Table of Contents


The nuclear domain is no longer isolated due to at least two key developments in military technology. First, a wide range of non-nuclear technologies are emerging that can interact with nuclear weapons and their command, control, communication, and information (C3I) systems. These technologies include hypersonic, anti-space, cyber, and unmanned autonomous weapons, as well as precision-guided munitions and missile defenses. Second, multifunctional military technologies that can play a role in both conventional and nuclear operations or threaten both the nuclear and conventional assets of a potential enemy are becoming increasingly common.

This entanglement of non-nuclear and nuclear technologies has important implications for escalation dynamics between the conventional and nuclear realms. While American scholars have started to study these risks, there has been no systematic research into Chinese perspectives. Yet, this issue is relevant to China. Advanced American non-nuclear weapons could threaten China’s nuclear forces and their C3I infrastructure. China has been closely watching the United States, and to a lesser extent Russia, develop these non-nuclear technologies and has invested in its own similar development programs. When fielded, these weapons could threaten the U.S. nuclear C3I infrastructure.

Against this background, this chapter focuses on four potential pathways of escalation from a non-nuclear conflict to a nuclear one as a result of entanglement. First, the multifunctionality of certain weapons and other military assets could cause a misinterpretation that leads to inadvertent escalation. Both multifunction strike weapons and multifunction targets, including weapons or enabling capabilities, could create this kind of misinterpretation.

Entanglement of non-nuclear and nuclear technologies has important implications for escalation dynamics between the conventional and nuclear realms.

Second, strategic misunderstanding and miscalculation can result from divergent views about the purpose and implications of deploying particular weapons or the circumstances in which those weapons might be used. The United States and China, for example, have divergent understandings about the circumstances under which each one might use anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, and they interpret the purpose and implications behind the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea quite differently. These differences could lead to inadvertent escalation during a crisis.

Third, the development and deployment of certain non-nuclear technologies could influence a country’s attitude toward risk-taking during a crisis and make it more or less likely to escalate deliberately. Fourth, the introduction of certain non-nuclear technologies could mitigate or exacerbate the fog of war—that is, the inevitable uncertainty in situational awareness of the battlefield—thus affecting the risks of inadvertent nuclear escalation.

For each of these pathways, this chapter seeks to present and explain Chinese scholars’ understandings of the escalation risks stemming from entanglement and to compare them to their Western counterparts’ views. It also presents the authors’ own views about these escalation risks. In addition, this chapter explores whether, as some Western scholars have argued, China has been deliberately making use of the escalation risks stemming from entanglement as a way of enhancing deterrence. It avoids rehearsing China’s real and serious—but well-known—concerns about the implications of U.S. conventional precision strike weapons and missile defenses for its nuclear deterrent.

To understand Chinese perspectives on each of the escalation pathways, the authors conducted a comprehensive review of openly available documents and publications, carried out extensive interviewing, and organized a closed-door roundtable with senior Chinese experts from the military, the foreign policy community, the defense industry, think tanks, and academia. One key theme that emerged from these interactions is that China is not a monolithic entity. Accordingly, this chapter explains the major schools of thought, and highlights some minority views that may also be of interest to an international audience.

Chinese Thinking About Escalation

Inadvertent escalation has not been a traditional focus of Chinese thinking about security.1 Ancient Chinese military thinking did not touch on inadvertent escalation or crisis management. During China’s revolutionary years under Mao Zedong, China’s security policy emphasized the importance of tactics to confuse the enemy by creating the utmost uncertainty in its mind. The purpose was to keep the enemy from understanding China’s own capabilities and true objectives, while understanding the enemy’s capabilities and intentions as much as possible.2 This traditional thinking is quite different from the Western school of thought that argues that allowing an adversary to correctly ascertain one’s intentions and capabilities can help avoid inadvertent escalation.

Following China’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon capability in the mid‑1960s, it has had little real experience with being directly involved in nuclear crises.

Chinese political and military leaders have consistently expressed the view that military action should only be taken when there is absolute certainty (or near certainty) of victory. Among the three principles for warfare stressed by Mao Zedong, one concerned the circumstances in which to employ military force: “[It] is the winning principle. We either do not fight them; or if we do choose to go into a fight, we must win. We should never fight a war for which we are not very well prepared and which we do not have full confidence of winning.”3 Because of this principle, Chinese strategists have generally not devoted much thinking to scenarios other than complete victory or defeat. This principle is also illustrative of the traditional Chinese belief that the course of a war can be well controlled and managed by top commanders. The various uncertainties associated with waging a war or the possibility that top commanders may not fully understand the situation or be able to effectively control military operations has not been seriously considered.

Following China’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon capability in the mid‑1960s, it has had little real experience with being directly involved in nuclear crises, with the exception of the Sino-Soviet border crisis in 1969, during which the Soviet Union reportedly made an implicit threat of conducting a surgical strike against China’s rudimentary nuclear capability.4 By contrast, the United States and the Soviet Union became involved in a number of serious nuclear crises, including the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Such nuclear crises taught them firsthand lessons about the real risks of inadvertent escalation, and resulted in cooperative U.S.-Soviet efforts, such as the bilateral Prevention of Nuclear War Agreement and the establishment of Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers. By contrast, China’s lack of experience with nuclear crises may have contributed to a lack of thinking about inadvertent escalation risks.

In recent decades, Chinese thinking has evolved, as the country has opened up and as its strategic community has engaged more frequently with its Western counterparts.

Before the 1980s, Chinese discussions focused on how most international crises stemmed from domestic turmoil rather than international tensions.5 Moreover, the traditional Chinese view is that discussing escalation or crisis management sends, in and of itself, a signal of weakness.6 China also viewed never compromising with the enemy as a sacred principle and a key quality in a decisionmaker. This viewpoint further reduced Chinese experts’ interest in studying how to avoid or mitigate escalation.

In recent decades, Chinese thinking has evolved, as the country has opened up and as its strategic community has engaged more frequently with its Western counterparts. As Chinese experts have been introduced to and embraced concepts in the Western literature, including escalation and crisis stability, domestic discussions on escalation have become more frequent. A growing number of Chinese experts have started to analyze strategic security issues for their implications for arms control and crisis stability. This development has, in turn, facilitated effective and in-depth exchanges between strategic communities in China and the West.7

That said, traditional views and perceptions still—to varying degrees—affect China’s overall understanding of these issues. The resulting combination of traditional Chinese views and Western thinking has made current Chinese perspectives on the relationship between entanglement and inadvertent escalation complex and important to explore.

Misinterpretation Due to Multifunction Capabilities

Multifunction Targets

Some weapon systems or enabling capabilities play a role in both conventional and nuclear military operations. In a conventional conflict, if these assets were struck, the attacked state could have difficulty in accurately interpreting the underlying intentions of its enemy because the strike could be aimed at undermining its conventional military capability or, a much greater concern, its nuclear capability. If the attacked state concluded that its nuclear capability were under threat, it might launch a nuclear retaliation.

For instance, U.S. early-warning satellites provide both strategic early warning of a nuclear attack and enhance U.S. regional missile defense capabilities (which are primarily designed to defend against conventionally armed missiles). For a theater missile defense system, the area it can protect depends strongly on warning time: the longer the warning time, the larger the area.8 U.S. early-warning satellites can generally provide earlier warning of an incoming missile attack than existing U.S. land-based radars and therefore can improve the combat capability of theater missile defense systems. The United States has expressed concerns that its early-warning satellites might be targeted by China, including in the 2016 version of the Department of Defense’s annual report to Congress on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China.9 U.S. scholars have also cited People’s Liberation Army (PLA) publications that argue that “shooting down U.S. early-warning satellites would be a de-escalatory and stabilizing action in a naval encounter with the United States.”10 Senior U.S. officials have publicly noted these reports.11

Some Chinese experts have indeed argued that if a conventional war breaks out between the United States and China in the Taiwan Strait, China should consider destroying American early-warning satellites to degrade U.S. theater missile defense capabilities and hence to ensure the efficacy of Chinese conventional missile strikes against American and/or Taiwanese targets in the region.12 For the United States, given the importance of early-warning satellites in the American nuclear C3I system, Chinese strikes against such satellites could be (mis)interpreted as an attempt to deliberately undermine the U.S. capability to quickly detect and intercept Chinese intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) launched against the U.S. homeland. Fearing that the Chinese strikes against its early-warning satellites might be a sign that Beijing was preparing for ICBM strikes against the United States, Washington might feel compelled to launch preemptive strikes against China’s strategic offensive capabilities. In this way, attacks against multifunction military assets—U.S. early-warning satellites in this case—could lead to inadvertent escalation.

Similarly, there has been concern in the U.S. strategic community that China does not have a dedicated nuclear command-and-control system and that some Chinese communication capabilities play a role in supporting both nuclear and conventional military operations.13 Whether this is indeed the case in China is difficult to assess at the open-source level, and even Chinese experts do not seem to have a consensus view due to the lack of a clear definition of what constitutes a dedicated nuclear command-and-control system. Foreign experts have also raised the concern that some Chinese ballistic missiles, such as the DF-21 and DF-26, reportedly have both nuclear and conventional variants, creating the risk that the United States might mistake a nuclear-armed missile for a conventional one and trigger inadvertent escalation by striking it. Furthermore, both nuclear and conventional missiles are believed to be deployed at some Chinese missile bases and may “share the same support capabilities and facilities.”14 This co-location of nuclear and conventional missiles creates another potential cause of inadvertent escalation.

So far, Chinese analysts have not developed the same level of appreciation as many Western experts about the escalation risks of multifunction capabilities or commingling. Most Chinese experts—from both the policy and technical communities—do not seem to recognize the inherent risks of multifunction capabilities and commingling, and rarely take them into consideration during policy deliberations.15 In fact, one can hardly find discussions of such risks in the Chinese literature.

This absence may be partially attributable to the relatively high level of nuclear secrecy in China. To some extent, Chinese security and military experts, both inside and outside of government, still work in a compartmentalized system where communication between agencies and services is less effective than it should be. Many Chinese experts who are cleared to attend international exchanges and dialogues may not know the operational arrangements concerning China’s nuclear forces, and do not appear to be familiar with the specific policy issues related to commingling. Their views on, say, how China might respond to a U.S. conventional strike that was aimed at China’s conventional capabilities but ended up undermining Chinese nuclear capabilities seem to be speculative and not based on previous internal discussions. This stove-piping adds to the difficulty of having substantive discussions and reaching common views.

Different understandings between Chinese experts and their foreign counterparts about the purpose and implications of specific actions make the former more likely to dismiss escalation risks. For instance, from the Chinese perspective, in a U.S.-China conventional war in the Taiwan Strait, a Chinese attack against American early-warning satellites would clearly constitute a tactical military operation with the limited objective of undermining U.S. theater missile defense capabilities in the region. Although some Chinese experts understand that these satellites also provide strategic early warning of an incoming nuclear strike, these experts seem to expect the United States to be able to correctly interpret the use of ASAT weapons in a war that is conventional, limited, and regional. They reason that because China appears to have no capability to undermine the United States’ massive nuclear forces, it would make no military sense for China to even try to do so. However, they neglect the possibility that the United States might interpret such strikes as preparations for the first use of nuclear weapons designed to scare rather than disarm.

By contrast, American officials and experts have quite different views about the purpose and implications of such an attack. They generally agree that strikes against early-warning satellites would be viewed as seriously threatening to the U.S. nuclear C3I system and hence highly provocative and escalatory.16 This important gap in understandings could lead to miscalculations and unexpected escalation.

These differences in thinking between Chinese and Western strategists help explain their differing interpretations of China’s nuclear posture. Some foreign analysts suggest that China may deliberately commingle its nuclear and conventional capabilities—or may do so to a greater extent in the future—to protect its conventional missiles from enemy strikes.17 The logic they attribute to China is that, in a limited conventional conflict, an enemy would avoid attacking any Chinese conventional forces that were deployed close to China’s nuclear forces because the risk of mistakenly striking those forces would be too high.

The fact that Chinese strategists have not given much thought to the implications of commingling suggests that it is not a deliberate strategy.

In practice, however, there is no hard evidence that China has deliberately commingled nuclear and conventional capabilities for this reason or that it would consider doing so in the future. The fact that Chinese strategists have not given much thought to the implications of commingling suggests that it is not a deliberate strategy. Moreover, Chinese experts do not seem to embrace the thinking that nuclear forces should be used to protect conventional forces. On the contrary, for Chinese strategists, the survivability of nuclear forces is a much higher priority than that of conventional forces. From this perspective, it would make no sense for Chinese military planners to use nuclear forces to protect conventional forces.18

In fact, Chinese commingling seems to be driven primarily by engineering and logistical convenience. Experts from the Academy of Military Sciences of the PLA recently mentioned that the newly revealed DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile uses the “same missile body” for both nuclear and conventional warheads—in fact, it can change between nuclear and conventional warheads quickly, depending on specific battlefield requirements. They argue that, given China’s policy of maintaining a small nuclear arsenal, enabling nuclear missiles to launch conventional warheads increases China’s capability to deal with “diverse security threats.”19 It appears that China commingles its conventional and nuclear forces for similar reasons.

Multifunction Strike Weapons

Misinterpretation could also be caused by the deployment or employment of offensive weapons capable of threatening both nuclear and conventional targets. A number of new types of non-nuclear weapons are potentially capable of threatening a wide range of different targets. For example, the potential targets for conventional hypersonic weapons could include high-value terrorists, radars, ASAT weapons, and the transporter-erector-launchers (TELs) for both nuclear and conventional missiles. Moreover, hypersonic weapons are maneuverable, creating uncertainty about their aim points—a problem known as destination ambiguity. Thus, if China detected a hypersonic weapon launched from the United States headed in its direction, it would not initially know whether the target was somewhere in North Korea, eastern Russia, or China. If it became clear, later in flight, that the target was in China, Beijing would still be unsure whether the United States was aiming for, say, a population center, a command-and-control facility, a missile base, a nuclear missile TEL on patrol, or an ASAT weapon launcher. China would also have difficulties in determining whether the weapon was armed with a conventional or nuclear warhead—a problem known as warhead ambiguity. The combination of destination and warhead ambiguity associated with weapons that can destroy both nuclear and conventional targets could create significant escalation risks.20

Chinese experts do not appear to have paid much attention to such ambiguities and the associated escalation risks. One reason seems to be that they have always assumed that the United States is interested in deliberately using hypersonic weapons to preemptively attack China’s nuclear forces. Even if such weapons are armed only with conventional warheads, Chinese analysts fear that their high speed and precision will mean they could be used in a first strike.21 Chinese concerns have only increased over time with the inclusion, in the 2002 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, of “nonnuclear strike capabilities” in the New Triad (a concept that called for the development of nuclear and non-nuclear strike capabilities, strategic defenses, and a responsive infrastructure),22 and with technological breakthroughs associated with the U.S. Conventional Prompt Global Strike program (an effort to develop long-range hypersonic non-nuclear weapons). China, therefore, is more prone to interpret an ambiguous event as an attack against its nuclear forces for two primary reasons: Beijing believes that Washington is developing hypersonic weapons for potential use against China’s nuclear forces, and Beijing has failed to fully study and appreciate the risks of misinterpretation as a result of warhead and destination ambiguities.

Unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) are another example of an emerging non-nuclear capability that may cause inadvertent escalation as a result of their multifunctionality. Some UUV operations can simultaneously threaten an enemy’s nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) and its attack submarines. For instance, UUVs can be used to collect data about an enemy’s submarine deployment areas or travel routes to prepare for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) operations. Even in peacetime, such activities can increase tensions, as demonstrated by the December 2016 face-off between the U.S. and Chinese navies over the deployment of two American UUVs, one of which was seized by China, in the southeastern part of the South China Sea.23

More importantly, in a crisis, UUVs could be deployed at the entrance to an enemy’s submarine base or near a maritime chokepoint to track and trail submarines. The U.S. Navy master plans for UUV development explicitly identify “hold at risk” as one important mission for UUVs.24 Such UUV operations would appear equally threatening to Chinese SSBNs and attack submarines, and, in a crisis, it would be difficult for China to determine U.S. intentions. Thus, even if the United States wanted to threaten only China’s attack submarines and not its SSBNs, there would be a real risk that China would nonetheless suspect that its sea-based nuclear deterrent capabilities were in danger. In this case, China might react in ways that could appear to the United States as particularly provocative and escalatory. Indeed, Chinese reports implied that the reason why China seized the U.S. UUV in December 2016 was directly related to the perceived threat to Chinese SSBNs in the region.25 In a future confrontation, if China believed its SSBNs were under threat, it could again take very assertive measures to dispel U.S. forces and conduct very aggressive operations to defend those submarines. Such activities could be viewed as disproportionately aggressive by the United States and hence prove escalatory.

Divergent Understandings of Non-nuclear Capabilities and Their Consequences

Very often, states have divergent understandings about certain capabilities. Such differences can have important implications for crisis stability in two ways. First, they can lead to differences in perception about the possessor’s propensity to use a given capability in a crisis. Second, they can lead to differences in perception about the purpose behind the deployment of that capability, which can, in turn, affect interpretations of the other’s willingness to escalate or deescalate during a crisis.

Divergent Understandings About the Likelihood of Use

Ever since China’s successful test of an ASAT weapon in 2007, its interest in this technology has received considerable international attention. At the same time, many Chinese military analysts and commentators have painted a grave future in which outer space will become a new battlefield.26 Given the significant role that space-based assets play in modern military operations, many Chinese analysts have speculated in public writings and commentaries that ASAT weapons may, in the future, become a strategic capability to greatly influence the outcome of future wars.27 Some U.S. officials and analysts suspect that some of China’s missile defense tests in recent years were really disguised ASAT tests.28 That said, because of the inherent commonality between ASAT and missile defense technologies and a lack of technical data about the tests, it is difficult to draw objective conclusions about China’s level of interest in deploying, let alone using, ASAT weapons. Nonetheless, U.S. officials and analysts are becoming seriously concerned that Beijing might use ASAT weapons in a future conflict to try and nullify the significant benefits the United States gains through its use of space.

Interviews with the Chinese strategic community revealed that an important perception gap may exist between American and Chinese experts.

Interviews with the Chinese strategic community revealed that an important perception gap may exist between American and Chinese experts.29 Most Chinese experts raised serious doubts about the true efficacy of ASAT weapons. The most common view was that there has been far too much theoretical discussion in China about the role that ASAT weapons could play, and a lack of serious study in the open literature that systematically and realistically examines the likelihood that such weapons could significantly affect the course of future wars. In fact, most experts were skeptical that ASAT weapons could help achieve any decisive and asymmetric advantage. This view, which is very common among Chinese technical experts, is consistent with some recent studies conducted by foreign scholars that suggest serious limitations in ASAT weapons’ battlefield utility.30 By contrast, Chinese experts who are more supportive of using ASAT weapons on a battlefield tend to be theoretical strategists.

This lack of consensus within the Chinese strategic community suggests that China may actually be less inclined to use ASAT weapons during a future military conflict than most American officials and experts expect. This potential reluctance has obvious benefits for crisis stability. However, because the United States does not perceive that hesitancy, these benefits are much less likely to be realized than they may otherwise have been. In a crisis, believing that China would be likely to use ASAT weapons, the United States could misinterpret ambiguous signs—such as movements of ASAT capabilities—as signals that China might be preparing for such use when it is, in fact, not. If so, the United States might overreact by launching a preemptive strike against perceived Chinese ASAT assets and facilities, risking an unnecessary war or precipitating serious escalation.

Differences in perception about capabilities also create differences in perception about which state is responsible for causing the escalation risks.

To complicate matters further, differences in perception about capabilities also create differences in perception about which state is responsible for causing the escalation risks, complicating efforts to resolve the problem. A number of Chinese experts acknowledged the potential escalation risks, but argued that because they are the result of the U.S. nuclear doctrine of launch-under-attack, it is the United States that should be responsible for making efforts to reduce such risks by, for instance, abandoning its launch-under-attack posture. China, they argue, should not feel inhibited.

Divergent Understandings About the Purpose of Deployments

Recent disputes about the deployment of the U.S. THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea provide another illustration of how divergent understandings about the capabilities of a particular technology can create escalation risks. In this case, however, there is an added complication compared to Chinese ASAT weapons. The United States correctly understands the motives behind China’s potential acquisition of ASAT weapons, but it may overestimate China’s willingness to use such capabilities. By contrast, in the case of THAAD, a divergence in perceptions about capabilities has created a similar divergence about the very purpose of the system’s deployment, further exacerbating escalation risks and hindering the development of any solution.

In July 2016, Washington and Seoul agreed to deploy the THAAD system in South Korea. The country’s existing missile defense system only consists of low-altitude capabilities, such as the Patriot Advanced Capability-2 , that intercept incoming missiles shortly before impact.31 THAAD is intended to provide an extra layer of defense by intercepting longer-range missiles at higher altitudes. Given the increasing ballistic missile threat from North Korea, the United States and South Korea see the deployment of THAAD as a technical necessity for the purpose of protecting South Korea’s population as well as American military bases in the country.

China has a totally different understanding about THAAD and the purpose of its deployment. Chinese experts believe that THAAD is mostly useful for intercepting ballistic missiles with ranges longer than 1,000 kilometers (about 600 miles). Because the Korean Peninsula is only about 900 kilometers from north to south, the primary North Korean missile threat to South Korea comes from missiles with ranges less than 1,000 kilometers. Chinese experts have, therefore, drawn the conclusion that THAAD cannot protect South Korea from the North Korean missile threat and that its deployment must really be directed at China.32

China also has deep suspicions that the THAAD deployment is just one step of a comprehensive U.S. strategy to “ring China with missile defenses” in an effort to undermine China’s nuclear deterrent.33 Chinese technical experts point out that the powerful X-band AN/TPY-2 radar associated with the THAAD system might be able to monitor the process of releasing warheads and decoys from Chinese ICBMs. They are also concerned that the radar might be capable of detecting and tracking the launch of Chinese sea-launched ballistic missiles from SSBNs in Bohai Bay. Such data could be shared with the American homeland missile defense system, considerably improving its effectiveness against Chinese nuclear missiles.34 For these reasons, Chinese experts believe that the deployment of THAAD could seriously undermine China’s nuclear deterrent and therefore poses a strategic security threat.

U.S. experts, including senior State Department officials, have disagreed, both publicly and privately, with the Chinese assessment that THAAD is unable to intercept North Korea’s short-range missiles, yet does have the potential to undermine China’s nuclear deterrent. The United States assesses that the impact of the AN/TPY-2 radar on China’s deterrent will be very marginal—if it has any impact at all—and will not significantly undermine China’s nuclear deterrent because of China’s advanced countermeasures against ballistic missile defenses. Most American experts dismiss Chinese concerns as unfounded or as politically motivated exaggerations.

The divergence in perceptions between the United States and China could create escalation problems. Senior Chinese military experts, such as retired Major General Yin Zhuo and retired Rear Admiral Yang Yi, have argued that China should be prepared to attack THAAD if a military conflict breaks out between the United States and China.35 Yin even argued that China should consider striking THAAD as its first move at the very beginning of a future military conflict with the United States.36 If Beijing were to launch such a strike, the United States and China would have very different understandings about Chinese intentions.

From the Chinese perspective, the United States should understand that the Chinese strike was simply intended to remove an infringement on a key Chinese national interest—the survivability of its nuclear deterrent—and to restore the status quo ante. China would believe that the strike was quite understandable and justifiable, and that it should not precipitate a U.S. overreaction. American and South Korean decisionmakers, by contrast, would likely see the strike as extremely provocative, given that they don’t believe that THAAD poses a real threat to China. In fact, because the primary declared U.S. and South Korean objective for deploying THAAD is to counter the North Korean missile threat, Washington and Seoul might even see the Chinese strike as being designed to embolden Pyongyang and encourage it to carry out more serious military provocations. Under these circumstances, the United States and South Korea on one side and China on the other would end up playing different games, with totally different interests at stake. These differences would then impact how the United States and South Korea reacted and how China interpreted their reactions.

The Impact of Non-nuclear Technologies on Risk-Taking

Non-nuclear technologies could influence escalation dynamics by affecting a country’s attitude toward risk-taking during a crisis. If a state is confident in its ability to respond to an enemy’s provocation, it can be said to be relatively risk-tolerant, in the sense that it can afford to wait while the enemy’s provocation unfolds before initiating a countermove. Conversely, if a state is less confident in its ability to respond, it is relatively risk-averse, meaning it feels pressure to react early in a crisis while it still has the capability to do so. Non-nuclear technology could change a state’s confidence in its ability to respond effectively during crisis and hence affect its propensity to escalate.

Non-nuclear technologies could influence escalation dynamics by affecting a country’s attitude toward risktaking during a crisis.

If a state knows that its enemy is developing capabilities that could undermine its nuclear deterrent—such as ASAT weapons that could strike early-warning satellites, or cyber weapons that could undermine nuclear C3I—its confidence in the survivability of its nuclear second-strike capability could decrease during a crisis. As a result, the country might become more risk-averse and feel compelled to use nuclear weapons early while it still could.

For example, it is no secret to Chinese experts that the U.S. government is exploring the option of using cyber weapons to undermine potential enemies’ strategic missiles and nuclear C3I systems during a crisis to prevent the enemies from launching such missiles.37 There have been open reports that the U.S. military has conducted serious studies on this subject.38 Most significantly, then president Barack Obama’s administration reportedly intensified the U.S. pursuit of such “left of launch” capabilities against North Korea in 2014.39 (Left of launch capabilities seek to preemptively destroy or disable enemy missiles before they can be fired through both kinetic and nonkinetic means, including cyber and electronic interference.40)

Senior defense officials have acknowledged these efforts—at least in general terms. In 2016, Brian P. McKeon, then principal deputy under secretary of defense for policy, testified before Congress that “we need to develop a wider range of tools and that includes the efforts underway to address such threats before they are launched, or ‘left of launch.’ The development of left-of-launch capabilities will provide U.S. decision-makers additional tools and opportunities to defeat missiles. This will in turn reduce the burden on our ‘right-of-launch’ ballistic missile defense capabilities.”41 At the same hearing, Lieutenant General David L. Mann, then the commanding general of the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Strategic Forces Command and the Joint Functional Component Command for Integrated Missile Defense, explicitly acknowledged that cyber operations were part of the Defense Department’s “holistic missile defense strategy.”42 Chinese experts worry that these approaches could be applied to China.

For the United States to develop effective cyber capabilities, able to infiltrate an enemy’s nuclear C3I system, which is extremely secretive, complex, and presumably well protected, it needs to conduct constant probing during peacetime to map its enemy’s network infrastructure and identify potential weakness and vulnerabilities.43 Such cyber reconnaissance may be occasionally detected by the enemy and could therefore alert it to the potential threat of cyber attacks against its nuclear deterrent. This heightened awareness of one’s own vulnerability could make a state more risk-averse in a crisis, increasing inadvertent escalation risks for several reasons.

First, the attacker might underestimate how threatening even a relatively benign cyber intrusion could appear to the target country. The target country’s nuclear C3I system is presumably complex and secret. From the attacker’s perspective, merely penetrating it would not necessarily enable the attacker to do damage. The target country, however, might overestimate the capabilities and/or intentions of the attacker. During a crisis, if traces of enemy cyber infiltration into its nuclear C3I system were detected, the target country might not be able to quickly examine and understand the full scale of the infiltration and might therefore have to assume the worst. For example, the target country might worry that fatal damage was about to be done by altering critical data and/or code in the system, even if the attacker lacked such an intention or thought it did not have the capability to do so. This perception of acute vulnerability coupled with the perceived possibility of serious imminent damage might prompt the target country to use nuclear weapons quickly, before it lost control of them.

Second, the target country might interpret a cyber attack as the precursor to kinetic attacks against its nuclear forces. If a state detected a cyber infiltration in its nuclear C3I system during a crisis, it might see the attack as evidence that the attacker had crossed the ultimate line and was in the process of implementing preemptive disarming strikes against its nuclear capabilities—especially because cyber infiltration could be useful in collecting intelligence to enable a kinetic strike. As a result, the target country might worry that kinetic preemptive strikes were about to follow, potentially leading it to overreact. In the case of a U.S.-China military confrontation, China seems to have legitimate reasons to worry about what might follow a perceived U.S. cyber attack, as some American scholars suggest that U.S. cyber attacks are likely to precede or accompany a nuclear first strike.44

Third, even just the knowledge that an enemy might have the capability to undermine a state’s nuclear C3I system could lead to misinterpretation and overreaction in a crisis. For example, if a state detected a cyber attack from an unknown source in its nuclear C3I system or if this system happened to encounter a problem, it might mistakenly conclude that it was the victim of a deliberate cyber attack by the other protagonist in the crisis, potentially sparking escalation. Indeed, such risks could arise with other types of weapons. For example, if an early-warning satellite encountered an unknown problem during a crisis and stopped working properly, its owner might mistakenly attribute the problem to a deliberate attack, if it knew that its enemy was developing ASAT capabilities.

Fourth, defenses against cyber attacks may make the accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons more likely, both during peacetime and a crisis. If a state believes that an enemy has the capability to prevent it from launching its nuclear weapons, it may prioritize ensuring that those weapons can be launched once the order has been given over ensuring that unauthorized or mistaken launches can be prevented. Given there are trade-offs between these two goals, the perceived threat may prompt the target country to become more risk-tolerant about unauthorized or mistaken launches but more risk-averse about any failure to launch nuclear weapons quickly when ordered. For instance, to avert the accidental or unauthorized launch of nuclear weapons, states have adopted various procedures to authenticate orders to use them. However, if a state is concerned that cyber weapons can interfere with this process and prevent an authorized launch, it may implement alternative procedures that are more difficult to hack but that also increase the risk of an accidental launch.

Chinese analysts have demonstrated an acute awareness of the potential vulnerabilities of the country’s nuclear C3I system, particularly against cyber infiltrations. When commenting on the 2010 incident at F. E. Warren Air Force Base in the United States—in which personnel lost communications with fifty ICBMs because of a technical malfunction—senior military experts from the PLA National Defense University raised the prospect of an enemy’s deliberately hacking a country’s nuclear command-and-control system, and stressed the possibility that cyber attacks could lead to similar—if not much more serious—incidents.45 Chinese civilian scholars have also emphasized the cyber threat to China’s nuclear command-and-control system.46 It is very likely that China has implemented passive protection measures for its nuclear C3I system by, for instance, installing air gaps and employing electromagnetic shielding technologies,47 but there is no public discussion about specifics. Moreover, even the installation of such protective measures is no silver bullet. As revealed by Stuxnet, the cyber weapon apparently developed by the United States and Israel to attack Iran’s centrifuge facility at Natanz, air-gapped systems can still be vulnerable to sophisticated interference efforts.48

Most Chinese experts interviewed for this chapter believe that the emergence of cyber threats to a state’s nuclear C3I system does not by itself increase escalation risks. Whether it does lead to an increase depends fundamentally on the state’s strategic choices rather than technology. For instance, if a state is concerned about the cyber vulnerability of its nuclear C3I system, it faces two options: it can plan to use nuclear weapons early, before this system is undermined, or it can deploy a backup C3I system that does not rely on cyber networks at all as an emergency alternative. Such a backup system has clear advantages for crisis stability, if it can be implemented despite the obvious challenges of cost, effectiveness, and potential vulnerability to other means of interference. Chinese experts also observed that a state’s doctrine for responding to a cyber attack provides another example of how strategic choices affect escalation risks. Because of China’s no-first-use policy, China would not launch a nuclear response to a cyber attack. However, some U.S. government–sponsored studies have argued for keeping open the option of launching a nuclear retaliation in response to a cyber attack.49

Some Chinese experts have challenged the popular view that cyber technology will negatively affect crisis stability, because they believe this conclusion is based completely on logical deduction, instead of empirical evidence. These experts have noted that states are usually very cautious about launching military retaliations to cyber attacks, and it is very rare for cyber attacks to lead to escalation.50 Some experts also expressed the view that some cyber technologies are unlikely to be used because their developers may be self-deterred. Their reasoning is similar to the argument made by the military strategist Dean Cheng that “most cyber weapons can realistically only be used once,” because once a cyber weapon has been revealed, the target will take remedial actions to prevent future attacks.51

Finally, a few Chinese experts even argued that cyber technology can have a positive impact on crisis stability. They believe that the development of cyber technology makes cross-border communications easier, not only between decisionmakers but also between the general public in different countries. With advanced cyber technology, the public has more opportunities to learn about the escalation risks of nuclear confrontations, making it more risk-averse and therefore more willing to pressure national leaders to focus on effective crisis communication, to adopt conciliatory measures, and to defuse military tensions.

Technology, the Fog of War, and Escalation

The phrase “fog of war” describes the ignorance or uncertainty of military leaders about the situation on the battlefield.52 It can lead to misinterpretation and miscalculation. A number of the emerging non-nuclear technologies discussed in this chapter have the potential to increase or decrease the fog of war and therefore affect escalation dynamics.

On one hand, during interviews, some Chinese experts expressed the view that cyber technology can help the government to obtain and track information. They believe that advanced cyber technology can help improve the management of nuclear weapons and nuclear materials by enabling the government to become more effective at monitoring their storage and movement in a detailed and timely manner, and by detecting any signs of an anomaly more quickly. Such experts believe cyber technology can, therefore, reduce the chances of an accidental launch of nuclear weapons or of nuclear materials falling into the wrong hands.

A number of the emerging non-nuclear technologies discussed in this chapter have the potential to increase or decrease the fog of war and therefore affect escalation dynamics.

On the other hand, Chinese analysts also understand that the use of certain non-nuclear weapons could reduce the enemy’s situational awareness of the battlefield. Some Chinese analysts, especially those arguing for the use of ASAT weapons against American reconnaissance and communication satellites in a limited regional war, tend to view the fog of war resulting from such strikes as a tactical military advantage for China by undermining the efficacy of the U.S. C3I system.53

There is little discussion, however, about whether degrading U.S. situational awareness and communication capabilities might have negative consequences for China. The Chinese experts interviewed did not believe that a limited attack against U.S. space-based C3I assets would lead to nuclear retaliation because such a response would be disproportionate. No one raised the possibility that because of the increased fog of war, the United States might misinterpret other Chinese military moves—such as exercises or the mobilization of missile forces—as preparations for actually using nuclear weapons and, as a result, might initiate preemptive strikes against Chinese nuclear forces or facilities.

This lack of concern may be connected to China’s long-standing policy of unconditional no first use. Because of this policy, Chinese experts believe that their American colleagues must know—as well as they do themselves—that China has no intention of using nuclear weapons first in a conventional conflict. These experts therefore believe that the United States is unlikely to misread other Chinese military moves as signs of the imminent use of nuclear weapons. For example, one senior Chinese expert, who acknowledges that “anti-satellite weapons might be used to destroy the other side’s systems for command, control, communications, and intelligence,” explicitly argues that “for nuclear weapon states that maintain a no-first-use policy—including China—anti-satellite weapons could not, by definition, provoke a nuclear attack.”54 This view is characteristic of widespread Chinese thinking that rejects the possibility that nuclear weapons could be used because of misperceptions and misinterpretations; the impact that the fog of war created by technologies, such as ASAT weapons, might have on the enemy’s understanding and decisionmaking is not considered.

Incidents that took place at a time when the fog of war was particularly thick could also be very dangerous. For example, if American early-warning satellites were crippled due to a Chinese ASAT attack, the chances of a false alarm about a missile launch would increase. Indeed, in 1995, Russian early-warning radars detected the launch of a Norwegian sounding rocket that was mistakenly identified as a possible U.S. Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile . Many analysts believe that Russia was able to identify its mistake in the end, before launching a nuclear retaliation, because it had a network of functioning early-warning satellites that helped clarify the situation.55 In the U.S.-China case, if U.S. early-warning satellites were inoperable and if the United States had to rely only on ground- and sea-based radars for detecting and verifying incoming missile attacks, there might be an increased chance of a false alarm that could not be clarified. Under these circumstances, an incident would be more likely to escalate accidentally, perhaps even resulting in a nuclear exchange. Such possibilities do not seem to have been explored or even considered by Chinese analysts.

The fog of war can create problems, not only for the enemy’s access to information but also for the effective flow of information between oneself and the enemy. The increasing use by the United States of unmanned military systems that can potentially undermine China’s nuclear capabilities highlights this problem.

The deployment of unmanned systems—such as UUVs, especially in an ASW role—introduces new communication challenges, including between one state’s unmanned systems and another’s manned systems for a variety of reasons. Some unmanned systems are autonomous, rather than remotely piloted. The communication links between non-autonomous unmanned systems and their controllers could be severed. And unmanned systems may simply be incapable of communicating. As a result, direct communication between manned and unmanned systems to signal and clarify their intentions when they encounter one another at sea is more difficult than between two manned systems. Indeed, the newly drafted U.S.-China Memorandum of Understanding on the Rules of Behavior for Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters wouldn’t be easily applicable to unmanned systems.56 Thus, if something happened to a remotely piloted UUV, for example, its operators might face difficulties in quickly identifying the cause and accurately evaluating enemy intentions. The resulting uncertainty could cause exaggerated threat perceptions and lead to inadvertent escalation.

More seriously, China already suspects that American UUVs will soon be capable of attacking Chinese SSBNs. Given this concern, in a crisis, China might feel it had no choice but to assume that the United States was conducting ASW operations against its SSBNs if it detected evidence of U.S. UUVs near its SSBNs, their sailing routes, or their bases.57 In response, China might raise the alert status of its SSBN forces and mobilize other forces to conduct potentially aggressive operations to defend its SSBNs. Such measures could escalate tensions. If the United States did not fully understand Chinese motivations, it might overreact. Although similar escalation dynamics could occur if China perceived that manned nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) were threatening its SSBNs, the risks would likely be more serious with unmanned systems. Most importantly, UUVs might behave more aggressively than SSNs toward Chinese submarines because the commander of an SSN is likely to be more experienced than the controller of a UUV and have a much greater incentive not to endanger his or her ship and its crew. Moreover, precisely because SSNs are manned, China might be more wary of employing aggressive countermeasures against them than against UUVs.

Other technologies, such as cyber and hypersonic weapons, can greatly increase the pace of warfare and shorten the time for decisionmaking, exacerbating the problems created by the fog of war and severely complicating escalation management. For instance, U.S. generals have warned that hypersonic weapons, artificial intelligence, and automated weapons will accelerate future conflicts and make future wars with Russia and China “extremely lethal and fast.”58 Chinese experts share the same view about cyber and hypersonic weapons, and stress such weapons “greatly reduce the response time,” thereby requiring the development of better intelligence and information processing technologies.59 Overall, Chinese experts seem to agree with their Western counterparts that the quickening pace of modern warfare is inherently escalatory, but they appear slightly more optimistic about the prospects for risk management because they believe the risks can be addressed or mitigated through the development of new capabilities and operational procedures to meet the growing demand for quick information processing and decisionmaking.

Chinese experts seem to agree with their Western counterparts that the quickening pace of modern warfare is inherently escalatory.

Decisions to use nuclear weapons might be made under extreme time pressure. According to open-source research about the U.S. launch-under-attack posture, personnel at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) have only about two to three minutes to evaluate and confirm initial indications from early-warning systems of an incoming attack.60 If cyber weapons were used to undermine the computer systems at NORAD and interfere with communications or the processing of data, it could be impossible to authenticate the warning signals within the allocated timeframe. This failure could reduce the U.S. president’s ability to obtain a full understanding of the situation and might force him or her to make hasty decisions with incomplete information. Chinese analysts, however, have not explored in much depth how the thickened fog of war might affect China’s decisionmaking and that of its enemies, and hence affect escalation dynamics.


The development and introduction of new and advanced non-nuclear military technologies is increasing entanglement between nuclear and non-nuclear capabilities and generating the possibility of increasingly complex and dangerous escalation dynamics. These dynamics are still relatively new to most experts in the Chinese nuclear and strategic security communities. Many experts have expressed concerns about them in Chinese writings but have not considered them systematically. Nonetheless, it is clear that, for various reasons, there are significant differences between Chinese and Western thinking on the subject.

First, general distrust between China and some Western countries—the United States in particular—makes China less willing to address potential escalation risks, including of inadvertent escalation. Because of the prevailing belief that decisions about whether to escalate or deescalate a crisis—and when and how to do so—have a direct impact on whether a state can achieve its strategic objectives, the competitive relationship with the United States undermines China’s interest in joint discussions about escalation risks and the potential for jointly managing them. Specifically, Beijing worries that, by reducing U.S. concerns about the potential dangers of escalation during a crisis, it might embolden the United States to behave more aggressively in peacetime and to escalate crises when it sees fit, potentially even opening up China to nuclear coercion.

Second, some Chinese experts seem to be suspicious that the U.S. stress on escalation risks is intended to undermine China’s legitimate military modernization efforts, especially those that are focused on new military technologies that may exacerbate those risks. In general, the perceived need to develop military capabilities to counter Western containment has received a higher priority than—and has overshadowed any serious consideration of—escalation risks.

Third, China’s traditional strategic and military culture is equally important. In contrast to their Western counterparts, Chinese strategists have traditionally not addressed escalation—especially inadvertent escalation. Even today, very few Chinese experts have written on the subject, let alone conducted in-depth research. China’s lack of firsthand experience as a participant in serious nuclear crises has also hampered its appreciation of the risk of inadvertent nuclear escalation.

Fourth, many Chinese experts share the belief that military technologies, in and of themselves, do not necessarily make escalation more or less likely. Instead, they emphasize the importance of specific deployment and employment strategies and argue that, at the end of the day, those strategies are what really matter. That said, it is also true that, to date, there have not been in-depth Chinese studies into the implications of specific deployment and employment strategies for escalation.

Fifth, as a result of the high degree of compartmentalization within the Chinese system, most Chinese experts within the nuclear and strategic communities focus only on their narrow specialty areas. However, in-depth research into escalation requires knowledge of at least three different subject areas: China’s strategic-weapon deployment and employment policies; other states’ strategic-weapon deployment and employment policies; and strategy, military diplomacy, and arms control. Compartmentalization hinders frequent and substantive exchanges between experts from these subject areas, preventing many Chinese experts from developing the comprehensive understanding necessary to study escalation. Not only does it thus prevent the Chinese strategic community as a whole from studying escalation issues, but it also obstructs substantive and meaningful discussions with foreign experts.

Sixth, even where there is shared recognition of escalation risks, China and the United States disagree about which state is responsible for creating the risks and therefore for addressing them. In the case of a hypothetical Chinese strike against U.S. early-warning satellites, for example, the United States sees China’s reported strategy of conducting preemptive ASAT strikes as the cause of inadvertent escalation risks, whereas Chinese experts believe the U.S. policy of launch-under-attack is the real problem. As a result, each side believes that the other is responsible for addressing the risks and sees no need to take corrective measures itself. Such a narrow way of thinking works to maintain the divergence of views on how to address escalation risks.

In spite of these challenges, it is important to promote common understanding between major nuclear powers about inadvertent escalation risks.

Seventh, Chinese experts worry that some Western proposals for addressing escalation risks—such as decoupling nuclear and conventional forces—might be exploited by potential enemies, which could feel more comfortable with conducting strikes against Chinese conventional capabilities. For this reason, although China did not entangle its nuclear and non-nuclear forces for the purpose of protecting the latter, it is now discovering that such entanglement is potentially useful from this perspective and is correspondingly reluctant to increase its vulnerability by embarking on a process of separation.

In spite of these challenges, it is important to promote common understanding between major nuclear powers about inadvertent escalation risks. Such risks are real and growing as a result of entanglement. However, because of Chinese policy choices, they are also somewhat less serious than many foreign experts believe.

One cause of concern among foreign experts is skepticism about the sincerity or practicality of China’s unconditional no-first-use policy. Under this policy, China has even gone so far as to explicitly and firmly commit itself not to threaten to use nuclear weapons first. From the Chinese perspective, this policy essentially takes the option of China’s unilaterally escalating a conventional war to the nuclear level off the table. Because of their deep understanding about the making and implementation of Chinese nuclear policy, most (if not all) Chinese experts have complete faith in this commitment. There is a strong consensus among these experts that China has no intention whatsoever to—and would never—use nuclear weapons without absolute confirmation that China has already been struck by nuclear weapons. They believe no first use greatly contributes to avoiding the escalation of tensions and conflict. By contrast, many foreign analysts tend to challenge the unconditionality of China’s no-first-use commitment, and accordingly reach a particularly pessimistic assessment about the risk of escalation between the United States and China.

Moreover, China’s highly centralized command-and-control system makes unauthorized or hasty nuclear use less likely than many foreign analysts imagine. A high degree of centralization of command and control is an important feature of the PLA as a whole, including its conventional and nuclear forces. At the operational level, there is usually less freedom of action compared with many Western militaries, and an important aspect of PLA culture is that military commanders avoid risks when there is no clear guidance from the top. As a result, during a time of crisis, PLA commanders would be more likely to avoid bold and decisive actions, even at the risk of sacrificing rapid response capabilities, than to rashly launch nuclear weapons.

The authority to use nuclear weapons rests exclusively with China’s top political leaders, and most likely with a group that will decide collectively as opposed to one specific person. Specifically, either the Standing Committee of the Politburo or the Central Military Commission (acting jointly in some cases) appears to be the ultimate decisionmaking body for nuclear employment. This institutional design makes the chance of China hastily initiating a nuclear war lower than some foreign analysts seem to believe.

Moreover, in recent years, China has been paying more attention to inadvertent escalation. Through engagement with their Western counterparts at various levels, Chinese officials and experts have developed a deeper understanding of the potential risks. China has worked with the United States to establish codes of conduct and rules of behavior for air and maritime military encounters. While these procedures are not directly related to nuclear forces and are far from perfect, they do demonstrate China’s growing awareness of—and interest in—addressing the risks of military incidents and inadvertent escalation. They pave the way for further engagement and cooperation in nuclear-risk reduction in the future.

That said, the future could also see the emergence of new challenges. As the influence of Western nuclear thinking on China has grown, some Chinese experts have started to advocate for certain U.S. nuclear practices. For instance, some military experts believe that China should abandon its long-standing practice of maintaining a low level of alert for its nuclear weapons during peacetime and should consider shifting to a posture of launch on warning.61 The ongoing development of China’s early-warning system could lay the groundwork for such a shift in policy, if the decision to change posture were made.62

The continued U.S. investment in new military technologies—such as cyber weapons that could interfere with C3I systems, unmanned vehicles that could threaten enemy SSBNs, and hypersonic weapons that could create considerable ambiguity—will also motivate other countries, including China, to follow suit and compete technologically. Such emulation could increase entanglement and complicate escalation management in the future.

To address the challenges of entanglement and inadvertent escalation, political trust between the United States and China has to be improved.

To address the challenges of entanglement and inadvertent escalation, political trust between the United States and China has to be improved. The current lack of trust contributes directly to Chinese skepticism about U.S. strategic intentions and a lack of interest in engaging with American experts on the subject. That said, operational-level engagement on addressing escalation risks and efforts to increase political trust may in fact be mutually reinforcing. Long-term and sustainable dialogues between foreign and Chinese experts on technical risk reduction would provide an opportunity for both sides to develop in-depth and sophisticated understanding about each other’s real thinking and concerns. In the long run, such a process could help both sides to gradually reduce and remove current suspicions about each other’s intentions, contributing to the building of political trust. In this way, a positive cycle of mutual beneficial interactions could be set in motion.

Confidence-building measures could be useful for promoting deeper cooperation in addressing the escalation risks that result from entanglement. It would be very helpful for Washington to convey to Chinese leaders its recognition that mutual vulnerability is a fact, and that the United States will plan and posture its strategic forces on that basis. Such a political commitment would not be verifiable, but could still help to reduce Chinese concerns that Washington deliberately seeks to use non-nuclear means to counter China’s small nuclear arsenal. It would, in turn, make China more willing to discuss entanglement with the United States and to work cooperatively to address specific escalation risks. Reciprocally, China could shed more light on its thinking about some of its own programs that create entanglement and are of most concern to the United States. For example, China could explain its thinking on whether future hypersonic weapons would be armed with conventional or nuclear warheads, and on what space-based assets might be considered legitimate targets and under what conditions.

Such transparency measures would not reveal sensitive military information or undermine national security, but would help catalyze a substantive discussion aimed at clarifying and reducing exaggerated threat perceptions and the possibility of overreactions during crises. Given that the United States and China share a common interest in reducing risks of inadvertent escalation, such a dialogue would hopefully lead to in-depth exchanges and the exploration of unilateral and cooperative risk-reduction measures for an era of advanced non-nuclear technologies.


1 Part of the research in this section is based on: Zhao Tong, “Trust-Building in the U.S.-Chinese Nuclear Relationship: Impact of Operational-Level Engagement” (doctoral dissertation, Georgia Institute of Technology, 2014),

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8 Geoffrey Forden, “How China Loses the Coming Space War (Pt. 1),” Wired, January 1, 2008,

9 Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2016,”Department of Defense, 2016.

10 Micah Zenko, “Dangerous Space Incidents,” Contingency Planning Memorandum no. 21, Council on Foreign Relations, April 16, 2014,

11 Barbara Opall-Rome, “U.S. Wants a Space Debris Hotline With China Patterned on the One With Russia,” SpaceNews, February 13, 2012,

12 Authors’ private conversation with Chinese nuclear experts, Beijing, July 2016.

13 John Wilson Lewis and Xue Litai, Imagined Enemies: China Prepares for Uncertain War (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006).

14 David Cromer Logan, “Drawing a Line Between Conventional and Nuclear Weapons in China,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 5, 2015,

15 Michael Glosny, Christopher Twomey, and Ryan Jacobs, “U.S.-China Strategic Dialogue, Phase VIII Report,” Naval Postgraduate School, August 2014.

16 Forden, “How China Loses the Coming Space War”; Sam Seitz, “Dynamics of Space Weaponization and the ASAT Threat,” Global Intelligence Trust, July 14, 2016,; and Opall-Rome, “U.S. Wants a Space Debris Hotline.”

17 Fiona S. Cunningham and M. Taylor Fravel, “Assuring Assured Retaliation: China’s Nuclear Posture and US-China Strategic Stability,” International Security 40, no. 2 (2015): 45.

18 Li Bin, et al., “Why Is China Modernizing Its Nuclear Arsenal?,” Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, Washington, DC, March 24, 2015,

19 Wang Changqin and Fang Guangming, “我们为什么要发展东风-26弹道导弹” [Why we need to develop DF-26 ballistic missiles], China Youth Daily, November 23, 2015.

20 James M. Acton, Silver Bullet? Asking the Right Questions About Conventional Prompt Global Strike (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2013).

21 Xia Liping, “‘高边疆’ 理论视阈下美国全球快速常规打击计划” [U.S. Conventional Prompt Global Strike plan from the ‘high frontier’ theory perspective], 国际观察 [International Observer], no. 5 (2014); and Yao Yunzhu, “China Will Not Change Its Nuclear Policy,” China-US Focus, April 22, 2013,

22 Donald H. Rumsfeld, “Foreword,” in Nuclear Posture Review Report (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2002),

23 Barbara Starr and Ryan Browne, “Pentagon Demands China Return US Underwater Drone,” CNN, December 17, 2016,

24 U.S. Department of the Navy, “The Navy Unmanned Undersea Vehicle (UUV) Master Plan,” November 9, 2004,

25 Zi Mo, “中美南海暗战升级 潜航器牵出核潜艇” [China-U.S. hidden war in South China Sea escalates: Underwater drone related to nuclear submarine], Duowei, December 17, 2016.

26 Dai Xu, “太空战幽灵逼近” [The ghost of space war is coming closer], 党政干部参考 [Party & Government Forum], no. 8 (2010).

27 Zhao Chu, “太空战: 挑战, 重点与对策—本刊召集解放军专家研讨太空战趋势与对策” [Space war: Challenges, priorities, and countermeasures—The editor hosted a workshop for PLA experts to discuss the trend of space warfare and countermeasures], 国际展望 [International Outlook], no. 9 (2001).

28 Mike Gruss, “U.S. State Department: China Tested Anti-Satellite Weapon,” SpaceNews, July 28, 2014,; and Bill Gertz, “China Tests Anti-Satellite Missile,” Washington Free Beacon, November 5, 2015,

29 Authors’ interviews in Beijing, June–July 2016.

30 Jaganath Sankaran, “Limits of the Chinese Antisatellite Threat to the United States,” Strategic Studies, no. 19 (2014).

31 The United States and South Korea are now moving to upgrade the Patriot Advanced Capability-2 systems to Patriot Advanced Capability-3 systems in South Korea.

32 Fan Gaoyue, “韩国部署“萨德”弊大于利” [THAAD in South Korea: Potential harm outweighs benefits], 中美聚焦 [China-U.S. Focus], April 13, 2016,

33 “Clinton Says U.S. Could ‘Ring China With Missile Defense,’” Chicago Tribune, October 14, 2016,; and He Xingqiang, “美日搭建导弹防御系统剑指何方” [What are the United States and Japan aiming at for deploying missile defense], 中国国防报 [China National Defense News], July 10, 2007.

34 Wu Riqiang, “美国要在韩国部署‘萨德’, 对中国国家安全会有哪些影响?” [U.S. to deploy THAAD in South Korea: Implications for China’s national security], 腾讯讲武堂 [Tencent Military Forum], 2014,; and Li Bin, “The Security Dilemma and THAAD Deployment in the ROK,” Kyunghyang Daily, August 3, 2016.

35 Di Yafei, “六位大使将军激辩‘萨德’:韩国是不是中国的‘敌人’?” [“Six ambassadors and generals debate THAAD: Is South Korea China’s enemy?], 环球时报 [Global Times], July 14, 2016,

36 Wu You, “解放军:若开战第一时间打掉萨德基地” [PLA: If war, will take out THAAD at the first opportunity], 多维新闻 [DW News], July 11, 2016,

37 Fang Yong, “2015 年世界武器装备与军事技术发展重大动向” [Major trend of military equipment and technology development in the world in 2015], 军事文摘 [Military Digest], no. 23 (2015); and Deng Sijia, “美研发反导新技术:无人机发射激光 敌发射前打击” [U.S. develops new anti-missile technologies: UAV-borne laser and left of launch], 解放军报 [PLA Daily], October 28, 2016.

38 Bill Gertz, “Pentagon Developing Pre-Launch Cyber Attacks on Missiles,” Washington Free Beacon, April 14, 2016,; and Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., “Joint Staff Studies New Options for Missile Defense,” Breaking Defense, September 16, 2015,

39 David E. Sanger and William J. Broad, “Trump Inherits a Secret Cyberwar Against North Korean Missiles,” New York Times, March 4, 2017,

40 Riki Ellison, “Left of Launch,” Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, March 16, 2015,

41 Ballistic Missile Defense Policies and Programs: Hearing Before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces,114th Cong. (statement of Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Brian P. McKeon, April 13, 2016),

42 Ballistic Missile Defense Policies and Programs: Hearing Before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces,114th Cong. (statement by Lieutenant General David L. Mann, Commanding General, U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command and Joint Functional Component Command for Integrated Missile Defense, April 13, 2016),

43 “Proactive Cyberdefence for Critical Infrastructure,” Defence Turkey 8, no. 48 (2013).

44 Stephen J. Cimbala, “Chinese Military Modernization: Implications for Strategic Nuclear Arms Control,” Strategic Studies Quarterly 9, no. 2 (Summer 2015),

45 “美国50枚核弹失控 世界惊魂一小时” [50 U.S. nuclear missiles lost control and the world was frightened for one hour], CNTV, November 1, 2010,

46 Cheng Qun and He Qisong, “构建中国网络威慑战略” [Constructing China’s cyber deterrence strategy], 中国信息安全 [China Information Security], no. 11 (2015).

47 Liu Xueguan, et al., “电磁脉冲弹及其防护” [Electromagnetic pulse bombs and their defense], 通信技术 [Communication Technology], no. 9 (2003).

48 Kim Zetter, “Hacker Lexicon: What Is an Air Gap?,” Wired, December 8, 2014,

49 Richard A. Clarke and Steve Andreasen, “Cyberwar’s Threat Does Not Justify a New Policy of Nuclear Deterrence,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, June 14, 2013,

50 Liu Yangyue, “网络空间国际冲突与战略稳定性” [International conflicts in cyberspace and strategic stability], 外交评论 [Foreign Affairs Review], no. 4 (2016).

51 Dean Cheng, “Prospects for Extended Deterrence in Space and Cyber: The Case of the PRC,” Heritage Foundation, January 21, 2016,

52 Carl von Clausewitz, On War, translated and edited by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976); The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara, directed by Errol Morris (2003;New York City, NY; Sony Pictures Classics); and William A. Owens and Ed Offley, Lifting the Fog of War (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).

53 Li Dalu, “论 “不对称” 军事制衡” [On asymmetrical military counterbalance], 太平洋学报 [Pacific Journal] 23, no. 5 (2015); and Li Dan, Jiao Yanping, Gao Xiaoling, and Wang Min, “反卫星武器及其防御措施研究综述” [Research on anti-satellite weapons and countermeasures], 测控技术 [Measurement and Control Technology], no. 28 (2009).

54 Wu Chunsi, “The Antisatellite Smoke Screen,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 28, 2015,

55 Forden, “How China Loses the Coming Space War”; and Geoffrey Forden, Pavel Podvig, and Theodore A. Postol, “False Alarm, Nuclear Danger,” IEEE Spectrum 37, no. 3 (2000).

56 U.S. Department of Defense and PRC Ministry of National Defense, “Memorandum of Understanding on the Rules of Behavior for Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters Between the Department of Defense of the United States of America and the Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China,” November 9–10, 2014,

57 Liu Chang, “美军无人潜航器对中国有何危害?” [What threats do U.S. unmanned underwater vehicles pose to China?], 凤凰军评 [Phoenix Military Analysis], December 19, 2016; and Zhang Qiang, “无人潜航器到底是个什么‘神器’” [What exactly is the unmanned underwater vehicle?], 科技日报 [Science and Technology Daily], December 17, 2016.

58 Samuel Osborne, “Future War With Russia or China Would Be ‘Extremely Lethal and Fast’, US Generals Warn,” Independent, October 6, 2016,

59 Yan Guoqun and Tao Zhonghua, “世界新兵器: 高超音速武器发展引人注目” [New weapon in the world: The development of hypersonic weapons draws attention], 解放军报 [PLA Daily], February 19, 2003; and Chen Guangwen, “高超音速武器成大国新竞技场” [Hypersonic weapons become a new area of new great power competition], 国际先驱导报 [International Herald Tribune], March 29, 2016.

60 “Is Launch Under Attack Feasible?,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, August 4, 2016,

61 Shou Xiaosong, 战略学 [The Science of Military Strategy] (Beijing: Military Science Press, 2013).

62 Zhao Tong, “Strategic Warning and China’s Nuclear Posture,” Diplomat, May 28, 2015,