It has recently become vogue to forecast an impending military conflict between the United States and China. This concern has apparently trickled down to the troops, as nearly half believe the U.S. will be drawn into a major war in the near future. Given that many of America’s likely adversaries – China, North Korea, and Russia – are nuclear weapons states, one has to wonder about the potential for nuclear escalation. Caitlin Talmadge, a fantastic IR scholar and new professor at Georgetown, has published an article in Foreign Affairs that addresses the risks of a nuclear confrontation with China head-on. As usual, I entreat you to read the whole thing. My favorite bits are quoted below.
First, she highlights one scenario for inadvertent escalation through “use it or lose it” dynamics:
[China has] intermingled [its nukes] with its conventional military forces, making it difficult to attack one without attacking the other. This means that a major U.S. military campaign targeting China’s conventional forces would likely also threaten its nuclear arsenal. Faced with such a threat, Chinese leaders could decide to use their nuclear weapons while they were still able to.
This is absolutely correct, and I think China’s decision to cohabitate its strategic and conventional forces within the same organization – the PLA Rocket Force – is a very risky move. That being said, I think two points are worth emphasizing. First, this organizational choice is no accident, and it serves a specific function. Namely, it works to deter the very kind of attack Talmadge describes. In other words, by raising the possibility of miscalculation and making this risk obvious to American planners, China is attempting to deter a “shock and awe” style attack. Second, this would not be a problem in a more limited conflict, in the SCS perhaps, which would almost certainly not result in the U.S. knocking out all of the PLA’s C&C, submarines, aircraft, and missile units. To put it slightly differently, this scenario is only plausible in a very large-scale, geographically diverse conflict. I’m just not convinced that kind of war is all that likely.
Talmadge provides a specific scenario of the “use it or lose it” dilemma that I found particularly interesting:
Consider submarine warfare. China could use its conventionally armed attack submarines to blockade Taiwanese harbors or bomb the island, or to attack U.S. and allied forces in the region. If that happened, the U.S. Navy would almost certainly undertake an antisubmarine campaign, which would likely threaten China’s “boomers,” the four nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines that form its naval nuclear deterrent. China’s conventionally armed and nuclear-armed submarines share the same shore-based communications system; a U.S. attack on these transmitters would thus not only disrupt the activities of China’s attack submarine force but also cut off its boomers from contact with Beijing, leaving Chinese leaders unsure of the fate of their naval nuclear force. In addition, nuclear ballistic missile submarines depend on attack submarines for protection, just as lumbering bomber aircraft rely on nimble fighter jets. If the United States started sinking Chinese attack submarines, it would be sinking the very force that protects China’s ballistic missile submarines, leaving the latter dramatically more vulnerable.
I did not realize China’s SSBN and SSN forces rely on the same communications system. Needless to say, that seems incredibly stupid (though maybe it’s the same for the U.S. Navy). Nonetheless, I think the scenario she describes is a tad bit alarmist for several reasons. For one, SSBNs do not primarily rely on SSNs for protection. Of course fast attack subs play an important role in protecting boomers, but ballistic missile subs rely primarily on their stealth – they are quiet and can hide in the emptiness of the ocean. An American ASW campaign would not, therefore, inexorably lead to nuclear conflict. China would either keep its boomers in port or scatter them throughout the Pacific, thus keeping them out of harm’s way. Of course, the U.S. could decide to just sink the boomers directly, as China’s coastal geography is not conducive to their survival, but then the attack boats become a non-issue. In general, though, I think the submarine issue is largely theoretical because the PRC effectively has a completely land-based nuclear force. True, the PLAN possesses SSBNs, but they are not actually deployed on patrols. This could certainly change in the future, but it seems of little concern even then because, of course, China would still have the other two legs of its triad.
Talmadge’s depiction of the land version of this problem is also interesting:
The situation is similar onshore, where any U.S. military campaign would have to contend with China’s growing land-based conventional ballistic missile force. Much of this force is within range of Taiwan, ready to launch ballistic missiles against the island or at any allies coming to its aid. Once again, U.S. victory would hinge on the ability to degrade this conventional ballistic missile force. And once again, it would be virtually impossible to do so while leaving China’s nuclear ballistic missile force unscathed. Chinese conventional and nuclear ballistic missiles are often attached to the same base headquarters, meaning that they likely share transportation and supply networks, patrol routes, and other supporting infrastructure. It is also possible that they share some command-and-control networks, or that the United States would be unable to distinguish between the conventional and nuclear networks even if they were physically separate.
This is a much more convincing story in my opinion, and I think the problem of distinguishing nuclear from conventional forces to be a serious issue. However, I still find it hard to believe that China would not keep strategic aircraft and missile forces out of the conflict zone and thus largely out of harm’s way. After all, this scenario simply assumes that so much of the PLAAF and strategic rocket force would be deployed to a Taiwan contingency as to meaningfully erode China’s second strike capability. That being said, the common C&C and logistics networks do strike me as a very serious concern, and I think Talmadge is right to emphasize how destabilizing this could be.
Finally, Talmadge correctly notes that:
China’s vehement criticism of a U.S. regional missile defense system designed to guard against a potential North Korean attack already reflects these latent fears. Beijing’s worry is that this system could help Washington block the handful of missiles China might launch in the aftermath of a U.S. attack on its arsenal. That sort of campaign might seem much more plausible in Beijing’s eyes if a conventional war had already begun to seriously undermine other parts of China’s nuclear deterrent. It does not help that China’s real-time awareness of the state of its forces would probably be limited, since blinding the adversary is a standard part of the U.S. military playbook.
This argument is exactly correct, and I wish more people – especially our ignoramus of a president – would put more thought into the destabilizing effect of BMD systems. Of course, we are already seeing the development of hypersonic weapons, so it’s not like BMDs are gonna be all that effective anyway (not that they are all that effective today).
There’s much more in the article worth reading, but the accidental escalation scenarios described above interested me the most. Therefore, to reiterate what I wrote above, read the whole piece!