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China-US: The missile defence dance

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10 June 2009 14:57

The release of the US National Air and Space Intelligence Center's (NASIC) annual Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat guide (noted in today's Linkage) prompts the Federation of American Scientists' Hans Kristensen to make some comparisons between the judgments of various US intelligence agencies about China's ability to strike the US with long-range nuclear-armed missiles.

The wash-up is that American timelines seem to be slipping. There is agreement that China's intercontinental missile capability is growing, but the pace seems relatively slow, with earlier projections that China could have 75-100 warheads capable of hitting the US by 2015 now taken out to 2024. China could accelerate this warhead number relatively quickly by 'MIRVing' its missiles — that is, placing more than one warhead on each missile, but the NASIC guide says China is yet to do this.

Kristensen says one thing that could change China's mind about MIRVing is a US ballistic missile defence system — should the US radically improve its ability to knock down incoming warheads, China would be tempted to field more of them in order to maintain an  ability to overwhelm the system.

In that context, it is interesting to see details of the Obama Administration's ballistic missile defence plans, explained here by the Brookings Institution's Michael O'Hanlon (h/t Nukes of Hazzard). O'Hanlon notes the Obama Administration's plans to freeze the deployment of interceptors in Alaska and California at 30, rather than raise it to 44 as planned by the Bush Administration. Most analysts guess that, in an operational scenario, the US would fire two or even three missiles at any incoming target, so if the system can be made to work, this arsenal would only be enough to deal with an accidental or rogue launch, and to counter North Korea's tiny intercontinental missile capability.

Importantly, such a system is manifestly incapable of dealing with China's arsenal, because that arsenal is too large. So the Obama interceptor freeze sends China a signal that missile defence is not aimed at China and that Beijing does not need to radically or rapidly increase the size of its nuclear arsenal.

It's a small move that not only furthers Obama's long-term agenda for complete global nuclear disarmament, but in the interim, creates space for a stable deterrence relationship between two countries with radically unequal nuclear capabilities.

But let's emphasise: it is a small move. My recent travels in Beijing and Shanghai indicated that although Chinese scholars are worried about missile defence, they are equally concerned about US conventional capabilities, and specifically the possibility that the US could use its peerless surveillance and long-range precision strike capabilities to destroy China's small nuclear arsenal before it is launched. That could turn out to be a greater driver for Chinese MIRVing than is missile defence.

This in turn raises another intriguing question addressed by Hans Kristensen in a separate post. If China is worried about the vulnerability of its arsenal, why invest heavily in nuclear-armed submarines, which are vulnerable to US detection? Why not expand its road-mobile intercontinental missile force instead?

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