This article reviews the discussion of nuclear weapons policy, strategy and force modernization in the 2013 edition of the Science of Military Strategy (SMS), published by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Academy of Military Sciences (AMS) publishing house. Compared to the previous edition of SMS, the 2013 edition offers much more extensive and detailed coverage of a number of nuclear policy and strategy-related issues. Notwithstanding important developments in Chinese nuclear capabilities in recent years, such as the deployment of road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs)—SMS 2013 largely tracks with the coverage of nuclear issues in previous Chinese military publications, at least at the level of nuclear policy and strategy. At the same time, however, SMS 2013 does seem to suggest some evolution in Chinese thinking about nuclear issues. In particular, SMS 2013 appears to indicate that concerns about China’s security environment and improvements in Chinese capabilities are leading to greater discussion and debate about nuclear policy and strategy issues within China. Moreover, it hints at some debates that are likely to emerge as the further development of Chinese capabilities creates new options for Chinese leaders.
Nuclear Policy and Strategy in SMS 2013
On the whole, no major changes in nuclear policy or strategy are apparent in SMS 2013. As in the previous edition, SMS 2013 places nuclear deterrence within the broader context of a set of strategic deterrence capabilities that also includes conventional, space and cyber warfare forces. Yet the volume is somewhat more detailed than earlier editions in certain respects, such as its discussion of potential challenges to the credibility of China’s nuclear deterrent. SMS 2013 is also somewhat more direct in discussing Chinese force modernization and how Chinese responses are intended to ensure deterrence effectiveness, though it does not offer any details about specific systems China is developing, such as the DF-41, a road-mobile ICBM possibly capable of carrying multiple independently targetable reenty vehicles (MIRVs), and the hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) Beijing confirms it has tested (China Daily, January 16, 2014,).
With respect to nuclear policy, SMS 2013 reaffirms China’s nuclear no first use (NFU) policy and states that China adheres to a “self-defensive” nuclear strategy. It indicates that the main purpose of nuclear weapons is strategic deterrence. According to SMS 2013, the nature of nuclear weapons means “the deterrence application is the principal method of the application of nuclear forces (weishe yunyong shi he liliang yunyong de zhuyao fangshi).”  Additionally, SMS 2013 states, “nuclear deterrence is the primary form of military struggle in the nuclear domain” (SMS 2013, p. 172). SMS 2013 traces this assessment to judgments former leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping made about the utility of nuclear weapons in a deterrent role. In particular, SMS 2013 notes that Deng described nuclear missiles as “deterrence forces” and “deterrence weapons” (SMS 2013, p. 141–2). It further states that China’s approach to nuclear counterattacks is based on the principle of “gaining mastery by striking only after the enemy has struck” (houfa zhiren), and that, “the nuclear counterattack operation is the sole form for China’s nuclear force to employ nuclear forces in actual combat.”
SMS 2013 also explains the roles nuclear weapons play in China’s security strategy in a broader sense. First and foremost, according to SMS 2013, “nuclear weaponry acts as a strong ‘shield’ to protect national security” (SMS 2013, p. 231). More broadly, “nuclear weapons centrally embody and reflect a country’s comprehensive national power and its level of science and technology.” Nuclear weapons are thus irreplaceable not only for strategic deterrence, but also for cementing a country’s status as a major power. For China, “Nuclear weapons have continuously served as an important mainstay supporting China’s position as a major country, and in the future they will still be an important mark and symbol reflecting China’s international position and image” (SMS 2013, pp. 230–1).
SMS 2013 on China’s Increasingly Complex Nuclear Security Environment
SMS 2013 indicates that China faces an increasingly challenging nuclear security environment, one in which it must contend with challenges posed by a number of potential nuclear adversaries, as well as advances in enemy missile defense, conventional prompt global strike (CPGS), and nuclear capabilities. Further complicating the situation is greater pressure to participate in arms control negotiations that could limit China’s ability to achieve its force modernization goals. According to SMS 2013, “Over the past few years, the nuclear security picture faced by our country has become increasingly complex.” The authors offer four reasons for this pessimistic judgment:
- First, China’s main potential adversary is the United States, which is increasing its missile defense capabilities. According to SMS 2013: “The main object faced by China in its nuclear struggle is the world’s most powerful nuclear country. The United States sees China as its primary strategic adversary and is stepping up the building of a missile defense system for the East Asia region.”
- Second, the number of countries with nuclear weapons in China’s neighborhood has increased. Specifically, according to the authors: “India’s nuclear strength has grown rapidly. After entry into the 21st century, the problem of nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula has been constantly fermenting and the possibility of resolving it in the near future is very small.”
- Third, “the world’s principal countries are making great efforts to develop new conventional military capabilities.” Specifically, “the United States is in the process of implementing a conventional ‘Prompt Global Strike’ (PGS) plan. Once it has functional capabilities, it will be used to implement conventional strikes against our nuclear missile forces and will force us into a disadvantaged, passive position. This will greatly impact our nuclear counterstrike capabilities and weaken our nuclear deterrence outcomes.”
- Fourth, China will likely face greater pressure to engage in multilateral nuclear arms control discussions as the United States and Russia decrease the numbers of nuclear weapons in their arsenals. According to SMS 2013, along with these developments, “the external pressure on the development of China’s nuclear forces has seen corresponding increases. The quantitative scale of China’s nuclear weapons is far from being on the same level as that of the United States and Russia. With further development of the international nuclear weapons reduction picture, the modernization of China’s limited nuclear forces will experience increasing external pressure.”
Another challenge that is not included in the list of four factors but is discussed elsewhere in SMS 2013 is inherent in the nuclear forces and doctrine of China’s potential adversaries, particularly the United States. SMS 2013 notes that the United States is deemphasizing nuclear weapons in certain respects: “Given the sustained superiority of the United States in conventional military forces and the accelerated construction of a global missile defense system, reductions of nuclear weapons quantities and limits on the scope of nuclear weapons usage have further decreased dependence on nuclear weapons.” Yet the United States remains a nuclear superpower. Moreover, like Russia, it has refused to adopt a “no first use” (NFU) policy, and SMS 2013 indicates that U.S. nuclear deterrence strategy is based on the possibility of first use of nuclear weapons (SMS 2013, p. 171).
Nuclear Force Modernization in SMS 2013
Against the backdrop of this increasingly complex nuclear security picture, SMS 2013 indicates that deterring a potential nuclear attack against China is crucial for national security. Another is being prepared to carry out a nuclear counterattack if deterrence fails. According to SMS: “The implementation of nuclear counterstrikes is both PLA Second Artillery Force’s (PLASAF) fundamental method of actual combat application (shizhan yunyong) and is also the foundation of implementing effective nuclear deterrence (youxiao he weishe). Only by truly possessing nuclear counterstrike capabilities can it be guaranteed that when suffering an enemy nuclear attack we will be able to organize an effective counterstrike, giving the enemy a certain degree of nuclear damage (yiding chengdu de he huishang), and only then truly achieving the goal of deterring (shezhi) the outbreak of nuclear war” (SMS 2013, pp. 231–2). Consequently, the main purpose of nuclear force modernization is enhancing the effectiveness of a nuclear counter-attack, which in turn makes nuclear deterrence more credible and effective. According to SMS: “Being able to carry out an effective nuclear counterstrike is the foundation of effective nuclear deterrence (youxiao he weishe)” (SMS 2013, p. 235).
SMS 2013 is more explicit on this point than the previous edition, particularly in its discussion of force modernization requirements needed to further improve the credibility of nuclear deterrence. Indeed, SMS 2013 indicates that a more modern nuclear force constitutes the mainstay of China’s overall “deterrence system,” which is also composed of informatized conventional forces, network attack and defense capabilities, “flexible and diverse space forces” as well as an innovative approach to People’s War based on mobilization capabilities. SMS 2013 indicates that China requires “lean and effective” nuclear strike forces to guarantee its status as a powerful country, ensure its core interests will not be violated and sustain a stable environment for peaceful development. This, in turn, requires higher levels of informatization, improved command-and-control and strategic early warning capabilities, as well as enhanced survivability based on mobility, protective measures and rapid reaction capabilities. For China’s land-based nuclear force, SMS 2013 mentions measures such as MIRVs, hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs) and increasing the number of ICBMs. SMS 2013 also highlights the importance of further developing China’s sea-based strategic nuclear force, judging that the PLAN has made progress in improving China’s sea-based nuclear deterrent, but remains behind the most advanced nuclear powers. According to SMS 2013, the development of a sea-based nuclear deterrent is important to “maintaining the reliability, dependability and effectiveness” of China’s nuclear deterrent and nuclear counterattack capabilities. Consequently, the PLAN “should accelerate the development and fielding of new types of SSBNs, to form a sea-based nuclear counterattack operational capability of a certain scale.”
SMS 2013 also discusses nuclear deterrence in more detail than the previous volume. For example, it describes nuclear deterrence strategy that involves strengthening China’s nuclear forces and “maintaining an appropriate degree of confusion” that ensures the opposing side will be uncertain about China’s actual nuclear power, the timing and scale of nuclear counterstrikes and so on. SMS 2013 indicates that such an approach “can increase the difficulty of decision-making by the opposing side and is beneficial to increasing the deterrence outcomes of China’s limited nuclear forces.” Furthermore, it suggests that some ambiguity about Chinese policy and intentions can be useful, notwithstanding the need for centralized decision-making in this extremely sensitive and strategic area. According to SMS 2013, “speaking with a unified voice from the highest levels of the government and military to the lowest levels can often enhance deterrence outcomes, but sometimes, when different things are said by different people, deterrence outcomes might be even better” (SMS 2013, p. 173).
“Actual Combat” Employment of Nuclear Weapons
SMS 2013 again departs from the previous edition in its inclusion of a section describing nuclear issues in the context of “actual combat” (shizhan).  This section explains that the possibility of nuclear war, especially large-scale nuclear war, is much lower today than it was during the Cold War, but warns that as long as nuclear weapons exist, the possibility they will be used in war cannot be ruled out. This is not only a function of the existence of nuclear weapons, according to the authors, but also of the fact that most nuclear powers have refused to commit to NFU policies and the possibility of first use remains “an important aspect of their nuclear strategies.” Thus, the issue of nuclear employment in war cannot be dismissed, since there is still a possibility that future informatized conventional wars could escalate to the nuclear level (SMS 2013, p. 171).
SMS 2013, therefore, discusses two possible types of nuclear employment in “actual combat.” The first is preemptive nuclear strikes and the second is retaliatory nuclear strikes. Here, SMS 2013 reiterates that China “insists on a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons and pursues a defensive nuclear strategy.” Accordingly, any Chinese use of nuclear weapons in actual combat would be for “retaliatory nuclear counterstrikes.” Within this context, SMS 2013 tracks with other publications that address nuclear counterattack campaigns in that it emphasizes centralized command and the concentration of decision-making authority at the very highest levels of China’s leadership. It also highlights the importance of “tight defenses” to guarantee force survivability, which is the “basic prerequisite” for carrying out nuclear counterstrikes. In addition, like other publications, it emphasizes “key-point counterstrikes” to use China’s limited nuclear forces against targets that would be likely “to have a major impact on the broader strategic picture” (SMS 2013, p. 175–6). Unlike the previous edition, SMS 2013 offers some guidance on how to attempt to manage escalation in the event a conventional conflict crosses the nuclear threshold. According to the authors: “In implementing nuclear counterstrikes, we need to be able to generate unsustainable destructive results against the other side, to shock and awe them, but, at the same time, we need to control the intensity, pacing and target scope of the counterstrikes.” Importantly, SMS 2013 appears to suggest that under such circumstances the purpose is not to “win” a nuclear war, but rather to deter further escalation or to resolve a conflict on acceptable terms.
One interesting area in which SMS 2013 goes beyond the previous edition, albeit only briefly, is in a discussion of the importance of unified planning. The authors explain that because PLASAF and PLAN have nuclear capabilities, unified planning is required to ensure coordination of strike targets and timing. Moreover, the authors state that because PLASAF and PLAN nuclear forces are at high risk of suffering heave losses in the event of an enemy nuclear first strike, it is essential that unified planning make the most effective use of surviving nuclear weapons in order to achieve the desired nuclear counterstrike objectives (SMS 2013, p. 175).
Another new development in SMS 2013 is its discussion of the possibility of adopting a launch on warning posture, which the authors assert would be consistent with China’s NFU policy. They write: “When conditions are met, and when necessary, one can rapidly launch a nuclear missile counterstrike when it has been clearly determined that the enemy has already launched nuclear missiles against us but said enemy nuclear warheads have yet to arrive at their targets and effectively explode or cause actual damage to us. This both conforms to our country’s consistent policy of no first use of nuclear weapons and also effectively prevents our nuclear forces from suffering greater losses, improving the survivability of nuclear missile forces and their counterstrike capabilities” (SMS 2013, p. 175). Disturbingly, SMS 2013 does not address any of the risks associated with this approach. It is worth noting, however, that some Chinese experts oppose launch on warning because they see it as inconsistent with China’s NFU policy and potentially destabilizing (interviews with Chinese scholars, 2014).
SMS 2013 is largely consistent with earlier publications, but it offers a more in-depth consideration of a number of issues related to Chinese nuclear policy, strategy and force modernization. As SMS 2013 offers a more detailed and up-to-date understanding of PLA thinking on these issues, it should be required reading for analysts who are interested in Chinese nuclear policy and strategy, nuclear force modernization and arms control policy.
This is the first of a two-part series of articles analyzing the nuclear policy sections of the 2013 Science of Military Strategy. Part 2 of this series will address the section that covers PLA Second Artillery Force (PLASAF) strategy and capabilities. The series is an excerpt from a larger chapter in China’s Evolving Military Strategy (edited by Joe McReynolds), due for publication this fall by The Jamestown Foundation. You can pre-order the book through Brookings Press.
- The Science of Military Strategy [战略学], 3rd ed., Beijing: Military Science Press [军事科学出版社], 2013, p. 235.
- It is important to note that some readers might interpret the use of this term as a discussion of “nuclear warfighting” in the sense of damage limiting or disarming strikes against an enemy’s nuclear forces, but the content of the section and the way in which the term is often used in Chinese military writing suggests very strongly that “actual war” or “actual combat” is a more appropriate translation.