Until recently, the growth of Chinese nuclear forces was significant on the one hand, and inconspicuous on the other. The expert community even “praised” Beijing for its moderation in the size of its arsenals and adherence to the principle of not using nuclear weapons first. Chinese ICBMs allegedly are not even equipped with warheads; these are stored centrally in warehouses — a practice that was probably abandoned but continue to be remembered in publications. According to the “generally accepted” estimates of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, by the end of 2020 China’s nuclear arsenal was less than 350 warheads, of which 270 were loaded on carriers, which is approximately equal to the French (about 300 warheads, of which 290 are loaded on carriers).
The qualitative breakthrough of the Chinese triad began in the late 2000s, with the beginning of the deployment of the DF-31A mobile land-based missile systems with a single solid-propellant missile capable of reaching United States territory. The PLA got six type 094 missile submarines, which are capable of carrying JL-2 missiles with a range of approx. 7,000 km: capable of hitting targets in the Western Pacific region, large parts of Eurasia and Alaska. Probably, in order to confidently reach the main territory of the United States, the tested JL-3 missiles and new type 096 submarines are required. The main pride of the Chinese is the new DF-41 missile system, which features a heavy missile with multiple warheads. The mobile version apparently is still being used for military tests and/or personnel training, but it will begin operational deployment in the very near future, if it has not been deployed already.
During the Donald Trump administration, these new arrivals were used actively to substantiate claims against China and demands that it join the Russian-American regime of strategic arms limitation. At some stage, China’s involvement in arms control was even one of the preliminary (and obviously impracticable) conditions for the extension of the New START Treaty. Trump and his team were subjected to serious criticism for these ideas and in general “paranoia” in relation to the Chinese nuclear forces from the mainly pro-Democratic American expert community.
However, the current unwinding of the “yellow threat” is associated with an incident that may go down in history either as OSINT , or as a political provocation. At the end of June, the images of a commercial satellite service presumably detected an ICBM firing location under construction for more than a hundred silos (sic!), probably for DF-41. A month later, other experts found another one, at an earlier stage of construction (it was stated that it will have the same capacity), and on the day of Admiral Richard’s speech, a third position was found, albeit a smaller one (30-36 silos). Thus, the American expert community announced a parallel construction process of almost three hundred silo launchers. To understand the scale: in Russia, which also uses silo and mobile complexes in the ground component of its strategic nuclear forces, there are half this number. Considering the need for the production of other missiles and for other types of deployment, even China cannot equip such a number of launchers in a decade! When this gap in the picture became obvious, the idea of the “three shells and a pea” game came to the fore — supposedly China would not equip all silos with missiles and would periodically rearrange them. A similar concept for ICBM deployment was worked out by the United States and the USSR during the Cold War, but in practice it was not used.
However, supporters of the sensational discovery also found opponents, indicating that these are not firing locations at all, but ... wind farms under construction. Lending support to this theory was that, in addition to the huge number of ‘silos’, they were being constructed very close to one another. Both sides claimed they had higher resolution images to prove their point, but did not release them . It is also obvious that the US military, with more “vigilant” systems, should have discovered the construction of silos a long time ago, the first under Trump, but this argument then was not used. Interestingly, among those who saw the “silos” for what they really were, there were recent critics of the 45th president, who now cry out about Chinese nuclear modernisation no less than the staff of the previous administration. Not surprisingly, although the current president is from the other party, he is pursuing the same policy in a number of respects.
The growth of China’s capabilities was the main theme of the aforementioned speeches of the US military. Richard called the PLA’s modernisation of nuclear and conventional weapons “breathtaking... Frankly, that word, breathtaking, may not be enough.” At the same time, the reasons that prompted China to go this route do not matter, and the words of the opponents in Moscow and Beijing about the American missile defence system are just excuses. It is directed only against rogue states. The experts who found the firing locations were indirectly blessed by Richard: “If you enjoy looking at commercial satellite imagery for stuff in China, can I suggest you keep looking? Right? Normally I have to pay people to do it, if you like doing it for free that just helps, and I appreciate that.” It is noteworthy that later, at a Hudson Institute event, the admiral avoided answering the direct question of whether these words should be considered an official confirmation. Instead, he turned to the traditional chicanery that the Strategic Command is not a supplier, but a consumer of intelligence information and the task of confirming/refuting this is not in his competence. However, rhetorically, his words, obviously, can be perceived as confirmation and it was for this that they were pronounced.
China’s modernisation and its departure from the concept of “minimum deterrence”, possibly with plans to achieve strategic parity with the United States, requires a change in attitudes towards it. It is stated that China can no longer be viewed as a minor threat relative to Russia in matters of strategic deterrence. General Bussiere even deepened the thesis, predicting that in the next few years China will overtake Russia and become the main nuclear threat. Answering clarifying questions, he explained that China would become a greater threat due to the combination of the number of deployed and ready carriers, lack of transparency, intentions and policies, and the volume of arsenals is less important here.
The growth of the PRC is forcing the transition to a “tripartite containment”, in which the Strategic Command has the task of simultaneously, separately and effectively containing Russia and China, while taking into account the possibility that they will act together. For the United States, such a situation is “unknown waters” into which they have already entered and the development of a theory of tripartite deterrence is a key task for both the command and the civilian scientific and expert community to which the generals have appealed for help. It is ironic enough that the United States has thus found itself in the situation the Soviet Union had been in, when it was forced to allocate a third of its defence spending to containing the PRC.
Of course, the motives for such public activity among American “strategists” are understandable. A number of doctrinal documents are under preparation that will define the key policy statements of the current administration, including the Nuclear Posture Review, which is expected to be published early next year. The importance of this document is critical — the Biden administration will really have to begin the large-scale funding of the modernisation of the American nuclear triad, a process that was in its infancy under Obama, and under Trump only took up relatively small amounts in terms of financing. Now it is necessary to start financing not the design, but the testing and mass production of new systems, and it is important that nothing of value falls “overboard”. Many political and social players in the United States have historically had a negative attitude toward nuclear weapons, and consider big spending on them harmful (both for ideological and practical reasons). They need to be “mentally prepared” for the inevitability of these measures. So far, American lawmakers, even from the Democratic Party, support the programmes launched under Trump in next year’s budget (even such controversial and criticised projects as a new nuclear cruise missile for submarines), but this is done with reservation, ostensibly just so as not to delay budget approval. “Biden’s real budget” should be a budget for FY2023, which will be formed taking into account the new doctrinal guidelines.
Of course, the position of the Strategic Command representatives cannot be reduced to appeals to give them more money and competencies (although this naturally also exists). The strategic situation for the United States is indeed changing in connection with the growing confrontation with China. It is changing, perhaps, really uncomfortably for Washington, which could not have calculated in advance the promptness of China’s reaction and the consequences of maintaining a confrontational policy with Beijing and Moscow at once. This opens up a window of opportunity for Russia, since a confrontation with two opponents of equal strategic systems at once will be a burden for the United States, and it may be ready to reduce confrontation with a less principled adversary: Moscow may be rhetorically a great evil for a million reasons, but in practice it is clearly not seen as an existential threat, like Beijing. For Russia it will not be possible to play the role of China in the Soviet-American Cold War and it is unacceptable to sharply aggravate relations with Beijing for the sake of encouragement from overseas, but you can get benefits from someone else’s clash.
And of course, the main thing is not to get offended if Washington, for the first time in 75 years, ceases to consider Russia the main threat to its existence and does not rush to build its own fields of “wind turbines”, just for the sake of principle and prestige.