Why The Air Force’s Plan For Fighting China Could Make Nuclear War More Likely
Loren Thompson / Forbes
(June 15, 2021) — Late last year, the US Air Force conducted a secret war game testing how it might repulse a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in 2030. As described by Valerie Insinna in Defense News, the Air Force employed an array of manned and unmanned aircraft to blunt the attack, including the super-stealthy B-21 bomber, which is still under development.
The B-21, Insinna reported, was used to penetrate “contested zones,” presumably meaning Chinese airspace, while the less survivable B-52 launched cruise missiles from “standoff distances.”
The good news is that the hypothetical Chinese invasion in the war game was halted without resort to use of nuclear weapons. The bad news is that things might not work out that way in a real war, and it might be China that resorts to nuclear use before America does.
This possibility highlights an issue in Air Force planning that has gone largely unnoticed.
If a fight over Taiwan occurs, the Air Force plans to wage conventional warfare against China by flying nuclear-capable aircraft into its airspace — or by launching cruise missiles from outside its airspace from other nuclear-capable aircraft.
Either way, Beijing would have no quick way of determining whether the attacking US bombers were carrying nuclear or conventional munitions.
Its nascent strategic warning system would not be able to differentiate between a nuclear and non-nuclear attack until weapons actually started exploding on its territory, and China’s highly centralized nuclear command authority might not be willing to wait that long before responding. After all, it could be the first target of the attack.
Unlike Russia, which has a vast nuclear arsenal comparable in size to that of the United States, China has always maintained a minimal nuclear deterrent. The Pentagon estimates that China only has 200 or so nuclear warheads, and a respected private survey pegs the number at 350 — only about 130 of which are available for use on ballistic missiles capable of reaching the continental United States.
Whichever estimate you believe, the number of warheads Beijing relies on to deter a nuclear attack is a small faction of the number available to US forces, so the possibility that Washington might move to disarm Chinese strategic forces in a fight over Taiwan could not be discounted.
Since most of the missiles threatening the US are road-mobile, it would be logical for Chinese leaders to assume that stealthy bombers might be sent to track down ICBMs and take out the handful of other Chinese strategic systems (four submarines, a few bombers) capable of targeting America.
As the Air Force’s fiscal 2022 Posture Statement observes, “The B-21 will possess the range, access, and payload to penetrate the most highly-contested threat environments and hold any target around the world at risk.” That includes China’s nuclear weapons, its early warning radars, and strategic command network.
Faced with this possibility in a war where Chinese and US forces are already fighting, Beijing might decide it needs to launch its long-range missiles before they are destroyed on the ground.
The official Chinese position is that it will never be the first nation to use nuclear weapons, but Pentagon officials have been warning for years that Beijing might move to a launch-on-warning posture, what might be called a “use them or lose them” approach to deterrence. It wouldn’t be the first time a nation’s operational nuclear strategy was at variance with its declaratory strategy.
In such a scenario, the strategic stakes surrounding Chinese occupation of Taiwan would fade to insignificance in Washington compared with the prospect of nuclear warheads detonating on US soil. And yet Air Force planners don’t seem to have given much thought to the fact that their future heavy bomber force will consist entirely of aircraft whose conventional or nuclear payloads are indistinguishable to an adversary.
This didn’t matter much when the enemy was Serbia or Iraq, but when the other side is itself a nuclear power possessing a long-range strategic arsenal, it could matter a lot.
During the later years of the Cold War and thereafter, the Air Force undertook a series of steps aimed at promoting strategic stability with Russia, such as eliminating the nuclear attack features on its B-1 bombers. But Beijing is not party to any of the arms control agreements that drove those steps, and every B-21 bomber rolling off the assembly line at Palmdale, California, will be wired for nuclear weapons.
Most of the missions envisioned for the bomber are conventional, but Beijing would have no way of knowing that for sure at the onset of a war.
So, given the fears that often seize hold of leaders in crises, the possibility of nuclear first-use by Beijing can’t be dismissed. Of course, China could act preemptively to reduce the vulnerability of its retaliatory forces by expanding them.
Perhaps it might follow America’s example by putting most of its nuclear arsenal on submarines that can’t be tracked when beneath the seas. That’s a move the country’s leaders have resisted — their force is predominantly land-based — but with the advent of B-21 they might feel they have no alternative.
And while the venerable B-52 is not quite as threatening as the B-21, after 2030 it will be equipped with nuclear “long-range standoff” weapons that can penetrate any Chinese defenses.
You could say that collectively, the stealthy B-21 and the B-52 equipped with stealthy cruise missiles are a potent deterrent to a Chinese assault on Taiwan. But somebody in the Pentagon ought to be contemplating how those aircraft should be used if a war nonetheless occurs to prevent the conflict from stumbling into a nuclear exchange.
As one senior military officer commented in a not-for-attribution discussion earlier this year, “You need to deter the Chinese without scaring them so much that they might go nuclear.”
Loren Thomson is the Chief Executive Officer of Source Associates and former Deputy Director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. He has taught graduate-level courses at Georgetown and Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.
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