Mutual Vulnerability with China a Reality, Not a Choice

October 11, 2013 | 9:49 am
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

The United States is vulnerable to a Chinese nuclear strike. Admitting this reality should not be seen as a diplomatic favor to the Chinese, but as a prerequisite for prudent U.S. defense policy.

China’s nuclear arsenal is small but very well protected. It includes a few score of intercontinental ballistic missiles that can deliver a warhead to targets in the United States. Some are older liquid-fueled missiles fixed in hardened silos that could conceivably be taken out in a preemptive U.S. first strike. But the others are newer solid-fueled missiles that are not in fixed locations. They are transported by trucks and enjoy the secrecy and protection afforded by a large network of underground facilities linked by tunnels. Even if the United States were to launch a massive preemptive strike, it would take considerable hubris to believe China would not be able to retaliate. China is also developing the option to deploy nuclear missiles on submarines.

Bradley Roberts,  former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense  for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy in the Obama administration, comments on strategic stability with China during a presentation at the Stimson Center on 26 August 2013. Video courtesy of Video courtesy of C-Span.

In the video above Bradley Roberts, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy in the Obama administration, states rather emphatically that the United States is not going to recognize its vulnerability to Chinese nuclear retaliation. “That’s not,” he says, “something Japan wants to hear.” Perhaps. But the reality of U.S. vulnerability remains whether the U.S. chooses to admit it or not. Nervous Japanese defense planners are unlikely to find reassurance in a policy of denial.

Refusing to admit vulnerability to a Chinese second strike can only reassure those who believe in the possibility of invulnerability. Is Mr. Roberts saying the United States is pursuing such a possibility? If so, Chinese defense planners will most likely respond by increasing the size and capabilities of their nuclear arsenal, which would in turn inspire even greater U.S. efforts to attain an invulnerability that, as we learned in the Cold War, will always be out of reach. A new nuclear arms race in East Asia will leave no one feeling reassured, especially Japan.

About the author

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Gregory Kulacki is a Senior Analyst and the China Project Manager for the Global Security Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). He is also a Visiting Fellow at the Research Center for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (RECNA) at Nagasaki University. He works on improving cross-cultural communication between the United States of America, China and Japan on nuclear weapons and related security issues. Prior to joining UCS in 2002, Dr. Kulacki was the Director of External Studies at Pitzer College, an Associate Professor of Government at Green Mountain College and the China Director for the Council on International Educational Exchange. Gregory completed his doctorate in government and politics at the University of Maryland College Park.