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Just in case dedicated U.S. and/or joint efforts to effectively mitigate Chinese concerns about missile defense fall short, Beijing in parallel has strived to craft policy responses of its own. Some of those responses could inject additional ambiguities into how its rivals think about the missile defense dispute. So far, China has put political pressure on the United States and its allies, forged deeper defense cooperation with Russia, and spearheaded diplomatic efforts to ban the placement of weapons in outer space, among other steps. Most importantly, Beijing has taken a wide range of military countermeasures to help offset U.S. missile defense.

Some of China’s own policy responses could inject additional ambiguities into how its rivals think about the missile defense dispute.

Chinese experts often cite the threat from U.S. missile defense systems as one of the most important justifications for their country’s nuclear modernization programs.1 While foreign analysts generally acknowledge a possible connection between U.S. missile defense and China’s efforts to modernize its nuclear arsenal and related military capabilities, they also appear unconvinced that the former is the primary driving force behind the latter. Their skepticism is not surprising. The way Beijing develops and implements its strategy to overcome U.S. missile defense may create ambiguities surrounding China’s nuclear modernization and, indeed, the overall evolution of its military. This lack of clarity helps reinforce hawkish views within the U.S. domestic debate about the revisionist nature of China’s military rise.

Is China’s Nuclear Modernization Really Driven by U.S. Missile Defense?

Two factors make it difficult for the United States to understand the drivers behind China’s nuclear modernization. First is the aforementioned lack of clarity in Chinese thinking on which aspects of the country’s nuclear deterrent are threatened by which U.S. missile defense systems under various scenarios, and there is no agreed-on methodology for evaluating the scale and scope of the threat. Second and relatedly, there is no in-depth discussion about or clear methodology for gauging how much nuclear modernization is necessary to address the perceived threat and which capabilities should be enhanced. As a result, while China may believe it is responding reasonably to a very concrete threat, from a foreign perspective, things look very different. To many overseas analysts, Chinese experts and policymakers have only loosely defined the missile defense threat they are seeking to counter, and they do not seem to have adopted clear performance metrics to closely assess the effectiveness of possible Chinese responses. Without such guidance, U.S. experts may fear that Chinese nuclear modernization would risk proceeding without clear parameters or limits.

Unless their purposes are defined with clarity and discipline, China’s nuclear modernization programs could easily become unconstrained.

Unless their purposes are defined with clarity and discipline, China’s nuclear modernization programs could easily become unconstrained. The country’s modernization approach leaves plenty of room for parochial and bureaucratic interests to wield significant influence. Almost all nuclear modernization programs can be justified as ways to mitigate the threat of missile defense, regardless of how credibly they would actually bolster Beijing’s nuclear second-strike capability.

There are a host of examples, and this list is hardly exhaustive. To cite a few, SSBNs can launch ballistic missiles from unpredictable locations and along less defended attack trajectories, air-launched ballistic missiles can help evade boost-phase missile defense systems,2 and nuclear-armed cruise missiles fired from bombers can fly low enough that current U.S. ballistic missile defense systems cannot intercept them.3 Similarly, land-based ballistic missiles deployed inland are generally out of range of localized boost-phase interceptors, multiple independent reentry vehicles (MIRVs) can saturate enemy defenses, and hypersonic vehicles can evade mid-course interceptors and cannot generally be tracked by existing radars. To be sure, some of these programs are useful for bolstering China’s second-strike capabilities. But if China’s primary concern is U.S. missile defense, many of these programs are not necessarily the most cost-effective way to counter U.S. ballistic missile defense systems.

Looking forward, as China seeks to field a robust nuclear triad that includes land-, air-, and sea-based nuclear weapons, bureaucratic interests could become an even stronger driver of modernization programs. Almost all the PLA’s major military services will have important stakes in the nuclear sector.4 If China continues to make increasingly substantial investments in the military and the defense industry, this competition could become even more pronounced.

From a U.S. perspective, these dynamics create ambiguities about China’s motivations. U.S. observers worry that China is seeking a larger, more diversified nuclear force more for coercive purposes than as a defensive reaction to U.S. missile defense. The director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have recently claimed that China is likely to at least double the size of its nuclear stockpile over the next decade.5 While Defense Intelligence Agency predictions often turn out to overestimate the growth in China’s nuclear stockpiles, this most recent assessment is significant. It indicates that some quarters of the U.S. strategic community believe that China will expand its nuclear arsenal regardless of developments in U.S. missile defense capabilities.

Specifically, U.S. experts worry that China’s deployment of DF-21 and DF-26 missiles will enhance its ability to conduct theater-level nuclear strikes. The fear is that such capabilities may enable Beijing to use nuclear weapons in more tailored ways and make Chinese leaders more inclined to escalate past the nuclear threshold during military crises.6 China’s fielding of multiple warheads on various strategic nuclear delivery systems—silo-based DF-5 ICBMs, road-mobile DF-41 ICBMs, and possibly rail-mobile ICBMs and SLBMs in the future—may appear to the United States as a step toward a more aggressive nuclear posture that goes beyond a doctrine of minimum deterrence. China’s reported development of nuclear-capable, air-launched ballistic missiles and nuclear-capable cruise missiles also may raise U.S. concerns that Beijing has a growing interest in tactical nuclear warfighting capabilities. These new weapons could threaten U.S. allies in Asia, target forward-deployed U.S. troops and military bases, and reach U.S. overseas territories. Unless China can convincingly link such modernization programs to concerns over missile defense, the United States is likely to remain suspicious that these programs are driven by other motivations.

Is China Spoiling for a Comprehensive Military Competition?

It does not help matters that there is no in-depth, publicly available Chinese research on what constitutes an adequate counterstrategy against U.S. missile defense. It appears that Chinese concerns about missile defense have driven the country to cast a wide net and explore all possible types of counteracting capabilities. Indeed, many Chinese experts emphasize that there is no single way to address the threat.

Instead, many of them argue that an approach called both “system penetration” (体系突防) or “system confrontation” (体系对抗) is the right course of action.7 (In most discussions, these two terms are used interchangeably.) The basic premise is that, rather than focusing narrowly on enhancing missiles to defeat rival interceptors alone, the broader goal should be to find and exploit vulnerabilities associated with all the components of a missile defense system (including sensors, interceptors, and command, control, and communications networks).

Practically speaking, Chinese experts argue that the task of making its missiles more penetrable themselves requires a country to improve its technological capabilities across a wide range of scientific and engineering domains. The relevant technologies include stealth capabilities, electromagnetic interference (deployed directly on missiles to disrupt enemy radars), decoys and penetration aids, MIRVs, trajectory shaping (to enhance maneuverability), anti-nuclear reinforcement (to make missiles and/or warheads more resistant to nuclear radiation), anti-laser reinforcement (to make missiles and/or warheads less susceptible to lasers), and others.8

More importantly, beyond efforts to make China’s own missiles more survivable, system penetration also involves developing kinetic and nonkinetic methods of suppressing, interfering with, or destroying all the key subsystems of a missile defense network. For instance, various types of ASAT weapons are needed to counter space-based sensors and communications systems. In addition, anti-radiation missiles and microwave weapons can be employed to attack radars, while ballistic and cruise missiles can conduct preemptive strikes on interceptors and their supporting facilities. Counterspace, cyber, and electronic warfare capabilities can target rival command, control, and communications systems.9

This strategy assumes that, because the development of missile defense has been “systemized” and its deployment “globalized,”10 the development of countervailing capabilities needs to be similarly systemic and technologically comprehensive. As one senior expert at the PLA Rocket Force University of Engineering emphasizes, “The confrontation between missile penetration and anti-missile [capabilities] is no longer a single form of technical confrontation, but is manifested as a systemic confrontation between the attacking party and the defending party. Therefore, the focus should be on the construction of a system [emphasis added] of missile penetration capabilities.”11

Because such matters are highly secretive, it is uncertain whether Chinese government and military officials have adopted this strategy as official policy. That said, the way that highly respected, senior Chinese experts have promoted this stance seems to suggest that such countermeasures would hold at least some degree of influence in official policy deliberations.

One key consideration is that the system penetration approach would make it hard to gauge China’s primary intentions. Setting aside the question of to what extent the Chinese government has officially embraced a system penetration strategy, the problem with this approach is that it looks overly offensive. It requires the development of advanced offensive military capabilities in many important technological areas, making it difficult for the United States and its allies to determine the extent to which such comprehensive efforts are driven by the specific desire to counter missile defense systems as opposed to the more aggressive goal of acquiring broader offensive military advantages.12

Other countries, for example, view China’s development of various ASAT weapons as an aggressive attempt to undermine all types of military and civilian operations involving space. Similarly, other regional countries could see Beijing’s position that it is necessary to strengthen existing preemptive strike capabilities against missile defense assets as a Chinese excuse to acquire military strike capabilities, potentially for a wide range of coercive objectives. In these ways, the system penetration strategy appears to be a disproportionate response to the problem it seeks to address.

System penetration also implies an aspiration to compete with a stronger enemy in technological areas where Beijing does not necessarily possess an advantage. This paradigm requires China to become and stay competitive in certain technological areas in which the United States has traditionally enjoyed superiority, such as stealth, electromagnetic interference, sensors, precision-strike weaponry, and offensive cyber capabilities.

The system penetration strategy appears to be a disproportionate response to the problem it seeks to address.

This approach would appear to be a departure from China’s long-standing strategy of asymmetric competition—focusing on a few areas where China can obtain advantages in more cost-effective ways than an enemy could. Here, ambiguity arises due to the lack of discussion in the Chinese literature about whether system penetration is essentially tantamount to a strategy of comprehensive or systematic military competition with the United States.

It may be difficult for U.S. analysts and officials to discern the relationship between the two. On the one hand, Chinese experts could genuinely believe that the system penetration approach is the only effective way to counter U.S. missile defenses, despite its seeming resemblance to a policy predicated on comprehensive military competition. On the other hand, it is also possible that Beijing’s choice reflects a broader motivation to conduct and eventually win a comprehensive military competition with the United States.

These uncertainties about intentions are manifested in various ways. For example, China may have multiple motivations for developing ASAT capabilities. The perceived need to undermine U.S. missile defense systems could be just one of them—though it is an important one. It remains possible that the PLA has already adopted the concept of system warfare to deal with the U.S. military in general and that the need to counter missile defense only provides an additional justification. In short, it is unclear whether China’s interest in system penetration primarily reflects its concerns over missile defense or loftier ambitions of competing with the United States more broadly. In the latter case, the United States may feel it should be particularly alert to China’s long-term strategic intent.

Even apart from Chinese intentions, a system penetration approach could pose other unintentional and unforeseen risks. Some proposed countervailing capabilities justified under the system penetration approach might create acute ambiguities in a crisis or conflict, increasing the risk of inadvertent escalation. Such risks would arise in the event of attacks on missile defense systems and/or their components that serve different functions.

For example, consider the PAVE PAWS radar system that Taiwan introduced from the United States, a system that plays an important role in detecting Chinese conventional missile strikes against Taiwan. But, as James Acton points out, this radar can also significantly contribute to existing U.S. early-warning capabilities against Chinese ICBMs and SLBMs. This potential overlap in capabilities is quite significant in part because, according to a senior Taiwanese lawmaker, Taiwan shares this radar data with the United States.13

If this radar indeed plays a double role, a Chinese preemptive attack against it during a conflict between the United States and China could introduce escalation risks. Such a Chinese attack may aim at undermining Taiwan’s early-warning capabilities against Chinese conventional strikes, but the United States may suspect the attack seeks to undermine its early-warning capabilities against a strategic strike by Chinese ICBMs and SLBMs. Especially if such an attack were to happen when China appeared to face defeat during a crucial conventional conflict over Taiwan, U.S. concerns about an imminent nuclear attack on its homeland might lead U.S. decisionmakers to consider launching a preemptive strike on China’s strategic nuclear forces. It is unclear whether Chinese and U.S. strategists are fully cognizant of such risks.

In short, China’s response to U.S. missile defense may raise concerns about its strategic intentions due to two sets of ambiguities. One is how closely China’s various nuclear modernization programs are indeed connected to its desire to address the missile defense threat. The other is whether the system penetration strategy proposed by Chinese experts is a focused endeavor to counter U.S. missile defense or whether it actually reflects a more ambitious goal to win a comprehensive military competition with the United States. It would be beneficial for China’s own interests to examine and debate these issues internally; it is also necessary to clarify these ambiguities for a constructive bilateral dialogue on missile defense to take place.


1 Cui Maodong (崔茂东), “中国不应随美国新版《核态势审议报告》起舞” [China should not be led by the nose by new U.S. ‘NPR report’], Xinhua News Network (新华网), February 25, 2018; and Wu, “No Stability Without Limits on Missile Defense.”

2 Rohit Kaura, “Why an Air-Launched Ballistic Missile: An Assessment,” Center for Air Power Studies, December 2018.

3 Karako and Williams, “Missile Defense 2020: Next Steps for Defending the Homeland”; and Dean A. Wilkening, Ballistic-Missile Defence and Strategic Stability (New York: Routledge, 2005).

4 Eric Heginbotham, et al., “Domestic Factors Could Accelerate the Evolution of China’s Nuclear Posture,” RAND Corporation, 2017.

5 Lieutenant General Robert P. Ashley, Jr., “Russian and Chinese Nuclear Modernization Trends,” Defense Intelligence Agency, [remarks at the Hudson Institute], May 29, 2019,; Jim Risch, “Chairman Risch Opening Statement at Hearing on Future of Arms Control Post-INF Treaty,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee, May 15, 2019,

6 U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 2015 Report to Congress of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Publishing Office, November 2015).

7 Liang Lei (梁蕾), “洲际弹道导弹突防技术发展趋势” [Trends of ICBM penetration technologies development], Aerodynamic Missile Journal (飞航导弹) no. 8 (2018): 55–57, 63; Wang Minle (汪民乐), “弹道导弹突防对策综述” [Overview of ballistic missile penetration countermeasures], Aerodynamic Missile Journal (飞航导弹) no. 10 (2012): 45–51; and Zhou Wei (周伟), et al., “导弹防御新途径——美国多杀伤器拦截系统及其威胁分析” [New approach of missile defense: analysis of the U.S. multiple kill vehicle intercept system and its threat], Journal of the Academy of Equipment (装备指挥技术学院学报) 20, no. 2 (2009): 46–49.

8 Yang Yuchao (杨育超) and Mi Wenpeng (米文鹏), “基于末段高空区域防御系统的跳跃弹道突防能力分析” [The analysis of the penetration ability of wavy trajectory missiles based on the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System], Journal of Projectiles, Rockets, Missiles and Guidance (弹箭与制导学报), 2010; and Zhou, et al., [New approach of missile defense: analysis of the U.S. multiple kill vehicle intercept system and its threat].

9 Cheng Qiang (程强) and You Jingyun (游敬云), “对弹道导弹防御系统的电子对抗技术分析” [Analysis of electronic countermeasures against ballistic missile defense systems], Ship Electronic Countermeasures (舰船电子对抗) 50, no. 2 (2017): 6–9; Dong Chao (董超), et al., “解析美国首次洲际弹道导弹拦截试验” [Analyzing the first U.S. ICBM intercept test] Aerodynamic Missile Journal (飞航导弹) no. 9 (2018): 36–42; Liang Lei (梁蕾), “洲际弹道导弹突防技术发展历程” [History of the development of ICBM penetration technologies], Aerodynamic Missile Journal (飞航导弹) no. 1; Luo Xi (罗曦), “美国导弹防御助推段拦截技术及其战略影响” [U.S. missile defense boost-phase intercept technologies and their strategic implications] China International Strategic Review Volume 1 (中国国际战略评论2019(上)), (2019): 220–221; and Zhang Feng (张峰), “导弹电子突防及雷达对抗技术” [Electronic penetration of missiles and radar countermeasures technologies], Modern Radar (现代雷达) 36, no. 2 (2014): 10–13.

10 Liang, “洲际弹道导弹突防技术发展趋势” [Trends of ICBM penetration technologies development], 55–57, 63.

11 Wang, “弹道导弹突防对策综述” [Overview of ballistic missile penetration countermeasures].

12 Alicia Sanders-Zakre, “Chinese Analysts Urge Nuclear Increase,” Arms Control Today, March 2018; and Mark Schneider, “Nuclear Weapons in Chinese Military Strategy,” National Institute for Public Policy Information Series, May 3, 2019.

13 Acton, “Escalation Through Entanglement: How the Vulnerability of Command-and-Control Systems Raises the Risks of an Inadvertent Nuclear War,” 89.