China’s Military Wants to Put Its Nukes on a Hair Trigger

Even as Chinese President Xi Jinping strides into the final Nuclear Security Summit today in Washington, D.C., he is considering a dangerous policy change: The Chinese military is asking to put its nuclear missiles on hair-trigger alert so they can be launched immediately upon detecting an incoming attack. President Barack Obama should encourage his counterpart to carefully consider such a change, because it would dramatically increase the risk of an accidental or mistaken nuclear launch against the United States or its allies.

China’s previous political leaders believed prudence demanded they wait and ride out a nuclear attack—should it come—before retaliating later at a time and place of their choosing. Their strategic patience was celebrated, at home and abroad, as a responsible expression of confidence that would discourage any enemy, including the United States, from attacking China with nuclear weapons in the first place.

But the current commander-in-chief is a new kind of leader. Xi appears to be a man in a hurry, and he has said he wants to make the Chinese military better prepared to fight and win wars, not simply prevent them.

Chinese military strategists expressed their desire to put the country’s nuclear weapons on high alert three years ago. Their language is labored but the meaning is clear:

When conditions are prepared and when necessary, we can, under conditions confirming the enemy has launched nuclear missiles against us, before the enemy nuclear warheads have reached their targets and effectively exploded, before they have caused us actual nuclear damage, quickly launch a nuclear missile retaliatory strike.

If Xi finds the case made by his military strategists compelling, he will be overlooking something important. The early warning systems needed to detect and confirm an incoming nuclear attack have been known to give false warning, especially in the early years of their operation. Even if the warning was real, would the Chinese operators be able to distinguish an incoming conventional strike from a nuclear strike? Would that matter if they thought the conventional strike was aimed at their nuclear forces? If China’s military stands up such a system and is given permission to launch on warning, it would create the risk of an accidental or mistaken nuclear launch against the United States.

Full article: China’s Military Wants to Put Its Nukes on a Hair Trigger (Defense One)

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