Is a Naval Nuclear Arms Race with China Inevitable?


China’s intercontinental nuclear-armed rockets used to be immobile and liquid fueled. Those rockets
were configured to make a political statement about possession of nuclear weapons capability by
creating uncertainty about the possibility of at least one reaching its target, not necessarily to survive
a nuclear first strike. Now China is reportedly developing solid fueled road-mobile rockets with
multiple independent re-entry vehicles (MIRVs). Of even greater interest for the present discussion,
China is reportedly developing submersible ships with ballistic missiles and nuclear propulsion
(SSBNs) with twenty-four missiles with about six nuclear warheads per missile. These developments
raise serious questions about U.S. military and diplomatic strategy vis-à-vis China.
When China’s long-range missiles were liquid fueled and immobile (Cunningham and Fravel 2015),
it was technically feasible for the United States to plan for a pre-emptive strike to limit damage from
such missiles. Whether or not a U.S. posture of trying to maintain first strike capability vs. China was
politically useful, it was inherited from Cold War strategy vs. Russia and thus the de facto situation.

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