NPT Brief: Keeping Chinese Nuclear Weapons Off Hair-Trigger Alert

May 18, 2015 | 2:07 pm
Gregory Kulacki
China Project Manager

An overwhelming majority of NPT member states agree that keeping nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert presents an irresponsibly high risk of an accidental or mistaken launch. The final report of the last NPT review conference, held in 2010, included a requirement to lower alert levels. The United States is doing its best to make sure that requirement is stripped from the final language of the 2015 report, despite the wishes of many close U.S. allies.

Canada is a member of a coalition of twelve nations called the Nuclear Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NPDI) that includes several countries, such as Japan, Germany, Turkey and the Netherlands, which are sometimes described as “nuclear umbrella” states because of their close consultations with the United States on U.S. nuclear weapons policy. They want to keep the requirement on de-alerting in the 2015 report. The NPDI submitted a working paper calling on all nuclear weapons states, including the United States, to take “concrete agreed measures to further reduce the operational status of nuclear weapons systems.”

U.S. Pressures Allies over De-Alerting

The United States is not happy with the NPDI working paper and is trying to bury it. There was no mention of the paper or de-alerting in Secretary Kerry’s statement to the NPT review conference or the U.S. joint statement with Japan, which founded the NPDI in 2010. Rose Gottemoeller, the U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, participated in a closed-door session at the United Nations with Greg Weaver, the principal director for nuclear and missile defense policy in the office of the U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, where the two tried to explain why the United States thinks de-alerting is inadvisable.

Last Thursday, the Canadian delegation hosted a side event at the United Nations for delegates interested in discussing the de-alerting initiative and U.S. opposition. David Wright, the co-director of the Global Security Program at UCS, and Hans Kristensen, the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, helped NPT delegates understand the U.S. position on de-alerting, why it is unfounded, and how de-alerting can be done quickly, simply and safely in a way that increases the collective security of the United States and its allies.

Refusal to De-Alert Could Make a Bad Situation Worse

I focused on a new and unanticipated cost of the U.S. effort to maintain high alert levels: the possibility that China may adopt the same irresponsible hair-trigger mechanisms used by the United States. China currently keeps its nuclear weapons off alert but there are indications a new generation of Chinese military strategists, heavily influenced by U.S. approaches to nuclear deterrence, may convince the Chinese leadership to raise the alert level of China’s nuclear forces in response to perceived threats from the United States.

In my remarks, included below the photo, I argued that U.S. leaders can take steps, including de-alerting, that would encourage China’s leaders to reject the ill-considered advice of their military strategists and keep China’s nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert.


From left to right: Hans Kristensen, Gregory Kulacki, Heidi Hulan, Director of Canada’s Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Division and host of the briefing, and David Wright at the head of the table in Conference Room D on the basement floor of the United Nations Headquarters building in New York on 14 May 2015.

Remarks Delivered at the NPT Review Conference

As we urge the United States and Russia to take their nuclear weapons off prompt alert, we also need to consider measures to help all nuclear weapons states keep their weapons off alert, especially states with much smaller nuclear arsenals.

China may provide a guide to the types of measures we should consider.

There are three reasons China deserves our consideration.

  • The first is that China currently keeps its nuclear weapons off alert.
  • The second is that China has articulated, for decades, concerns about trends in the development of conventional military technology that undermine international efforts to control, reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons.
  • The third is that China has sought, for decades, international negotiations in the UN Conference on Disarmament to arrest those trends.

China has a comparatively small nuclear arsenal. China will not say how small because it believes ambiguity on this question helps them keep it small.

But for comparative purposes, under the counting rules of the New Start Agreement between Russia and the United States, the total number of Chinese nuclear weapons would be zero.

This is because the New Start Agreement counts “deployed strategic warheads” rather than total warheads. Deployed is defined as “the number of reentry vehicles emplaced on deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles and on deployed submarine launched ballistic missiles.”

At present, China is believed to keep its intercontinental ballistic missiles in a non-deployed mode with the warheads separated from the missiles. And China does not currently deploy submarine launched ballistic missiles.

So, compared to the other nuclear weapons states that are parties to the NPT, China maintains its nuclear weapons in a comparatively safe state. The risk of an accidental or inadvertent Chinese launch is comparatively low.

But that could change.

China’s military scholars recently published a study stating China needs a more flexible nuclear policy. A look at some of the statements from that study reveal cause for concern.

No first use remains an unshakable first principle. But Chinese military scholars see what they describe as “an increasingly complicated nuclear security environment.” And the primary complication is the United States, which they believe is

• Making China its primary strategic competitor
• Expanding its missile defense system in East Asia
• Developing new types of conventional weapons that can destroy China’s nuclear forces.

Chinese military scholars are especially concerned about what they call “the U.S. rapid global strike plan.” They believe that “once it becomes operational it can be used to attack our nuclear missile force, put us in a passive position, greatly influence our ability for nuclear retaliation and weaken the effectiveness of our deterrent.”

In the minds of China’s military scholars, this U.S. plan is emblematic of “developments in science and technology that blur the line between conventional and nuclear weapons.”

Missile defense, anti-satellite, space, cyber and conventional precision strike weapons are the most important.

And because the United States refuses to adopt a no first use policy Chinese military scholars worry that “a future informationalized (信息化) conventional war could develop into nuclear war.”

Chinese military concerns about the vulnerability of its nuclear forces present Chinese military scholars with the perceived need to suggest a solution.

This is not a new problem for China.

Chinese analysts have been thinking about the impacts of advanced conventional weapons on nuclear arms control for decades.

In the late 1970s Chinese researchers were warning that advances in conventional military technology would eventually undermine nuclear arms control agreements.

In the mid 1980s China responded to the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative by investing heavily in an effort to narrow an already widening gap between U.S. and Chinese military technology while simultaneously proposing international limitations on all military space technology.

China followed its experience as a victim of U.S. advanced conventional military technology in 1999 – the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade – by accelerating investment in military space technology and stepping up efforts to open negotiations on an international arms control agreement to restrict it.

Finally, in 2013, the Chinese military let the world know, in a widely read and highly regarded open source publication, it was considering raising the alert level of its nuclear forces in response to the continued unrestrained development and deployment of advanced conventional weapons.

The publication stated the Chinese military was considering responding to the perceived vulnerability of its nuclear forces by making preparations to be able to launch its nuclear-armed missiles after being warned of an incoming nuclear attack but before the attacking forces could destroy their targets.

That statement, from a committee of 35 military scholars from the Chinese Academy of Military Science, is not a definitive indication that China will, in fact, raise the alert level of its nuclear forces and move to a launch on warning posture.

Equipping its forces to implement launch on warning would not be easy, cheap or quick.

Earlier this week, in response to a question from a reporter for the Congressional Research Service, a former Chinese missile designer noted that China’s missiles were not designed to be kept on alert. Replacing them would be prohibitively expensive.

China is not known to have satellite, radar or other sensing systems that would allow it to detect or confirm an incoming nuclear attack.

And there is no evidence China’s missile forces are training to carry out this type of prompt launch operation.

So the statement by the Chinese Academy of Military Science is best interpreted as an aspirational goal or a suggestion for the Chinese Communist Party leadership to consider.

As they do, it will be interesting to see whether China’s leaders continue to chart their own course on nuclear policy, or whether they choose to follow in the footsteps of the United States.

A knowledgeable Chinese arms control expert recently confided, with amusement and concern, that some Chinese security experts are currently raising the following question during internal debates about Chinese nuclear policy: “The U.S. President carries around a nuclear football, why doesn’t our president? Shouldn’t China have its own nuclear football?”

A U.S. decision to de-alert its forces might change the tenor of that conversation.

A U.S. decision to participate in international negotiations on missile defense, space and conventional precision strike weapons might end it.

Regrettably, the United States decided to brush aside talk of de-alerting during this review conference, and it continues to brush aside Russian and Chinese concerns in the UN Conference on Disarmament.

China’s consideration of moving to launch on warning is a warning that the U.S. decision to ignore global calls to take its weapons off hair-trigger alert is not in the best interests of the United States, its allies, or the credibility of the NPT.

About the author

More from Gregory

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.