China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is reportedly considering the development and deployment of a conventionally armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), raising concerns within the U.S. military. The PLA’s acquisition of a conventional ICBM would enable Chinese forces to strike targets across the continental United States, as well as in Hawaii and Alaska, without resorting to nuclear weapons. This development would give China an important conventional deterrent capability and reduce the likelihood of nuclear retaliation. However, it would also create strategic ambiguity and uncertainty, potentially benefiting China while posing a dangerous destabilizing threat. The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) highlighted the PLA’s potential interest in a conventional ICBM in its annual report to Congress on Chinese defense and security developments. The report also revealed China’s ongoing efforts to expand its nuclear deterrent capabilities. The DoD estimates that China currently possesses at least 500 nuclear warheads, a significant increase from 400 last year, and predicts that China could have as many as 1,500 by 2035, surpassing the United States in certain aspects.
The possibility of China deploying conventionally armed ICBMs signifies a continuation of the PLA’s progression in missile capabilities. The PLA Rocket Corps first introduced short-range ballistic missiles over 20 years ago, expanding to include medium and intermediate-range ballistic missiles with conventional warheads. The development of a conventional ICBM would offer China the ability to strike the United States for the first time, threatening targets in the mainland U.S., Hawaii, and Alaska. However, this development also raises concerns about risks to strategic stability. Additionally, the PLA Air Force currently lacks the capability to strike the contiguous United States, underscoring the importance of the PLA Rocket Corps as the primary means for long-range strikes.
The risks associated with the development of a conventionally-armed ICBM are concerning. China’s goal would likely be to target strategic sites such as air bases, ports, command centers, and government centers within the United States, aiming to deter non-nuclear strikes against China. It is possible that China hopes that a conventional ICBM strike would dissuade the U.S. government or other nuclear-armed adversaries from retaliating with nuclear weapons. However, this approach could lower the threshold for the PLA to conduct non-nuclear strategic strikes, assuming that they can avoid a nuclear response. This poses a significant risk, especially since the United States has a deterrence policy allowing the use of nuclear weapons in response to non-nuclear strikes of sufficient severity. Furthermore, if the design of the conventional ICBM obscures its nuclear or non-nuclear nature, the U.S. government would have limited time to decide how to respond amid launch-on-warning protocols.
Historically, China has blended its conventional and nuclear missile forces to offset its relatively small nuclear stockpile. The United States has long questioned China’s commitment to its stated no-first-use (NFU) policy regarding nuclear weapons due to this ambiguity. The addition of a conventionally armed ICBM further complicates deterrence and escalatory management, increasing the risk of misinterpretations and miscalculations by both sides. The Chinese government has rejected the Pentagon’s claims in its annual report, emphasizing its defensive nuclear strategy and commitment to “no first use” of nuclear weapons. However, this is not the first time the possibility of China developing a conventional ICBM has been raised, as evident in a 2004 Chinese military publication titled “Science of Second Artillery Campaigns.”
In conclusion, the concerns surrounding China’s potential development and deployment of a conventionally armed ICBM raises significant implications for strategic stability and U.S. national security. While China seeks to strengthen its deterrent capabilities and rival the United States, the risk of destabilization and misinterpretation cannot be ignored. As China’s nuclear arsenal continues to grow, it is vital for the United States and the international community to closely monitor and address these developments to ensure lasting peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region.