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On August 12, 2021, the Commander of U.S. Strategic Command Admiral Charles Richard stated, “We are witnessing a strategic breakout by China….The explosive growth in their nuclear and conventional forces can only be what I described as breathtaking." He added that "…frankly, that word ‘breathtaking’ may not be enough.” Admiral Richard characterized China as a “peer” nuclear competitor and noted that we now face two nuclear “peer” competitors, Russia and China, compared to one during the Cold War.

Admiral Richard was talking about the massive Chinese silo construction program for the large, multiple warhead DF-41 ICBM, generally reported to be able to carry 10 nuclear warheads. He confirmed the earlier reports of two new ICBM fields and that each had about 120 silos for the large Chinese DF-41 ICBM. On August 12, 2021, Bill Gertz wrote in The Washington Times that a third ICBM field had been discovered and that, “Together, the three new missile bases will house 350 to 400 new long-range nuclear missiles, U.S. officials said. If 10 warheads are deployed on the DF-41s, China‘s warhead level will increase to more than 4,000 warheads on its DF-41s alone.”

The information we now have about the Chinese silo construction was not initially made public by the Biden administration. It was made public by analysts from NGOs (Jeffrey Lewis, Matt Korda and Hans Kristensen) and noted journalist Bill Gertz. Patty-Jane Geller of the Heritage Foundation noted that on the same day as Admiral Richard characterized China’s actions as a nuclear “breakout”:

…the Biden administration was reported to be considering delaying the Pentagon’s plan to modernize the United States’ Cold War-era nuclear forces. Worse, just a few days prior, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) sent a letter asking Biden to consider reducing U.S. nuclear forces. There’s a clear disconnect between the reality of the threat facing the United States and the Biden administration’s stated desire to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. strategy.

There is little indication that the Biden administration, as distinct from certain individuals in it, recognizes the significance of what is going on in China with respect to nuclear weapons modernization and expansion or that it will have any impact on its Nuclear Posture Review. Former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Dr. John Harvey, who had the nuclear weapons portfolio in the Obama administration, has indicated he believes that the Biden administration will “Carry forward the bulk—but possibly not every piece—of the Obama-Trump modernization program with some increased focus on NC2.”[1] The idea of cutting our nuclear forces and modernization plans in the face of such a great increase in the Chinese and Russian threat is almost mind-boggling. Furthermore, according to Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, “I cannot say that under the current administration, we hear from Washington signals in favour of involving the PRC [People’s Republic of China] in our bilateral dialogue with the United States on strategic stability or some hypothetical negotiations in the future. This is not the case.”[2] There is no apparent motive for him to lie about this. Thus, the Biden administration appears to be largely ignoring the new China nuclear threat in its arms control diplomacy.

There is an increasing disconnect between our nuclear strategy and our nuclear targeting capability. Since PD-59 in the Carter administration, the basis of U.S. nuclear targeting has been to “put the major weight of the initial response [to Soviet attack] ‘on military and control targets. Target systems would include tactical and strategic nuclear forces, military command centers, conventional military forces including armies in motion, and industrial facilities supporting military operations.” In 2002 Admiral (ret.) Richard Mies, the just-retired Commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, wrote that the “…longstanding [U.S.] targeting doctrine of flexible response — [was] a doctrine designed to hold at risk our potential adversaries' military forces, war-supporting industry, command and control capabilities, and military and national civilian leadership while minimizing to the maximum extent collateral damage to population and civilian infrastructure.” In 2013, the Obama administration adopted a nuclear weapons employment strategy which stated, “The new guidance requires the United States to maintain significant counterforce capabilities against potential adversaries. The new guidance does not rely on a ‘counter-value’ or ‘minimum deterrence’ strategy.” Commenting on the 2013 employment guidance, the Department of State indicated, “The United States will not intentionally target civilian populations or civilian objects," adding that we "Seek to minimize collateral damage to civilian populations and civilian objects.”

We are now generally a decade away from modernization of our strategic forces. It is now clear that the existing U.S. strategic nuclear force, much less a smaller one, can’t deal with 400 more Chinese ICBM silos. Moreover, critically, we do not know if that is all they plan to build.

The new nuclear threat is not only emanating from China. Russia is doing similar things, although it does not have the economic resources to build at the same rate as China. In December 2019, Putin was told that Russia would deploy 20 regiments of its new Sarmat heavy ICBM by 2027.[3] This represents 120 to 200 silos,[4] a large increase from the reported 46 that now exist for the SS-18 heavy ICBM. In 2011, Russia’s main official news agency TASS reported that the new heavy ICBM that would later be called the Sarmat would be provided with "a fundamentally new level of fortification…camouflage, wide use of electronic jamming” and, “…their active defense, as well through the deployment of long-range S-400 ABM systems and high-altitude S-500 systems capable of destroying on a par with space and air weapons the warheads of ICBMs and the enemy’s precision weapons, including missiles and aircraft bombs and cruise missiles.”[5]

The upgrade in Russian silo hardness is interesting in light of the original hardness of Russian SS-18 silos. The Department of Defense’s report Soviet Military Power 1988 (at a time when Peacekeeper, the most accurate U.S. ICBM, was operational) described Soviet silos as “hardened and highly survivable.”[6] A National Resources Defense Council study by Matthew G. McKinzie, Thomas B. Cochran, Robert S. Norris and William M. Arkin reported hardness of 15,000 to 25,000 psi for Soviet SS-18 and SS-19 silos.

With our current forces, the U.S. cannot possibly target these new Chinese and Russian silos with any serious level of effectiveness. In 2014, Dr. John Harvey stated that the Obama administration's 2010 Nuclear Posture Review concluded "…that a triad of nuclear forces at a level of 1500 'arms control accountable' warheads—about 1850 'real' deployed warheads under the bomber counting rule—met the needs for strategic deterrence. This is well within the range of 1700-2200 'real' deployed warheads deemed sufficient by George W. Bush's team."[7] The 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review apparently made no change in the planned number of U.S. strategic nuclear weapons to be maintained. In 2021, Matt Korda and Hans Kristensen reported that “We estimate that approximately 1,800 [U.S.] warheads are currently deployed, of which roughly 1,400 strategic warheads are deployed on ballistic missiles and another 300 at strategic bomber bases in the United States. An additional 100 tactical bombs are deployed at air bases in Europe.” This is almost identical to the number that Dr. Harvey indicated was decided on in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review. When this decision was made, however, nothing remotely like the current Chinese or Russian threat existed.

In addition to the new silos, China has built the “Underground Great Wall” to protect its mobile ICBMs and Bill Gertz has reported that Russia was “modernizing deep underground bunkers…” These are extraordinarily difficult to destroy or even to threaten seriously.

When Russian ICBM force expansion and the deep underground facilities in Russia and China are taken into account, our existing and projected nuclear forces have little capability to threaten them. Numbers count, and we no longer have the numbers. According to Admiral Richard, "…two-thirds of those [U.S. nuclear] weapons are 'operationally unavailable' because of treaty constraints, such as provisions of the New START treaty with Russia." The U.S. modernization programs will help with covering these targets, but this is a decade away, and it may not be on a sufficient scale with regard to numbers.

In 1985, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Vessey briefed President Ronald Reagan about the need for improved hard-target kill capability, including the need for 100 MX (Peacekeeper) ICBMs. We actually got 50. Of the three U.S. hard target capable systems created by the Reagan administration, two (the Peacekeeper ICBM and the Advanced Cruise Missile) were eliminated by the George W. Bush administration. This left only the high-yield WW-88 Trident warheads. Reportedly, the U.S. produced only 400 of the high-yield WW-88 warheads for the Trident II missile. Obviously, they can’t all be used against Chinese silos even if one makes a number of best-case assumptions. Moreover, it is not clear that the 1990 accuracy of the Trident II will be adequate if the Chinese are building silos based upon the new 30,000 psi super concrete now commercially available. The 1970 accuracy of a Minuteman III, while a great achievement in 1970, is hardly the same today against really hard targets. Unfortunately, the Minuteman III life extension program did not aim to upgrade the accuracy of the Minuteman.[8] It is not comparable to the Peacekeeper. There are plenty of important targets, including hard targets, the Minuteman III can cover, but super hard targets are not among them.

Even before the discovery of the new Chinese silos, a case could be made from a targeting standpoint for a strategic nuclear force of 2,700-3,000 nuclear warheads. There is a great difference between target coverage (assigning a warhead to a target) and damage expectancy (the probability of target destruction). Claims by Minimum Deterrence advocates, such as the Global Zero "Commission" report that a small nuclear force can do effective counterforce targeting are bogus. Regarding China, the report’s targeting plan involved “(85 warheads including 2-on-1 strikes against every missile silo), leadership command posts (33 warheads), war-supporting industry (136 warheads).” With the new Chinese silos, this targeting approach would require almost 1,000 warheads. Moreover, the approach itself is flawed because it ignores the Underground Great Wall, which protects the Chinese mobile ICBM force, the Chinese Navy and Air Force, and the large Chinese force of nuclear-capable theater-range missiles. The Global Zero report also assigned two warheads against every Russian silo. The report talked about target coverage, not damage expectancy, because its recommended force structure would likely have performed very badly against the facilities it targeted.

Against the very deep hard, and deeply targets (HDBTs) there is essentially zero chance that they can be destroyed with a single U.S. nuclear warhead. The 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review only partially reversed the Obama administration’s decision to eliminate the two most effective U.S. bombs against HDBTs, the B61 Mod 11 and B-83. These bombs will be retained longer than planned but not be life extended. Once again, numbers matter, and we no longer have the numbers. Conventional weapons have little and declining capability against HDBTs.[9] As one report stated, “One GBUJ-57A/B [Massive Ordnance Penetrator] can only penetrate 8 meters of 10,000 psi rock or concrete. This could drop to 2 meters of 30,000 psi material.”

Another problem is now looming – the Russian near-term deployment of the S-500 system, which Russia says will have a capability against ICBMs and SLBMS.[10] In August 2021, Russian announced a successful test of “the latest S-500 anti-aircraft missile system [which] performed [a] test live firing at a high-speed ballistic target.” Russia is attempting to sell this system to China. The 2018 Nuclear Posture Review report recognized the need for “…capabilities for defeating advanced air and missile defenses.” Apparently, nothing has been done to enhance our ability to penetrate adversary missile defenses.

In light of the destruction of U.S. alliance credibility by the Afghanistan fiasco, the Biden administration’s decisions relating to nuclear weapons are even more important. Our adversaries are gloating and using it to pressure their intended victims to capitulate. The last thing we need today is a further reduction in our nuclear capability under the guise of reducing our reliance on nuclear weapons. This is not the issue. The role of nuclear weapons in our national strategy is not excessive. A credible capability to implement our nuclear strategy is the issue, and it is vital to our security. As Admiral Richard has pointed out, “Every operational plan in the Department of Defense, and every other capability we have, rests on an assumption that strategic deterrence will hold. And if strategic deterrence, and in particular nuclear deterrence, doesn't hold, none of our other plans, and no other capability that we have is going to work as designed.” We can’t afford to have nuclear deterrence fail.

Dr. Mark B. Schneider is a Senior Analyst with the National Institute for Public Policy. Before his retirement from the Department of Defense Senior Executive Service, Dr. Schneider served in a number of senior positions within the Office of Secretary of Defense for Policy including Principal Director for Forces Policy, Principal Director for Strategic Defense, Space and Verification Policy, Director for Strategic Arms Control Policy and Representative of the Secretary of Defense to the Nuclear Arms Control Implementation Commissions.  He also served in the senior Foreign Service as a Member of the State Department Policy Planning Staff.


[1] John R. Harvey, “Speaking Notes: Anticipating the Biden Nuclear Posture Review 2021 Nuclear Deterrence Summit Westin Alexandria Hotel Alexandria, VA,” August 5, 2021, mimeo, p. 2

[2] “Russian diplomat comments on unresolved issues in talks with US,” BBC Monitoring Former Soviet Union, July 19, 2021, available at https://dialog.proquest.com/professional/professionalnewsstand/docview/2529000761/ fulltext /17AB9EFBB8B2D953267/3?accountid=155509&site=professionalnewsstand&t:ac=17AB9EFBB8B2D95 3267/1&t:cp=maintain/resultcitationblocksbrief&t:zoneid=transactionalZone_17b54737c03

[3] “Russia plans to finalize tests of new Sarmat ICBM in 2021 - National Defense Control Center (Part 2),” Interfax, December 24, 2019, available at https://dialog.proquest.com/professional/professionalnewsstand/docview/ 2330058625/fulltext/16EA95F44AC53E23FA3/115?accountid=55509&site=professionalnewsstand&t:ac=16EA9 5F44AC53E23FA3/6&t:cp=maintain/resultcitationblocksbrief&t:zoneid=transactionalZone_16f43e5c4d1.: “Russia to Finish Testing New Sarmat ICBM in 2021 – Military,” Sputnik, December 24, 2019, available at https://dialog proquest.com/professional/professionalnewsstand/docview/2330046793/fulltext/16EA95F44AC53E23FA3 /198?accountid=155509&site=professionalnewsstand&t:ac=16EA95F44AC53E23FA3/10&t:cp=maintain/ resultcitationblocksbrief&t:zoneid=transactionalZone16f44002.;7f. State-run Ria Novosti also reported 20 planned regiments of the Sarmat. “Highlights of Russia’s arms procurement programme for 2018-2027,” BBC Monitoring Former Soviet Union, December 30, 2019, available at https://dialog.proquest.com/professional/professionalnew sstand/docview/2331240824/fulltext/16EE61E9B4F3E41099/9?accountid=155509&site=professionalnewssta nd&t:ac=16EE61E9B4F3E41099/1&t:cp=maintain/resultcitationblocksbrief&t:zoneid=transactionalZone 16f809d68c8

[4] START Treaty Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms Signed in Moscow July 31, 1991, (Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of State, October 1991), pp. 150-163 

[5] “Russia to have new heavy ICBM 2018 – missile force commander adviser,” TASS, May 4, 2011, available at http ://lite.itar-tass.com/eng/level2.html?NewsID=16145709&PageNum=0

[6] Soviet Military Power 1988 (Washington D.C.: Department of Defense, 1988), p. 45

[7] “Speaking Notes: U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policies and Programs Strategic Weapons in the 21st Century Ronald Reagan Building, Washington, DC John R. Harvey 23 January 2014,” mimeo., p. 1.

[8] DoD News Briefing – Rear Adm. Craig R. Quigley – DASD PA,” August 9. 2001 

[9] Quoted in Keith B. Payne, The Great American Gamble: Deterrence Theory and Practice

from the Cold War to the Twenty-First Century (Fairfax Virginia: National Institute Press, 2008), p. 417.

[10] “Russia: Comments by Deputy Defense Minister Ostapenko on Aerospace Defense Troops Programs Commentary by Interfax-AVN, Moscow, 24 April: The New S-500 Air Defense Missile System Will Be Able To Effectively Combat Advanced Offensive Aerospace Weapons…,” Interfax-AVN Online, April 26, 2013. (Translated by World News Connection. No longer available on the internet.).: “Aviation; S-500 air defense missiles to be able to intercept targets in near space,” Interfax, October 2, 2009, available at https://dialog.proquest.com/professional/ professionalnewsstand/docview/225148646/fulltext/17ACFD226837FB874A0/1?accountid=155509&site=professional newsstand&t:ac=17ACFD226837FB874A0/1&t:cp=maintain/resultcitationblocksbrief&t:zoneid=transaction alone_17b6a50f5b2;;  “S-500 to be Russia’s response to U.S. missile defense network - Defense Ministry,” Interfax, November 29, 2013, available at https://dialog.proquest.com/professional/professionalnewsstand /docview/1462482121/fulltext/17ACFD860BA4EF6BC35/1?accountid=155509&site=professionalnewsstand &t:ac=17ACFD860BA4EF6BC35/1&t:cp=maintain/resultcitationblocksbrief&t:zoneid=transactionalZone_17b6a573c91

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