In contrast with the United States, which keeps hundreds of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, China’s longstanding approach to nuclear deterrence is premised on “survivability”—the idea that some fraction of their 250 or so nuclear warheads could survive a nuclear first strike and retaliate afterwards. Since the strategy doesn’t require rapid launch, China’s warheads aren’t currently attached to missiles or bombs, and instead are hidden away in tunnels and military installations.
But this relatively low-risk policy may change. Recent excerpts and quotes from Chinese military sources suggest pressure is building to change China’s nuclear posture away from a focus on survivability, and toward a policy of launch-on-warning and hair-trigger alert. Such a change would dramatically increase the risk of a nuclear exchange or accident—a dangerous shift that the United States could help avert.
Evidence that China‘s policies are changing
Following a 2012 speech on nuclear policy by Chinese President Xi Jingping, the commander of China’s land-based nuclear missile forces told his troops to “maintain a high alert level… assuring that if something happens we’re ready to go.” In 2013, an updated edition of a standard text on Chinese military strategy, partially translated by the Union of Concerned Scientists, said China’s nuclear forces will move towards a “launch-on-warning” posture, where “…under conditions confirming the enemy has launched nuclear missiles against us, before the enemy nuclear warheads have reached us… [we can] quickly launch a nuclear missile retaliatory strike.”
These and other statements suggest that a domestic conversation about raising the alert level of China’s nuclear forces is taking place. The debate is driven in part by concerns about accurate U.S. nuclear weapons, high-precision conventional weapons, and missile defense—all of which are perceived as compromising China’s current posture.
Preventing Chinese hair-trigger alert
Adopting a launch-on-warning policy raises the risk of an accidental, mistaken, or unauthorized nuclear launch, as evidenced by dozens of close calls in the United States, Russia, and former Soviet Union. Technical and human errors are especially likely early on, as radar and satellite warning systems are developed.
Since concerns about the United States are driving the alerting debate in China, the U.S. has a unique opportunity to influence China’s decision. Taking our own weapons off hair-trigger alert would be a good first step; adopting a “sole purpose” nuclear doctrine, acknowledging mutual vulnerability, limiting missile defense, and open discussions about new conventional capabilities would also help.