It's time for America to worry about Chinese ballistic missile defenses (BMD).
That's the conclusion of a new study by the Federation of American Scientists, which found that while Beijing has not yet decided to build strategic missile defenses, Chinese leaders are seriously thinking about it.
"Unlike some years ago, there is little doubt today that China is developing a strategic BMD capability; their flight tests alone make that clear," said authors Bruce MacDonald and Charles Ferguson, who spoke with more than 50 Chinese and American experts, including Chinese officials, military officers and academics. While Chinese BMD is in the development stage, it does give Beijing the option of deploying a missile defense capability – or not – depending on its assessment of the international situation.
"At a minimum, it appears that a Chinese deployment of strategic BMD is probably less unlikely than most U.S. defense analysts have in the past assessed," the study said.
"Given the extended duration of China’s strategic BMD development program, going back two to three decades, it is safe to say that China is not on any crash course to develop, much less to deploy, a strategic BMD system. Nonetheless, China’s program has reached a stage of maturity that gives it a viable option to deploy if it so chooses."
The report, titled "Understanding the Dragon Shield: Likelihood and Implications of Chinese Strategic Ballistic Missile Defense," was spurred by what the authors say is a lack of public analysis of just what Chinese ballistic missile defense would mean for the United States.
The answer is that it could have serious – or minor – implications depending on what China chooses to do. MacDonald and Ferguson believe that if China opts to build missile defenses, the most likely scenario would be a limited deployment. A "thin BMD" would pose little threat to the ability of U.S. nuclear forces to strike China, as even Chinese experts conceded to the authors: "There was broad agreement that it would make little sense for China to seek to defend against U.S. nuclear warheads given the potentially several hundred warheads the United States could launch within minutes."
Yet in what will probably be a blow to American self-importance, the United States would probably not be the main target of Chinese missile defense, but rather China's neighbors. "The prime impact will be on Indian confidence in its ability to deter China with nuclear weapons," the study says, as well as sending a signal to Japan.
The RAND report lays out a variety of incentives and disincentives for China to deploy missile defense, many of which suggest that actually stopping nuclear attack is the least of China's reasons for building BMD. It would boost China's prestige in Asia and the Chinese government's prestige among its own people, as well as generate leverage in any future arms control negotiations. Even a limited employment would allow China to better understand BMD technology as well as the weaknesses of a Chinese – or American – defense system. BMD could also deter (theoretical) American Prompt Global Strike non-nuclear ICBM attacks and provide political cover for China to test anti-satellite weapons under the guise of missile defense.
On the other hand, BMD would be expensive, undercut China's long-standing protests against American deployment of missile defenses and trigger responses such as greater Japanese defense spending. Either way, deployment of the Chinese missile defense system would likely create a furor in Congress.
What's most interesting about this new analysis is its old tropes. In 1972, this sort of strategic nuclear war thinking would have been as familiar as gasoline that cost $.36 per gallon. But it's been awhile since we've dealt with the issue of nuclear weapons wielded by major powers, rather than pretenders like Iran and North Korea.
Even more significant is the fact that strategic missile defense has largely been seen as an American initiative. Now, other countries are joining the game.
Michael Peck, a frequent contributor to TNI, is a defense and historical writer based in Oregon. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, WarIsBoring and many other fine publications.