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Experts Divided on Impact to U.S. of Russia, China Nuke Modernization

By Rachel Oswald

Global Security Newswire

(Oct. 17) -A Russian RS-24 ICBM, shown in a May 2007 test launch. Nuclear weapons experts were divided at a Friday hearing on Capitol Hill over the impact that Chinese and Russian nuclear arms modernization efforts will have on the U.S. strategic deterrent (AP Photo). (Oct. 17) -A Russian RS-24 ICBM, shown in a May 2007 test launch. Nuclear weapons experts were divided at a Friday hearing on Capitol Hill over the impact that Chinese and Russian nuclear arms modernization efforts will have on the U.S. strategic deterrent (AP Photo).

WASHINGTON -- Russia and China are both modernizing their nuclear arsenals to include new capabilities, but experts at a House hearing on Friday offered different views on how those programs would impact the effectiveness of the U.S. strategic deterrent (see GSN, Sept. 22).

"There is a great deal of similarity between Russia and China in terms of modernization programs and the role of nuclear weapons in their [military] strategies," said Mark Schneider, a senior analyst with the National Institute for Public Policy. "The Russians and the Chinese are modernizing every element of their strategic triad."

The triad refers to the three methods for delivering nuclear warheads -- land-launched missiles, submarines and bombers. Though Russia, like the United States, has the full nuclear triad, China’s possession of a reliable submarine-based deterrent is not yet definitively known. Japanese news reports this summer indicated Beijing had put to sea a Qing-class submarine with the capacity to fire nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles (see GSN, July 18).

Russia today has fewer deployed long-range nuclear warheads than the 1,550 cap set within seven years by the New START arms control treaty with the United States. As of February, Moscow possessed 1,537 fielded strategic warheads, according to publicly available numbers (see GSN, June 2).

Comparatively, Washington in June counted 1,800 warheads placed on 882 fielded delivery platforms. The United States’ total nuclear arsenal, comprised of deployed and nondeployed, strategic and tactical weapons is in excess of 5,000 weapons.

Moscow, though, is working to boost its strategic arsenal levels back up to the ceiling of deployed warheads allowed by the pact, Schneider told the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee.

Unlike China, Russia is very public about the prominence of nuclear weapons in its security strategy and also reserves the right under certain conditions to use such arms during a conventional war. As its traditional military might in Europe has drastically declined in recent years, Moscow has given increasing importance to the role of nuclear weapons, a situation Schneider described as "very disturbing."

Russia is in the middle of testing its new Bulava ballistic missile, which was developed to carry up to 10 nuclear warheads as far as 5,000 miles and would be fielded on Borei-class submarines. In addition, the nation is bringing up for deployment more portable land-based RS-24 ICBMs intended to thwart adversarial missile defenses, according to recent reports (see GSN, Aug. 12).

Schneider said the general trend of Russia’s modernization efforts is to field a greater range of nuclear-delivery systems with the capacity to carry a higher number of warheads. The analyst said he was most concerned about Moscow’s plans to develop a new heavy ICBM, which he described as a "Cold War relic" (see GSN, March 18).

Meanwhile, Beijing is "both qualitatively and quantitatively improving its strategic missile forces," according to the U.S. Defense Department’s 2011 assessment of Chinese military capabilities. China is estimated by the Pentagon to have up to 75 long-range missiles tipped with nuclear warheads, as well as 120 intermediate- and medium-range systems (see GSN, Aug. 26).

The Asian state appears to be developing another land-based movable ICBM that would join its existing Dongfeng 31 and Dongfeng 31A mobile systems, according to the report. The People’s Liberation Army is also thought to have added up to 25 new ICBMs to its missile forces in the last year.

International Assessment and Strategy Center senior fellow Richard Fisher told the panel the United States was faced with the possibility of losing its deterrence power in Northeast Asia should the Chinese military couple its growing arsenal of deployed long-range strategic weapons with space-based threats and ballistic missile defenses.

It would be important to watch how quickly China is able to deploy new ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles that can carry multiple warheads, Fisher said. He also noted reports indicating the Chinese military is developing a new intermediate-range ballistic missile that could be ready by 2014 as well as the "phenomenal growth" in the nation’s arsenal of land-based cruise missiles.

Subcommittee Chairman Michael Turner (R-Ohio) said he was seriously worried by classified Pentagon reports that the Chinese military is constructing a vast tunnel system of more than 3,000 miles in order to keep nuclear-weapon movements hidden from the rest of the world.

"We need to understand the potential long-term consequences as Russia and China modernize their nuclear arsenal while we sit back and simply maintain our aging nuclear forces," Turner said.

The White House in 2010 announced a plan to spend $85 billion over the next decade to modernize the nuclear complex and stockpile.

However, Turner and other pro-nuclear lawmakers are concerned that enormous federal budget deficits will mean less funding for the U.S. stockpile and its associated infrastructure. In September, Senate appropriators voted to reduce the White House’s fiscal 2012 funding proposal for National Nuclear Security Administration's weapons activities to $7.19 billion. The Obama administration had sought $7.6 billion (see GSN, Oct. 13).

"We’re currently faced with a highly uncertain future regarding our own nuclear deterrent program," Turner said on Friday. "We’re on the verge of halting our nuclear modernization program before it even begins."

Turner was also reacting to a new movement by some of his Democratic House colleagues to lobby the bipartisan deficit reduction committee to cut $20 billion a year for 10 years from U.S. nuclear weapons spending (see GSN, Oct. 12).

"We’re relying on an aging infrastructure at a time when we see that those we want to deter are modernizing," Turner said.

Hans Kristensen, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Nuclear Information Project, countered that characterizations of a declining U.S. strategic deterrent in the face of rising Chinese and Russian nuclear forces considerably misrepresent reality.

"It’s like comparing apples and oranges," Kristensen told Global Security Newswire in a telephone interview. "The claim that they are modernizing and we are not is baloney."

While Russia continues to manufacture new nuclear warheads, the United States made the decision in the 1990s to build weapons that could reliably last for multiple decades, Kristensen said. "There’s not some mechanical hindrance that somehow prevents us from building nuclear weapons. It’s a complete misrepresentation of what's going on."

Kristensen also drew attention to the United States' own considerable new nuclear initiatives over the last decade, which include a complete overhaul of the Minuteman 3 ballistic missile force and the ongoing updating of Trident 2 D-5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles. He pointed out that unlike Russia’s testing track record for its new Bulava missile; the Trident 2 D-5 has performed superbly during trials.

"I don’t know when these guys woke up, we have been spending billions of dollars modernizing our nuclear weapons over the last decade," he said.

Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, played down the impacts of Russian and Chinese nuclear modernization on the United States' security strategy. He told the subcommittee U.S. nuclear deterrence against Russia and China remained "very strong."

"Both Russia and China do fundamentally (worry) that the U.S. would use nuclear weapons first," he said.

The two countries' nuclear modernization activities should be responded to not with "more deterrence but continued attention from the U.S. to ensure our ability to deter Russia and China" is strong, Lewis said.

There exists no foreseeable scenarios under which either Russia or China could launch a pre-emptive strike on the United States, its deployed forces or its allies without suffering in response "overwhelming destruction that would outweigh any possible gain," according to Lewis.

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GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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