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October 1, 2015
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New Report Released by the Federation of American Scientists
Understanding the Dragon Shield: Likelihood and Implications of Chinese Strategic Ballistic Missile Defenses


Last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping made his first official state visit to Washington, DC. While he discussed many important issues with President Barack Obama and Congressional leaders, an important issue that was not adequately addressed was serious U.S.-Chinese dialogue on strategic nuclear issues. To help with an essential aspect of that dialogue, FAS releases, today, the report Understanding the Dragon Shield: Likelihood and Implications of Chinese Strategic Ballistic Missile Defenses by Bruce W. MacDonald (Adjunct Senior Fellow at FAS) and Charles D. Ferguson (President of FAS).
 
While China has received growing attention for modernizing and expanding its strategic offensive nuclear forces over the last ten years, little attention has been paid to Chinese activities in developing ballistic missile defenses (BMD).  Ever since the end of the Cold War, U.S. security policy has largely assumed that only the United States would possess credible strategic ballistic missile defense capabilities with non-nuclear interceptors. This tacit assumption has been valid for the last quarter century but may not remain valid for long. Since 2010, China has been openly testing missile interceptors purportedly for BMD purposes, but also useful for anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons. Motivated to understand the strategic implications of this testing and to learn Chinese views, Prof. MacDonald and Dr. Ferguson have had extensive discussions with more than 50 security experts in China and the United States.
 
Based on these discussions and their analysis of possible incentives and disincentives for China to develop and potentially deploy BMD, they have found:
  • Chinese development of strategic BMD is ongoing and is helping China to understand the complexities and nuances of designing such a system and what its weak points are, regardless of whether they decide to deploy such a BMD system. Also, this development provides an important hedging option for China against an uncertain and evolving future strategic environment.
  • 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.
  • Should China decide to deploy such defenses, the most likely reasons would be to:
  1. Provide a plausible cover to continue testing its kinetic energy ASAT system.  This suggests that  a thin, regional/nationwide defense would be more likely than a point defense, though the latter cannot be ruled out.  Point defense would not provide much cover for an ASAT testing program.
  2.  Send a strategic message to India, Japan, and the United States, in that order, that China is capable of defending itself and overcoming major technical obstacles to do so.
  3. Obtain important operational understanding of BMD systems for their own use and to better understand the systems that others may have or may develop.
  4. Enhance its regional prestige and sway, gaining a “technological merit badge” of recognition for achieving such a difficult technological task
  • Should China decide to deploy strategic BMD, limited deployment levels appear to be more likely than larger levels, given the relatively high cost for a large system; furthermore, even were it to ultimately deploy larger levels, China would want to gain more experience in what (for them) would be a new class of weapons.
  • The incremental cost to China of a limited deployment of strategic BMD as part of its overall R&D program would probably be modest compared to the security benefits China would receive, even taking some political drawbacks into account. Accordingly, the odds seem fairly good that China will make at least a limited deployment of strategic BMD in the near- to mid-term, though this is not certain.
  • To the extent that any U.S. programmatic changes would be needed for political reassurance reasons, there are a number of options available to the United States, particularly in strategic BMD penetration aids and enhancements to the bomber leg of the triad, which should suffice. The United States would likely have no technical reason to make any significant adjustments to its strategic posture in response to plausible levels of Chinese strategic BMD deployments, should they take place. The U.S. strategic nuclear posture and forces are robust and are able to deal with such deployments.
  • A Chinese move to deploy early warning satellites would be a significant indicator of greater interest in strategic BMD deployment, as it would be a crucial component of an effective strategic BMD system. Such satellites would not be necessary for a purely ASAT-testing-oriented deployment.
This report was developed under work supported by the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) Project on Advanced Systems and Concepts for Countering WMD No. N00244-14-1-0035 awarded by the NAVSUP Fleet Logistics Center San Diego (NAVSUP FLC San Diego), with funding from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). The views and conclusions contained in the report are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as necessarily representing the official policies, either expressed or implied, of NPS, NAVSUP FLC San Diego, or DTRA.
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