Adm. Charles ‘Chas’ A. Richard, commander U.S. Strategic Command, gives an opening statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington, D.C. April 20, 2021.

Adm. Charles ‘Chas’ A. Richard, commander U.S. Strategic Command, gives an opening statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington, D.C. April 20, 2021. DoD photo by EJ Hersom

US Nuclear Fears Are Shifting From a Clear Russian Threat to a Murkier Chinese One

Bejing might use nukes to coerce U.S. leaders in a crisis, STRATCOM chief tells lawmakers.

China is putting its nuclear forces on higher alert, yet the threat posed by Beijing’s arsenal is not well understood by the United States or its allies, the head of U.S. Strategic Command testified on Tuesday.

“I can’t get through a week without finding out something I didn’t know about China,” Adm. Charles Richard, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. 

Richard said China’s “very opaque” nuclear policy makes it “difficult to determine their intentions.” 

But evidence suggests that China is moving toward a higher state of alert, he said in his written testimony

“While China keeps the majority of its forces in a peacetime status, increasing evidence suggests China has moved a portion of its nuclear force to a Launch on Warning (LOW) posture and are adopting a limited ‘high alert duty’ strategy,” he wrote. 

Beijing is buying new satellites to detect enemy launches and new command-and-control systems for its own forces, he wrote. 

“Their networked and integrated platform advancements will enable skip-echelon decision-making processes and greater rapid reaction,” he wrote. 

Richard faced some questions on the cost of U.S. plans to replace its nuclear ICBMs, submarines, and bombers — in particular the $95 billion DoD officials say they need to replace Minuteman III missiles with the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent.

Richard said that the United States is well behind both China and Russia in modernizing its nuclear forces. With new delivery systems and exercising on a level “not seen since the Cold War,” he said that Russia was about 80 percent done modernizing its nuclear force. 

But the majority of the questions Richards took related to the Chinese threat. China has 350 or so nukes, less than one-tenth the active U.S. inventory of around 3,800. But he said that both China and Russia “have significant capability…to produce more warheads,” a capability that the United States does not possess. 

He said that’s why China’s mysterious doctrine is so concerning and why the sort of deterrence strategies that the United States pursued during the Cold War no longer work. China, he said, could “use those capabilities coercively in a way that would limit our decision space in crisis. Additionally, it will rip out the underpinnings by which the rest of our forces are employed. We would not be able to deter China from escalating right past us if the stakes were high enough in a crisis or conflict.”

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