China’s MIRVs: Separating Fact From Fiction

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According to the Pentagon, China has started to place multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles, or MIRVs, on its DF-5B missile. It might place MIRVs on the DF-41 as well. India and Pakistan may well follow China’s lead. The advent of multiple warheads in Asia will not be as pernicious as it was during the Cold War because Beijing is unlikely to discard its nuclear doctrine of assured retaliation against cities in favor of a nuclear warfighting strategy that focuses on military targets. Nevertheless, China’s adoption of multiple-warhead missiles could have negative repercussions, depending on the scope and pace of their introduction.

Countervalue targeting against cities is abhorrent on humanitarian grounds. Counterforce targeting against military targets leads to very large nuclear arsenals, which are also objectionable on humanitarian grounds. The first coming of MIRVs, reinforced by increased missile accuracy, enabled counterforce strategies, which drove up targeting lists. The ensuing arms race made a mockery of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. At the end of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union together possessed 30,000 warheads.

Some China watchers have speculated that the induction of MIRVs into the Chinese nuclear arsenal presages a sprint to catch up with the United States and a shift to counterforce targeting. This mirror-imaging of U.S. and Soviet behavior during the Cold War seems far-fetched for a number of reasons. First, as Jeffrey Lewis argues persuasively in The Lure and Pitfalls of MIRVs: From the First to the Second Nuclear Age, Beijing has a history of developing new technologies and capabilities without embracing them fully. Second, the whole point of counterforce targeting is to destroy – or at least severely degrade – an adversary’s ability to retaliate. If Beijing wished to pursue such a strategy against the United States, it would need to mimic Soviet behavior. Instead, Beijing seems committed to what it terms a “lean and effective” nuclear arsenal, eschewing robust nuclear capabilities as a distraction from the promotion of economic growth.

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