China’s Waterlogged Missiles Don’t Matter

Introduction

On December 29, Xi Jinping removed nine top military officials in what is being called a “purge,” including officials from the Strategic Rocket Forces that oversee China’s nuclear-armed missiles. Subsequent reporting by Bloomberg indicated the purge was due to “widespread corruption” that has undermined “efforts to modernize the armed forces and raised questions about China’s ability to fight a war,” according to U.S. intelligence. Specifically, Chinese missiles were allegedly filled with water, rather fuel, including many of the missiles in the silo fields recently discovered by open-source intelligence.

Corruption in the Chinese military rightly should raise questions about its ability to achieve military objectives and reach the “great rejuvenation” envisioned by Xi. The Federation of American Scientists (FAS), for example, stated in an open letter, “these flaws would compromise missile operations” if true, and raised concerns that government information about China’s arsenal may not be accurate or reliable, comparing it to assessments of “systematically overinflated Soviet capabilities” during the Cold War. An accurate understanding of China’s capabilities and Beijing’s threat to the United States and its allies is obviously essential for policymaking. However, the recent news questioning the reliability of China’s missiles should not change anything about current U.S. nuclear policy. The intent of the silos was always unclear, and if anything, Xi has indicated a clear intent to move forward with making them operational and expanding China’s arsenal.

China’s Expanding Arsenal

In 2021 open-source analysts at FAS and the Center for Nonproliferation Studies discovered at least two new Chinese missile fields with over 100 silos per field. If fully functional and armed with nuclear weapons, these missiles would increase the size of China’s strategic arsenal by orders of magnitude. China currently has an estimated 410 nuclear weapons, but the Department of Defense predicts this could reach 1,500 by 2035.

China also continues to produce fissile material through civilian reactors, including a fast breeder reactor currently under construction. At the current rate, it could double its nuclear arsenal, but further expansion would require additional material. The 2023 State Department recent compliance report concluded that “due to the lack of transparency with regard to their nuclear testing activities, concerns remain about the nature of both China and Russia’s adherence to their respective moratoria.”

The “unprecedented growth of [China’s] nuclear forces” was a focal point for the 2023 bipartisan Strategic Posture Commission. The commission’s report concluded that China, along with Russia, is attempting to expand its global influence by relying on military tools. As a result, the commission warned China could undermine the existing international order and increase the risk of conflict and nuclear use.

A Potemkin Arsenal?

News of the purges, corruption in the military, and potential subversion of China’s missiles raises questions about whether or not these concerns are well founded and if China is on track to develop an arsenal rivaling the United States’ both quantitively and qualitatively by 2035, as predicted, or if it is developing a Potemkin arsenal. But whether China’s missiles are full of water or fuel does not change U.S. strategy toward China for at least three reasons.

First, when China’s silo fields were first discovered, there was rightful skepticism about whether they were fully operational and what was the intention behind them. Prior to joining the Biden administration as principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, then-MIT professor Vipin Narang said, “Just because you build the silos doesn’t mean you have to fill them all with missiles . . . They can move them around.” In a worst-case scenario, the silos could have been intended as a “sponge” in a nuclear exchange. In a best-case scenario, they could have been intended as a bargaining chip for future arms control negotiations with the United States.

Second, China has consistently been opaque about the status and intent of its strategic forces. These purges and questions about the functionality of China’s missiles is just another layer of opacity. U.S. policymakers have been forced to operate in a fog of uncertainty about the credibility of China’s no first-use policy, its strategic intentions towards its neighbors, and the strategic purpose behind its rapidly expanding arsenal.

Finally, while there may be water in some of China’s missiles now, it cannot be assumed that this will remain the case. Xi’s dramatic response to the corruption indicates he is serious about building up China’s nuclear forces. Rather, this news reinforces the need for improved intelligence and understanding of China’s strategic forces and decisionmaking in Beijing. A recent report by the International State Department Advisory Board, for example, recommended, “the Department of State should better use its resources and insights to help the U.S. government understand how adversaries think and what they value, with a particular emphasis on managing the deterrence relationships with them.”

Options for Reducing Nuclear Risks

While Xi’s purge and questions about the state of the Chinese arsenal may not change anything in U.S. strategic planning, they do reinforce the need for cooperative arms control and risk reduction with Beijing. Transparency and arms control traditionally work hand in hand, as states are reluctant to sign up to agreements without having some means of confirming compliance. Additionally, however, transparency can reduce risks of misperception and escalation. Historically, China has consistently rejected efforts at bilateral or trilateral engagement on its nuclear arsenal. In the final year of the Trump administration, for example, China refused to engage with the United States and Russia in discussing potential limitations on nuclear warheads.

But Beijing may be softening on its position toward arms control. In November 2023 State Department officials in the Bureau of Arms Control, Deterrence, and Stability met with their Chinese counterparts for “candid and in-depth discussion on issues related to arms control and nonproliferation as part of ongoing efforts to maintain open lines of communication and responsibly manage the U.S.-PRC relationship” prior to the Biden-Xi meeting in San Francisco. And in January this year, China participated in military-to-military dialogues for the first time in years. The Department of Defense used the opportunity to stress the importance of operational safety in the Indo-Pacific region and freedom of navigation.

While these dialogues did not yield any concrete arms control agreements, they have the potential to be a meaningful foundation for future progress. Another potential future forum for progress is the P5 process, which China will lead for one year starting in August 2024.

Heather Williams is director of the Project on Nuclear Issues and senior fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Williams
Director, Project on Nuclear Issues and Senior Fellow, International Security Program