Space and cyberspace are not the sole domains for China’s growing asymmetric warfare programs. The Chinese military has another development program only recently disclosed that is part of the decadeslong buildup of weapons and forces: deep sea.
According to a state-controlled media report, the People’s Liberation Army wants weapons capable of operating in deep waters, generally considered 3,300 feet below the surface down to more than 13,000 feet.
Military researchers associated with the Collaborative Innovation Center of South China Sea Studies at Nanjing University disclosed the plans in December.
The researchers, Chen Shu and Feng Liang, said the military applications for deep sea forces include construction of infrastructure with deep sea military bases, early warning systems and “deep-sea weapons and equipment.”
The weapons include unmanned undersea vehicles capable of operating where water pressure is immense and the environment is cold and dark. The researchers said in addition to submarines, the Chinese are developing “underwater aircraft carrier systems,” “underwater robotics” and “deep sea troops.”
The weapons and systems will rely on advanced technology such as artificial intelligence. “Unmanned [combat] and autonomation will certainly become a development trend for deep-sea weapons,” said Mr. Chen and Mr. Feng, noting that “reaching deeper sea zones and extending the operation time in the deep sea has always been a key and difficult issue.”
The project is part of the formation of a system of deep-sea military combat forces.
“All countries attach importance to the strategic and legal clarification of deep-sea military operations,” they wrote.
“Because of its uniqueness and enormous value, the deep sea has already become a new area and a new space that countries worldwide are competing to explore and develop,” Mr. Chen and Mr. Feng added. “Other countries have already made certain achievements and experiences in the field of deep-sea research and military applications of the deep sea, which can serve as an important inspiration for China to create a plan for the deep sea, and to promote military applications of the deep sea.”
SMITH OPPOSES SMALL NUKES
The Pentagon is developing small nuclear warheads to counter similar low-yield weapons currently in use on missiles in China and Russia. And the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith, is opposing the idea.
The Washington state Democrat said during a conference hosted by the Carnegie Endowment that small nuclear weapons increase the risk of a nuclear exchange.
“The risk is a miscalculation that a low-yield nuclear weapon enables you to basically launch a nuclear weapon without leading to an all-out nuclear war,” Mr. Smith said. “Low yield doesn’t make any sense. A nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon.”
The chairman said Congress can kill the program by cutting funding for the new weapons. But with Republicans in control of the Senate and President Trump supporting the weapons, any cut would be difficult to sustain. “I would like to kill the low-yield nuclear weapon program,” Mr. Smith said. “I don’t think it’s a good idea, and we’re going to try to do that. Many others disagree with me on that, and we’ll see how that plays out.”
Mr. Smith is too late. U.S. nuclear weapons officials told Congress last month that the first small warhead has been assembled and is called W76-2 warhead. The warheads will be deployed on a small number of submarine-launched ballistic missiles — to deter China — and on a new sea-launched cruise missile for use in deterring Russia.
The Pentagon’s Nuclear Posture Review challenges the chairman’s view, citing the dramatic shift in the threat from both Russian and Chinese nuclear missiles.
Russia has developed a new nuclear doctrine that argues that a limited nuclear first use with low-yield weapons will provide a strategic advantage because of its large stockpile of small nuclear warheads. The threat is not theoretical and was shown in numerous nuclear war-game exercises and leadership statements.
A U.S. intelligence official said Moscow is expanding its nuclear arsenal and is expected to deploy a total force of 8,000 warheads by 2026 along with modernizing deep underground bunkers.
The U.S. military wants low-yield nuclear warheads to deter Beijing’s large and growing force of medium-range and intermediate-range nuclear weapons.
“To be clear, this is not intended to, nor does it, enable ‘nuclear war-fighting,’” the review states. “Expanding flexible U.S. nuclear options now, to include low-yield options, is important for the preservation of credible deterrence against regional aggression.”
Mr. Smith is an anti-nuclear advocate who supports the multibillion-dollar modernization program for the aging U.S. nuclear arsenal. However, he wants to cut the number of nuclear weapons and forces.
” I don’t think we need as many weapons as they are contemplating, and I think it’s dangerous,” he said.
RUSSIA: NEW WEAPONS NOT LIMITED BY START
Russian Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Antonov told a conference in Washington that his country’s new strategic nuclear weapons are not covered by the New START arms treaty. Mr. Antonov told a meeting of the Arms Control Association on Monday, “I would simply like to say that this is not a subject matter of the treaty.”
The comment was made in the context of American calls for Russia to notify the United States of the new weapons through a consultative mechanism with the 2010 agreement.
The ambassador did not rule out discussing the new weapons but as part of a new forum of talks for strategic stability.
During another forum last month, Mr. Antonov also indicated Moscow would not include the new strike systems in New START extension talks. “All these issues could be the subjects for discussion on strategic stability,” Mr. Antonov said at a Carnegie Endowment conference. “As to the START Treaty, we have to stick to the provisions of this treaty and we have to decide all concerns.”
Former Pentagon nuclear policy official Mark Schneider said the ambassador’s comments confirm his concerns dating back a decade that Moscow is circumventing New START with the new weapons systems announced in March of 2018.
“By my estimation, four of the now six Putin nuclear superweapons are not covered by the New START Treaty. Ambassador Antonov says they won’t change this, and I believe him,” Mr. Schneider said.
The new superweapons include a 10-warhead heavy intercontinental ballistic missile called the Sarmat; a nuclear-powered, long-range cruise missile; a high-speed nuclear power drone submarine armed with a massive warhead; a nuclear-tipped, high-precision hypersonic aircraft missile; and the Avangard hypersonic nuclear strike vehicle.
The ambassador said the Russians have sought to resume nuclear talks with the United States that would include whether to extend the 2010 New START treaty beyond the February 2021 expiration date. But the Trump administration has not agreed, he said.
Mr. Antonov, who took part in negotiations for the original treaty, said Russia is unwilling to sign a treaty extension without first conducting strategic stability talks.
He noted that the current START Treaty is limited to certain types of nuclear weapons and does not cover all existing types of nuclear arms.
Mr. Antonov was pessimistic on whether a new strategic arms accord could be developed if New START expires.
“It’s too premature to think about a potential or future agreement between the United States and Russia because we have to start from scratch,” he said. “You see that we have to identify what kind of issues have to be in the core of this potential agreement.”
Both Russia and the United States are preparing for conflict in new domains such as space and cyberspace.
• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.
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