Missile Threat: North Korea and China
The two sources of the ballistic missile threat to the U. S. (North Korea and China) are very different in terms of their sophistication and integration into broader strategies for achieving national goals. The threats from these two countries are therefore very different in nature.
In 2017, North Korea conducted three successful tests of two variants of road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). All launches were flown in an elevated trajectory so as not to fly over Japan and to allow testing of a reentry vehicle to protect a nuclear warhead during an attack. Experts assess that the Hwasong-14 ICBM has the capability to fly 10,000 or perhaps 11,000 kilometers. At that range, Los Angeles, Denver, and Chicago (and possibly New York City, Boston, and Washington, D. C.) are within range. The Hwasong-15 has a range of 13,000 kilometers and could reach the entire continental United States.
North Korea conducted its fourth and fifth nuclear tests in 2016 and its most recent – the first test of a much more powerful hydrogen bomb-in 2017. North Korea has declared that it already has a full nuclear strike capability, even altering its constitution to enshrine itself as a nuclear-armed state. In late 2017, Kim Jong-un declared that North Korea had completed development of a nuclear ICBM to threaten the American homeland and vowed to “bolster up the nuclear force in quality and quantity.” Among North Korea’s many direct verbal threats to the U. S., the regime warned in March 2016 that it would “reduce all bases and strongholds of the U. S. and South Korean war- mongers for provocation and aggression into ashes in a moment, without giving them any breathing spell.”
The United States and South Korea have revised their estimates and now see a more dire North Korean threat. In January 2018, then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo assessed that North Korea would attain an ICBM capability within a “handful of months.” Vice Admiral James Syring, then head of the U. S. Missile Defense Agency, has testified that “[i]t is incumbent on us to assume that North Korea today can range the United States with an ICBM carrying a nuclear warhead.” In April 2016, Admiral William Gortney, head of U. S. Northern Command, stated that “[i]t’s the prudent decision on my part to assume that North Ko- rea has the capability to miniaturize a nuclear weapon and put it on an ICBM.”
Most non-government experts assess that North Korea has perhaps 30 or more nuclear weapons. However, an April 2017 assessment by David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security concluded that Pyongyang could have had “13-30 nuclear weapons as of the end of 2016, based on the estimates of North Korea’s production and use of plutonium and WGU,” and “is currently expanding its nu- clear weapons at a rate of about 3-5 weapons per year.” An earlier study by Joel S. Witt and Sun Young Ahn that was published in February 2015 by the Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s Nitze School of Advanced International Studies included a worst-case scenario in which Pyongyang could have “100 weapons by 2020.”
In 2016 and 2017, North Korea had break- through successes with many missiles in development. It successfully test-launched the Hwasong 12 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), which can target critical U. S. bases in Guam, and both the Pukguksong-2 road-mobile medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) and the Pukguksong-1 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). In June 2017, in writ- ten testimony before the House Armed Ser- vices Committee, Secretary of Defense James Mattis called North Korea “the most urgent and dangerous threat to peace and security.”
In June 2018, President Donald Trump met with Kim Jong-un in Singapore and subsequently declared both that “[t]here is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea” and that “total denuclearization. has already started taking place.” The Singapore Communique may be the first step toward North Korea’s de- nuclearization after eight failed diplomatic attempts during the past 27 years, but as of July 2018, there has been no decrease in North Korea’s WMD arsenal or production capabilities. To the contrary, the U. S. Intelligence Community assessed that Pyongyang had increased production of fissile material for nuclear weapons, and satellite imagery showed upgrades to missile, reentry vehicle, missile launcher, and nuclear weapon production facilities.
Chinese nuclear forces are the responsibility of the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Forces (PLARF), one of three new services created on December 31, 2015. China’s nuclear ballistic missile forces include land-based missiles with a range of 13,000 kilometers that can reach the U. S. (CSS-4) and submarine-based missiles that can reach the U. S. when the submarine is deployed within missile range.
The PRC became a nuclear power in 1964 when it exploded its first atomic bomb as part of its “two bombs, one satellite” effort. In quick succession, China then exploded its first thermonuclear bomb in 1967 and orbited its first satellite in 1970, demonstrating the capability to build a delivery system that can reach the ends of the Earth. China chose to rely primarily on a land-based nuclear deterrent instead of developing two or three different basing systems as the United States did.
Furthermore, unlike the United States or the Soviet Union, China chose to pursue only a limited nuclear deterrent. The PRC field- ed only a small number of nuclear weapons, with estimates of about 100-150 weapons on MRBMs and about 60 ICBMs. Its only ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) conducted relatively few deterrence patrols (perhaps none), and its first-generation SLBM, the JL-1, if it ever attained full operational capability, had limited reach.
While China’s nuclear force remained stable for several decades, it has been part of the modernization effort of the past 20 years. The result has been modernization and some expansion of the Chinese nuclear deterrent. The core of China’s ICBM force today is the DF-31 series, a solid-fueled, road-mobile system, along with a growing number of longer-range DF-41 missiles (also rail mobile) that may be in the PLA operational inventory. The DF-41 may be deployed with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). China’s medium-range nuclear forces have similarly shifted to mobile, solid-rocket systems so that they are both more survivable and more easily maintained.
Notably, the Chinese are expanding their ballistic missile submarine fleet. Replacing the one Type 092 Xia-class SSBN are several Type 094 Jin-class SSBNs, four of which are already operational. These are expected to be equipped with the new, longer-range JL-2 SLBM. Such a system would give the PRC a “secure second-strike” capability, substantially enhancing its nuclear deterrent. There is also some possibility that the Chinese nuclear arsenal now contains land-attack cruise missiles. The CJ-20, a long-range, air-launched cruise missile carried on China’s H-6 bomber, may be nuclear tipped, although there is not much evidence that China has pursued such a capability. China is also believed to be working on a cruise missile submarine that, if equipped with nuclear cruise missiles, would further expand the range of its nuclear attack options.
As a result of its modernization efforts, China’s nuclear forces appear to be shifting from a minimal deterrent posture (one suited only to responding to an attack and even then with only limited numbers) to a more robust but still limited deterrent posture. While the PRC will still likely field fewer nuclear weapons than either the United States or Russia, it will field a more modern and diverse set of capabilities than India or Pakistan (or North Korea), its nuclear-armed neighbors, are capable of fielding. If there are corresponding changes in doctrine, modernization will enable China to engage in limited nuclear options in the event of a conflict.
China has also been working on an array of hypersonic weapons. Undersecretary of Defense Michael Griffin and General John Hyten, head of U. S. Strategic Command, have testified that China and Russia are working aggressively to develop hypersonic weapons. Both have warned that China is at or ahead of the American level of development. General Hyten, for example, warned that “we don’t have any defense that could deny the employment of such a weapon against us, so our response would be our deterrent force, which would be the triad and the nuclear capabilities that we have to respond to such a threat.”
WWTA: The language of the WWTA has changed slightly in its description of the North Korean nuclear threat, from a “serious threat to US interests and to the security environment in East Asia” to “among the most volatile and confrontational WMD threats to the United States.” However, it again reports that North Korea is “committed to developing a long-range, nuclear-armed missile that is capable of posing a direct threat to the United States.” With respect to the broader threat from North Korea’s “weapons of mass destruction program, public threats, defiance of the international community, confrontational military posturing, cyber activities, and potential for internal instability,” the WWTA warns that they “pose a complex and increasing threat to US national security and interests.” Last year, it described this same mix of factors as an “increasingly grave threat.”
The WWTA’s assessment of the Chinese nuclear missile threat is unchanged from 2016 and 2017: China “continues to modernize its nuclear missile force by adding more survivable road-mobile systems and enhancing its silo-based systems. This new generation of missiles is intended to ensure the viability of China’s strategic deterrent by providing a second-strike capability.” The 2018 assessment adds the observation that the Chinese are intent on forming a “triad by developing a nuclear-capable next generation bomber.”
Summary: The respective missile threats to the American homeland from North Korea and China are very different. China has many more nuclear weapons, multiple demonstrated and tested means of delivery, and more mature systems, but it is a more stable actor with a variety of interests, including relations with the United States and its extensive interaction with the international system. North Korea has fewer weapons and questionable means of delivery, but it is less stable and less predictable, with a vastly lower stake in the international system. There is also a widely acknowledged difference in intentions: China seeks a stable second-strike capability and, unlike North Korea, is not actively and directly threatening the United States.