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China May Pursue Nuclear Cruise Missiles, U.S. Military Study Warns

Navy sailors stand on the deck of the Chinese missile frigate Ma'Anshan as the ship docks at the port in Manila in spring 2010. A new U.S. military paper warns that Beijing might be tempted to arm its growing arsenal of cruise missiles with nuclear weapons to counter U.S. carrier strike groups. Navy sailors stand on the deck of the Chinese missile frigate Ma'Anshan as the ship docks at the port in Manila in spring 2010. A new U.S. military paper warns that Beijing might be tempted to arm its growing arsenal of cruise missiles with nuclear weapons to counter U.S. carrier strike groups. (Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. military analysts are concerned that China could be contemplating arming its growing arsenal of cruise missiles with nuclear warheads.

A new report on the Chinese cruise missile threat by the U.S. National Defense University notes that the People's Liberation Army in the future could turn to nuclear-tipped cruise missiles to counter U.S. Navy carrier strike groups, Defense News reported on Monday. Such naval-warfare tactics were previously emphasized by the former Soviet Union.

The paper quotes former U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Michael McDevitt as saying China "is likely already 'arm[ing] nuclear attack submarines with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.'" However, the report does not cite any evidence that China is actually fielding such "substrategic nuclear weapons," though it notes the "Soviet Navy has clearly influenced" China's naval development.

Factors making the deployment of nuclear-armed, low-altitude missiles less likely include China's relatively weak command-and-control capabilities, and that doing so would seem to go against its nuclear doctrine. Beijing says it retains nuclear weapons solely as a means of deterring attack, and that it would never be the first side to use such armaments in a conflict.

China is estimated to possess about 250 nuclear warheads, according to a 2013 report by the International Panel on Fissile Materials.

The National Defense University paper more broadly warned about the threat to U.S. carrier strike groups from China's new anti-ship cruise missiles, contending that the People's Liberation Army thinks that these weapons, which are cheaper to produce than U.S. antimissile systems, can overwhelm the defenses of U.S. warships.

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